Monday, December 31, 2012

Thestrals, Dementers, Boggarts and Crises of Faith

I work in education and have the week between Christmas and New Year as a paid holiday break.  Over the last week, I have re-read the Harry Potter books in my relax time - and a parallel hit me about many people with whom I have spent time online over the last five years.  If you haven't read the books, it might not make as much sense, but here it is:

There are at least two specific instances in the Harry Potter books where suffering is tied to unique abilities - one positive and one negative. 

The first is possessed by those who have been touched directly and profoundly by death (who see people they love killed violently).  They have the ability to see creatures called "thestrals", while those who have not experienced death that closely are unable to see them.  These creatures pull the carriages that the students ride to get to school, so the students who can't see them believe they are being transported by the use of a magic spell.  Those who can't see the thestrals are positive they aren't there, and nothing said by those who can see them can change the minds of those who can't see them.  For those who can't see them, they simply don't exist.  It can be frustrating to those who see the thestrals to realize others don't believe that they exist, and, generally, they give up trying to explain and simply go on knowing that what they see so clearly (their own reality) literally is unknowable to others (isn't part of their reality).

Also, thestrals can fly, and knowing they exist and how to "cope with them" can lead to being able to fly with them - and, in at least two cases, they are instrumental in escape from danger.   

What struck me is that intense grieving often opens "our spiritual eyes" and allows people to see things that were invisible previously - things that those who have not grieved in that way remain unable to see.  I believe this has direct application to faith crises - and the more intense the crisis, the more difficult it can be to explain to those who have not experienced anything similar.  Just like the thestrals that are so obvious to those who can see them, everything about a faith crisis can be "invisible" to those who have not experienced what causes a faith crisis.  Just like with thestrals, it can be frustrating to those who see the thestrals to realize others don't believe what has been seen, and they often give up trying to explain and simply go on knowing that what they see so clearly (their own reality) literally is unknowable to others (isn't part of their reality).

Also, those who are able to navigate faith crises by seeing new and amazing things actually can experience joy and happiness in ways that others simply can't - because those new and amazing things are invisible to the others.

The second is a disability, of sorts, and deals with dementers.  "Demeters" are foul creatures that take away happiness and warmth - ultimately, by destroying the soul (spirit, in Mormon terms) through the "dementer's kiss", while leaving the body alive and functioning in a living Hell.  Those who have experienced extreme grief are more susceptible to dementers, since it is harder for them to let go of their grief and focus on the only thing that drives away the dementers: intensely happy memories that produce a protective force manifested in animal form called a "patronus".  It is instructive that it is not the existence of grief, even incredibly deep grief, that robs the person of the ability to focus on the memories that will fight the dementers; rather, it is the difficulty of focusing away from the grief and concentrating on the joy. 

Likewise, "boggarts" are spectral creatures that take the form of one's worst nightmare - the thing that each person fears the most.  For those who have not experienced deep grief and personal pain, that might be something as "normal" as a huge spider or a scary teacher; for those who have experienced extreme grief and pain, that might something as terrible as a dementer.  The key to fighting boggarts is humor - thinking of something so ridiculous that laughter is inevitable and altering the boggart to include the ridiculous image.  (eg. the scary, male teacher in an old woman's dress and silly hat or the spider on roller skates)

I don't mean to imply the extreme or automatic extension of what I am going to say, especially about online communities, since some of them offer excellent support for people experiencing a faith crisis of some kind, but it struck me hard as an analogy that might provide perspective in a new way:  

One of the problems that many people who experience a faith crisis face is the tendency to focus so much on the "issues" that they end up "wallowing in grief" in one way or another, including the classic manifestation of anger that accompanies feeling like everyone has been lying to them, and being unable to see any humor in their lives or with regard to their situation.  When a tidal wave of such grief washes over someone, it can be very hard to remember, much less focus on, the very real happiness and even joy that was experienced previously or look at their crisis in any way that allows them to laugh - and it can be very easy to minimize that happiness and joy as somehow "false" or "naive".  It also can be easy to turn to sources, especially online, that, in practical terms, are filled with human dementers - people who are dedicated to sucking out the former happiness and joy that existed prior to the faith crisis - and/or see nightmares all around them that they never imagined previously.  The human dementers might see their roles very differently (even as "saving" people), but, again, in practical terms, what often results is people who are left with nothing in which to believe - nothing that replaces the happiness and joy they have lost.

The example of boggarts also can fit the way some members interact with those who are struggling.  Sometimes, the only option when some things are said is to laugh internally and accept that some things that are profound to some people really are absurd to others.  The key is to recognize the personal absurdity of any particular idea and not attach it to the person who believes it, since, to that person, it is not absurd and often is powerful in a real and important way.  

There are two "lessons" I took away from my pondering about this:

1) A faith crisis often can open one's eyes to new things, and those things can be beautiful and fulfilling or dark and terrifying - real or imagined - frightening or laughable.  The difference isn't in the newly seen things themselves but in the way each person reacts to them. 

2) Prolonged immersion in grief and anger leads inexorably toward the dementer's kiss - not because true joy and happiness never existed, but because new happiness and joy cannot be experienced and created.  Intense grief doesn't have to be denied or forgotten; it simply has to be over-ridden by memories of old and new joy and happiness.  The danger of a faith crisis lies not in the grief and suffering it causes; the danger of a faith crisis lies in the forgetting or denial of the joy and happiness that once existed and still can exist - and it lies largely in the tendency to push away real friends who were part of that joy and happiness and replace them with associates who aren't focused on helping create new joy and happiness - who really are focused on deepening grief and separation. 

There are no easy answers in the book or in this post.  Fighting dementers and boggarts is not easy, and someone would be naive and a bit addled to ask for the type of experience that allows thestrals to be seen.  I don't have canned advice in this post.  All I have is an analogy that I hope touches someone in some way - that perhaps can lead to the type of individual pondering that I experienced and some kind of personal insight that will help.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday School Lesson: Moroni 8-10

We covered Moroni 8-10 today in Sunday School.

1) We talked at length about why baptizing little children would be called a "solemn mockery". We looked at what "solemn" and "mock" mean - and the difference between a "solemn mockery" and a "comical mockery". We talked about the object of the mockery - meaning what and/or who is being mocked when children are baptized. We talked about the Atonement and how "transgressions" are covered already within it - that only "sins" need repentance. I mentioned James' definition of sin as acting in opposition to what is known - knowing to do good and not doing it, or knowing not to do something and doing it - and how that takes mistakes caused by ignorance out of the realm of sin. We revisited the difference between sins and transgressions. I talked about how I believe we kill Jesus' mortality in a very real way when we picture him as a superhuman child who never cried ("little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes"), "never got vexed when the game went wrong" and "always told the truth" (as a little child). We talked about how requiring baptism of little children denies our 2nd Article of Faith by denying that the Atonement covers the things little children do in ignorance of the law - and how that extends beyond little children to include all people who have lived and died without understanding the law. Thus, baptizing little children denies the very nature of the Atonement (the universal scope of God's grace that redeems innocent transgressors) and reinforces the Protestant notion of a more Calvinistic puppeteer God.

One of the students asked about if a child kills someone, so we talked about that - and I extended it to the people who highjacked the planes and destroyed the WTC towers on 9/11.

It was a really good discussion, and it stretched them more than they were used to being stretched, since I allowed some silence to wait for their input.

2) We skipped Chapter 9, due strictly to the time constraints.

3) We talked for a long time about Moroni 10:3-5, and I told them explicitly that I was disappointed when I learned that the Seminary mastery scripture was shortened to just verses 4 and 5 - and that I believe one of the biggest mistakes missionaries make relative to the Book of Mormon is to use it as a doctrinal proof text and then focus only on verses 4 and 5 as constituting "Moroni's promise" (the phrase one of my students used - and I found out that none of them have heard the phrase used in my childhood, "Moroni's challenge" - which made me happy).

We read just those two verses and listed what people are told to do to gain a witness from the Holy Ghost. The entire list was: pray (with real intent). We then read verse 3 and listed what people are told to do to gain a witness from the Holy Ghost. That list includes: remember (God's mercy) and ponder (God's mercy). I emphasized that very few members and missionaries focus on God's mercy when explaining Moroni's promise, and missing that focus of the verses themselves changes totally the actual nature of the promise - so much so that I believe it no longer is consistent with the actual promise.

We defined "mercy" and talked deeply about God's mercy and why the promise is focused on remembering and pondering it. (that remembering and pondering God's mercy has a direct effect on ones' attitude - the "softness of the heart", so to speak - and puts them in a condition of being open to feeling and accepting emotional / spiritual messages more easily than might be "natural") I shared the example of my father and the "mercy" he extended to my mother when he learned about her schizophrenia after they had been married for about six years. (If you want to read about it, search for "My Niece Died This Morning" on this blog.)

4) We didn't have much time left, so we ended by reading the last five verses in the Book of Mormon and talking very briefly about the main points of Moroni's final testimony.

On a personal note, I really enjoyed teaching what I was able to teach this year. The class lesson format is changing dramatically next month, and I will miss the first two weeks due to starting a Master's Degree program that includes two full days of classes those Sundays, but I am looking forward to seeing how the classes go with the new curriculum. I really am excited about it.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Who Would Think of This? Seriously!

I'm not going to provide the page title, just so you will be shocked and amazed - Same with the author and site

I apologize if anyone is offended by the linked site, but I couldn't stop laughing.

Friday, December 28, 2012

My Own Questions, Concerns and Trials - and Their Effect on My Children

Everyone will face their own questions, concerns and trials. That's just part of a life that requires some element of faith to live. 

I hope how I handle mine is a force for good in my children's lives, but I am not about to manufacture questions, concerns and trials in their lives when they might be the wrong time and/or the wrong question, concern or trial. "Sufficient unto the morrow" is a good standard. 

I hope to live my life so that when they struggle with something, my children will come to me and talk about it - and I can help them develop their own unique perspective that will give them peace and joy as individuals. For that to be most likely to happen, I believe my children need to know that I have questions, concerns and trials - but, as I said, I don't think they have to know the exact nature of each and every one.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Truly, There’s More than One Right Way to Praise the Lord

The following link is to a post that is not a traditional Christmas message - but it is deeply profound and, I believe, teaches an important principle about being truly Christ-like.

As you read it, please pay attention to your thoughts and feelings throughout the post - and take a good, long, hard, honest look at those reactions.

Praising the Lord - Aaron R. (By Common Consent)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sunday School Lesson: Moroni 1-7

Since we had the new curriculum training last week, I combined two lessons today and taught Moroni 1-7.

1) We started by looking at the time line note at the bottom of the first page of Moroni. We talked about why it says 400AD-421AD and how that relates to why Moroni is one of my favorite characters in the Book of Mormon.

2) We read quickly through the headings of Chapters 1-6 and talked about how meetings still are supposed to be conducted by the influence of the Holy Ghost (that even though we use a standard format, those who conduct are supposed to have the ability and authority to alter that format when impressed to do so).

3) We spent the rest of the time on Moroni 7:1-19, verse by verse. The main points I made were:

a) verses 5-11 -- Those who do good things for bad reasons "have their reward" and, thus, are not rewarded additionally by God. To use an obvious example, if someone makes friends with someone else in order to rob that person, they will have the reward of the extra money - but it won't change them into a better person and make them closer to becoming like God.

b) verses 12-17 -- We listed things the students thought are good ways to judge if something is good or bad. There were some good suggestions, including if we would do something in front of our grandmothers or Jesus.

I mentioned that there are some things I would do in front of one of my grandmothers but not in front of the other one, so, while that might be a good general starting point, we have to be careful about defining what we should do based on others being able to see us. We then talked for about 5 minutes about how much I am concerned about the idea of doing only what we would do if Jesus was with us - not because I think it's a bad standard, but because I think we tend to focus so much on our perception of Jesus, the God, that we ignore all the evidence about Jesus, the man, and end up thinking we can't do lots of things that I believe would be perfectly fine to do.

I asked if they could think of anything we probably wouldn't do with Jesus now, given our culture, that we probably would do with him back in his time and culture. "Drink wine" was the first response (which answer impressed me, since the girl who gave it was clear that it would have been just fine to drink wine with Jesus back in the day), so we talked about the fact that he was criticized for drinking wine, unlike John, the Baptist. I mentioned that I hope he would enjoy my sense of humor, even the parts of it that I don't share with very many people in church - that I could have a really good laugh with him and just be silly at times.

We then listed the things that are mentioned in chapter 7 (invites and entices to do good, love God, serve him, persuades to believe in Christ -- and their opposites) and discussed how those things are independent of who can see us as we act.

c) Before moving on to the next verses, given the time constraints, I mentioned again the need to not pull verses out of context and in isolation and, thus, miss the "big picture" concept being taught throughout an entire chapter. I stressed that the rest of the chapter to which we wouldn't get deals with charity and how critical it is to obtain. I wrote "charity" above the two lists (good and bad) and then moved to the next verses.

d) verses 18-19 -- I stressed that the focus of these two verses is NOT on avoiding embracing the bad; rather, the focus is on avoiding rejecting the good. That is fascinating and extremely important, in my opinion.

We talked about how I don't agree with lots of things that are taught in other denominations, but that, if I was to hazard a guess about how much of what is taught in any random church is "good" vs. "bad" on any given Sunday, I would put the ratio at no lower than 90% good and 10% bad - and, in most cases, higher than that. I told them that I try really hard to allow charity to influence how I make that determination.

In practical terms, that means I see the "good list" reasons as "either/or" statements (that as long as something does at least one of the things on the list, I accept it as good and of God), while I see the "bad list" reasons generally as "and" statements (that bad things have to do more than one thing on the list or be focused exclusively on one of them). I used the example of Islam teaching lots of good things, even though it can be classified as "denying Christ" if we choose to look at it that way, as well as the example of an evangelical, anti-Mormon rant on the radio that also includes lots of teachings that really do invite and entice to do good, love God and serve him. Just because I don't like some of what is said or the actual people saying it, that doesn't mean I can reject everything that is said. Charity dictates to me that I listen for what I can learn from everything and not obsess so much over the disagreement(s) that I miss the chance to be taught and edified. I told them there is an important difference between hearing something and automatically thinking, "That's bad, so I won't listen to anything being said," and, "What good can I take from this, even if I don't agree with most of it."

4) I also stressed that I want them to let me know what they want to learn next year within the new curriculum - that absolutely no topic is off limits within the categories we will be discussing. I mentioned as an example the month that will be dedicated to Family and Marriage - telling them that there are lots of potential topics we can discuss that month and that absolutely none of them are off limits. I told them that they are old enough that we can talk about anything, no matter how controversial, awkward, difficult, etc. they think it might be.

We, as Mormons, also Can Say: "Ave, Maria."

I often have thought about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the account we have of her in our scriptures.

It is SO sparse – and I think we romanticize it so much that we tend to forget how precarious her situation was, in multiple ways. Joseph could have had her killed; he could have “put her away” privately; she could have died in childbirth very easily; she apparently had to leave her home and spend her “growing months” with her cousin, Elizabeth – probably to avoid the shame, condemnation and judgment that would have been her lot as people learned she had conceived a child not by her betrothed; ultimately, she had to deal with the conflict between what she originally thought her son would do and be and what he actually did and was not; and, finally, she has to deal still with being adored not for who she was but “merely” for her relationship to someone else – and I don’t think it’s insignificant to point out that she had a life of her own (as a mother to other children, as a wife, perhaps in a vocation of her own, probably as a widow, as a member of a community, etc.) that gets lost completely in our records.

I also think sometimes of the difference between how we view her, with the luxury of looking back on her through eyes of faith regarding her son, and how we view young women in situations like hers in our own lives whose babies we don’t honor in the way we honor her son. The young teenager who is pregnant and whose child might or might not change the world deserves to be treated as Joseph treated Mary, not as those around him probably would have treated and did treat her.

I think of a lot of things when I think of Mary, and there is room in our Mormon theology, I believe, to honor her in ways that are non-traditional and in line with the Gospel taught by her son. So, this Christmas season, I add my own voice to those of numerous Christians throughout time:

Ave, Maria. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Why I Generally Don't Use the Phrase "Breaking the Sabbath"

I understand the traditional phrase "breaking the Sabbath", and I believe in keeping the Sabbath Day holy, but I try not to use the phrase "breaking the Sabbath". I just don't think the Sabbath gets "broken" when someone doesn't "keep it holy". I think we can end up breaking ourselves if we don't set aside time for rest, relaxation, sacred activities, etc. - but the phrase "breaking the Sabbath" simply doesn't resonate with me. As in most things, I try to find wording that makes sense to me, so I don't use this one unless I'm not thinking and fall back into traditional culture-speak.

When I explained this to a friend of mine a few years ago, he responded with the following:
Most of the "commandments," beliefs and practices we have work really great in the positive.

-Keep the Sabbath Day holy, and you will find benefit in it.

-Obey the guidance of God, and you will see Him again someday.

-Families can be forever.

-Following the Gospel will make you a better person

Most of these same things break down quickly with problems when you use them in the negative.

-Break the Sabbath Day and you will be punished.

-You won't ever see God again if you don't obey.

-You will be separated from your family and never see them again if you are not married in the temple, one chance and it's over.

-People who don't follow the Gospel are unhappy and are bad people.
So ...
"Keep a Sabbath and make it Holy. It will bring you benefits."
is much better than: 

"Don't dare break the Sabbath!!"

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How Actively Involved Is God in Our Lives?

I was asked once if I believed in a God who is intimately involved in all aspects of our lives or a God who creates and steps back to let things happen. 

I have experienced directly a few cases of truly miraculous healing. I also have experienced instances of piercing insight regarding things of which I literally was not and could not have been aware. I also have experienced a couple of things that were truly miraculous about which I almost never talk.

Having said that, I have no idea how much God works actively in our lives, but I do believe we can connect to the divine in us much more than most of us do. I see GOD as a big "G" god - and I see us as little "g" gods. I think we fail to understand gods every bit as much as we fail to understand God.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What the Bible Really Says about Marriage and the Resurrection

Today is my 26th anniversary.  I still have a hard time believing Mama agreed to marry me, but today I want to share a link that addresses the idea of eternal marriage in light of a common Biblical objection to that idea.

I have no doubt Mama and I will continue to be "one" after death, and this post does the best job I have read answering the concerns I have heard from many people in my life.

Matthew 22:30 - Kevin Barney (By Common Consent)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Some Protestant Complaints about Mormonism Actually Are Protestant Doctrine - Not Mormon

It's funny to me how some of the most strident complaints Protestants have about Mormonism actually are more in line with their own doctrines than with Mormon theology. 

For example, there is a fundamental difference in how Mormonism posits exaltation as a "shared" reward and how pretty much everyone else in Christianity posits the highest end as an individual reward. Too often, "others" interpret our focus as exclusionary (saying, "only married Mormons are saved"), since they don't have the vocabulary to translate temple ordinances as anything but "making everyone Mormon". They don't see the universalism of the theology - and they don't see the exclusionary nature of their own theologies, which consign innumerable children of God to burn in Hell forever because, in their theologies, only Christians are saved (and, most ironically, not even all Christians are saved, since they don't accept some Christians denominations as true Christians).

It's one of the greatest ironies of Christian theology, in my opinion - the disconnect between what people assume we teach and how those assumptions often match what they teach far more closely.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

All Eternity Shakes: How Could God Allow Children to Die in an Elementary School Shooting?

I normally provide links to older posts that might have been unseen or forgotten.  Today, in light of the elementary school shooting in Connecticut yesterday, I want to provide a link to an astounding post yesterday written about trying to make sense of that shooting. 

All Eternity Shakes: Mormonism's Weeping God  - Jacob (By Common Consent)

Truly, we are gods and devils.  Let's do whatever we can to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth through our own actions and not blame or wait for God to do it for us - or sit and wait for a future kingdom. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Where the Church Fits in My Relationship with God

There's really only so far the Church can take us with regard to our personal relationship with God. To put it a different way, the Church can teach about how to love God, but it can't do it for us. We have to do it ourselves.

That is what the Church actually teaches. The leadership even goes as far as to say that the Church is secondary to the family. Individual leaders often say and do things that seem to be at odds with that principle, but the core message ever since the beginning has been that we are responsible personally for what we ultimately become (if we reach our ultimate potential) - and that is one of the core principles that is different than many Protestant theologies. It's one of my favorites aspects of the Restored Gospel.

I look at the primacy of relationship importance as an ever-expanding group of circles. I, as an individual, am at the center; once I am married, my wife and I, as two-made-one, are at the same point in the center; my immediate family is next; my extended family is next; my universal extended family is next. "The Church" is a subset of my extended family and provides the organization within which I can learn to be united with contemporary others when I "naturally" wouldn't become united with them and the theology by which I can show my commitment to be united with past others. It's the structure within which I can show symbolically that I recognize I am no better than anyone else who ever has lived - that I want to be united with all God's creations.

Since "perfect" is defined as "complete, whole, fully developed", I can't be "made perfect without them" - but the beginning of that eternal unity is my own relationship with and to God - and, again, being part of "me", my relationship with my wife. Take me (and my wife) out of that series of circles, and the rest shatters. Thus, my relationship with God and my wife is the most important relationship in my life; my relationship with "The Church", while extremely important to me, is less important than my relationship with God, my wife and our children. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

If Jesus Came to Dinner: on Fast Offerings - and Insensitive, Stupid Comments

I really liked the following post, but I also am linking it here to highlight how badly we can mess up the beautiful things of the Gospel sometimes in our attempts to "inspire" others.  Seriously, sometimes all we can do is shake our heads and sigh. 

If Jesus Came to Dinner . . .  - Rachel Whipple (Times & Seasons)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Does Religion Need Evidence?

[First, just an administrative note: This posted at 12:12 AM on 12/12/12.  Now, back to our regularly scheduled blogging.  *grin*] 

Evidence is really tricky, if for no other reason than "evidence" is filtered and constructed through our own minds. Even what I see as an individual is not "objective" - since I certainly might interpret what I see differently than another person standing next to me and seeing the exact same thing.

In courts, many people assume eye-witnesses are the holy grail of evidence - but, in many cases, there are conflicting eye-witness accounts. The classic example is when three very different people see the exact same thing - but then, a couple of days or weeks later, each of them describes a very different event. If a black man, a young child and an elderly white woman see a group of black teenagers congregating, talking quietly and passing something around by a neighborhood store, then if those same people hear that the store was robbed 30 minutes after they saw the group there, generally speaking they are likely to draw different conclusions - and, after a bit of time has elapsed, one or more of them might "remember" seeing the teenagers entering the store or distributing stolen goods. In actuality, the group might have been looking at photos of a friend, but the evidence presented by "eye-witnesses" could be quite damning - especially if only one of those witnesses is identified and testifies.

So, as to the question of the post title: Yes, ideally, any claims should be backed by evidence. However, I just don't feel comfortable imposing scientific, evidenciary requirements on anything that already is as subjective and internal as religion. After all, the traditional definition of "faith" includes "the evidence of things not seen". 
It is what it is, and super-imposing artificial requirements that just don't work in that field doesn't do any good, in my opinion. I still want as much evidence as can be gained, especially with regard to historical or scientific claims that are open to evidenciary requirements, and I don't want authentic scientific evidence dismissed simply because it doesn't match religious belief (since scientists have discovered truth that has changed religious belief significantly in the past and will do so again in the future, I believe), but I also leave the interpretation of most "religious evidence" up to the individuals - since I want that same consideration for myself.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Critical Nature of Christlike Leadership in Congregations

For those who are in congregations with leadership that generally is patient, humble and not into unrighteous dominion, there is a vibrancy that draws and keeps and empowers people. However, in areas where the leadership is controlling, overly-demanding and/or prideful (and even coercive), there is an apathy (and even discord) that repels and oppresses people.

When people are raised in or converted into the first situation (or, at least, have lived in such an area), they tend to be more positive about "The Church" - but when people are raised in or converted into the second scenario (or, at least, have lived in such an area), they tend to be more negative about "The Church". Also, since human psychology says that one bad experience will be valued the same as six or seven good experiences, a bad leader can unravel all the good done by multiple good leaders - past and present.

I've said many times in many places that I believe one manifestation of the "genius of Mormonism" is its reliance on lay members leading at the local level - but I also have said that same administrative structure is the biggest weakness, as well.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Sunday School Lesson: Ether - History and Faith

We covered the last half of Ether today.

1) We went back to Chapter 1 to start the lesson and looked at the lineage verses that trace the leadership of the people. I showed them that there are about 25 named "sons" and three other points where the people named are "descendants". I told them that we have absolutely no idea how many generations got skipped with the use of "descendants" - that it might have been as many as 1,000 years or more, given the average length of time covered in a typical generation. I pointed out again that the rest of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Ether are VERY different records. We listed all of the named writers in the Book of Mormon and ended up with around 20; I mentioned that Ether and Moroni are the only named writers in the Book of Ether. We talked about having a fairly thorough "religious history" of the "Nephites" but only a tightly-focused "dynastic history" of the Jaredites. I mentioned that thinking of the Book of Ether as a traditional history of all of the descendants of Jared, his brother and their friends would be like reading a history of the US Presidents while they served in Washington, DC and thinking it was a history of the American people - but one of the students gave a different example. He said it would be like reading a history of the English monarchy successions or the changing of German rulers and thinking it was a history of the European people. Given the general length of time being discussed and the way some of those changes occurred, Europe is a much better example than America.

2) We read the chapter headings from 7-11 and established that 3,000 years or more could be summarized in the following way:

"People fought for control of the kingdom from the beginning of the kingdom to the end of it. Control of the kingdom changed constantly, with some kings being killed and others being held captive."

I pointed out that, from strictly a standpoint of military control tactics, holding a former king captive and allowing him to have children and grandchildren in captivity is stupid - but it fits perfectly other historical records we have of the cultural practices of political intrigue and rule that occurred in some ancient societies, especially those from the same general area from which I believe the Jaredites originated.

3) We read quite a few verses from Chapter 12, and we focused on faith, repentance and human weakness.

a) I asked why witnesses only come after trials of faith - and why it is important that they only come then. One of my students said it was because of the definition of faith itself - believing in something for which we hope but can't see. He said that getting a witness without having to exercise faith would eliminate faith itself.

We talked about a specific, simple example - of believing there was a room next to the one in which our class meets without ever having seen it. I asked what I would have to do in order to receive a "witness" that my belief was correct. A student said, "Buy some explosives." I nodded and added, "or do something else to break through the wall and actually see whether or not there was a room." I said that doing what it took to see something previously unseen is the "trial" - and that we can't expect to see the currently unseeable unless we are willing to walk the talk, so to speak, and take the journey we believe will lead to what we want to see - that it's not God trying our faith in some magical way as much as us putting our faith to the test and living in a way that we believe will bring what we desire.

b) We read the verse that says the people didn't believe the wonderful things Ether prophesied. I had the student re-read the verses that explained what Ether prophesied and asked them why the people might not have believed it - and I asked them to think about the chapter headings we had read from the previous chapters while they thought about why the people couldn't believe Ether.

Ether said the people could avoid destruction, be sure and steadfast, have hope for a better world, abound in good works, etc. When I asked again why the people might not have been able to believe Ether, one of the students said, "Those things hadn't been part of their history for thousands of years. They had never seen any of those things, so they didn't believe they were possible." I asked one of the students point-blank if it would be easy to accept it if I listed specific things with which he struggles mightily - really deeply ingrained inclinations or characteristics - and told him he could change and be a totally different person than the person he sees when he looks at himself. He said it wouldn't be easy at all - that it would be very hard.

I told them that it is easy to read the scriptures and judge or even condemn people who are described as making bad choices or as lacking faith, but it's important to fight that tendency - that we have to try to learn what lessons we can from their lives while not judging them in any way, since we have no idea how hard it might have been for them and since we believe the Atonement pays for all natural transgressions and weaknesses we didn't choose intentionally and consciously.

c) That led directly to verses 23-26, in which Ether laments the weakness of his writing and his inability to write powerfully due to the "awkwardness of our hands" and how he feared that the Gentiles would mock him as a result. We talked about what that phrase might mean in detail. The Bishop mentioned that it can be really hard to take what's in our minds and put it into words on a page; one of the students mentioned the difficulty of engraving words on plates and stone tablets; I mentioned how hard it is for Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard to shoot free throws, since their hands are so huge (like the students trying to shoot free throws with a baseball). I emphasized that Ether had to let go of that fear and have faith that the words would be powerful somehow to those who would read them - that the words would NOT be powerful if Ether let his recognition of a weakness keep him from writing the words - that the "trial of his faith" in that regard was doing what it says in verse 27 - relying on the Lord to make his weakness strength somehow, even if he personally couldn't see how it could be done.

d) I finished by talking once again about the danger of taking individual verses and passages out of context and quoting them in isolation. I talked briefly about repentance in many cases being nothing more than believing in a hope enough to make the necessary changes do what it takes to make the unseen visible and how the people didn't see what Ether saw because they didn't believe it was possible and, therefore, didn't try to make it happen. I showed them how Chapter 12 teaches an integrated lesson about faith, repentance and atonement, with an actual case study imbedded in it, but that we can miss that full lesson if we isolate verses 6 and 27 and treat those "scripture mastery scriptures" as the only important parts of the chapter.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Happy Birthday, Michan!!

A few more than 30 years ago (*grin*), my eternal companion entered the world in a relatively primitive hospital in Samoa.  The little red-haired girl who inspired Samoans to get out of their sick beds and behold her unique beauty has grown up into the woman who colors her hair to hide the gray, is known as "Mama D" by all the young men and women who have been touched by her loving spirit and inspires me with her unique beauty on a daily basis. 

Happy Birthday, Babe!  I love you!!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Truly Hilarious Picture: It's Not about Utah or Mormons, but It Could Be

Utah is the highest per-capita ice cream consuming state in America.  My wife was raised in Utah.  If A=B and B=C . . . 

In honor of my wife's birthday tomorrow, since I couldn't find a similar picture about chocolate, I present the following - knowing "chocolate" can be substituted for "ice cream" and have the same answer: 

What time is it when you run out of ice cream? 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Sabbath: Letter vs. Spirit

I absolutely love the concept of the Sabbath and dedicating a day of rest from worldly care.

Therefore, generally speaking, I "keep the Sabbath day holy" and try not to do things that require others not do so. However . . .

I also agree totally that "the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath" (or whatever the exact quote is), so, for example, I have no problem traveling on Sunday - especially if it's in order to do something that I feel is part of keeping the Sabbath holy - like visiting family and friends, or the homeless, or the widowed, or providing service of some sort, etc.

I also have a diabetic son and a wife who gets ill if she doesn't eat regularly. If my family accompanies me on a visit to one of the units in our stake when I have a speaking assignment, and if that unit is an hour-and-a-half from our home, and if my son starts to feel a low blood sugar level or my wife starts to feel ill and needs food . . . I have no problem "picking ears of corn to eat as we walk through the fields on the Sabbath" - even though we try to plan for those situations and have food with us when we travel.

A somewhat elderly friend who was a High Priests Group Leader mentioned in a lesson once that his wife sometimes gets very tired and has a hard time preparing meals - and that he is a lousy cook, and she hates the food he prepares. Therefore, when she feels this way on Sunday, he will take her to a restaurant after church to show his love and support for her - because she is more important than a general rule, even one as important as the Sabbath.

I really love that principle.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Searing Commentary: In the Case of Great Evil, Prayer Is Not the Answer

The Brutal Truth about Penn State - Charles P. Pierce (Grantland) 

The article linked above is a searing commentary.  The scandal it addresses came to light just over a year ago, and this is the best, most insightful description I have read of why I was so . . . uneasy . . . about the way everything was handled as the details came to light.  I linked a few months ago to an article I read about the adulation of athletes and coaches that resonated deeply with me, but this one is even more direct and blunt than that one. 

As everyone who reads my blog knows, I am not prone to hyperbole - and this article might seem hyperbolic to some people, but I think it is incredibly thought-provoking and challenging in its directness and simplicity.  The author's main point is something I believe we all need to recognize and confront - and I agree that, above all else, the care and concern for the victims in cases like this should outweigh all other considerations.  Period.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Why It's Not Hard for Me to Accept Evolution as the Process By Which God Created Our Bodies

For what it's worth, evolution is an easy issue for me to reconcile. (I'm not saying it should be for everyone - only that it is for me.) There are a few things that make it so easy for me:

1) There never has been a unanimous voice rejecting evolution among the apostles and Prophets. There always have been some who accept it as the process by which the physical creation happened. Thus, in accepting evolution I'm not rejecting the Church leadership in any way; I'm just picking the ones with whom I agree. (*grin*)

2) I don't sustain church leaders in any way as scientists, and I don't expect apostles and even Prophets to understand science better than scientists. (That actually might be the main reason.)

3) Almost every personal rejection of evolution I have read is based off the assumption that evolution is founded on the belief that there is no God, even among those who otherwise reject a young earth theory. In other words, when someone is working from a faulty foundation and incorrectly feels their very core belief in God is being attacked (which is not incorrect in some cases with some advocates of evolution), I understand reacting negatively - and even over-reacting. That is true especially with regard to things that we simply don't understand fully.

4) The Pearl of Great Price supports the general idea of physical evolution MUCH more clearly than the Bible does - which means I feel justified in believing that physical evolution is much closer to being taught in "Mormon" scriptures than in other Christian scriptures.

5) The temple presentation of the creation of Adam and Eve used to state unequivocally that the depiction was figurative with regard to the man and woman.  That doesn't endorse evolution as the creative process, but it also leaves that door wide open as a possibility. 

6) The "current" official position of the Church (a 1909 First Presidency statement that was reprinted in the Ensign in 2002) explicitly leaves open the possibility that evolution was the source of the creation of Adam's physical body. When you read the statement carefully, Adam being the first man ONLY means that at some point there was someone who differed from all other creatures in that he consisted of a mortal body and an immortal spirit child of God - thus, he was the first "man", as the Church defines that term. Seriously, I'm not stretching anything by saying that; it's the way the actual statement is worded. I can accept that, especially when the same statement says that his body might have started out as an embryo.

7) I believe the Garden of Eden narrative is allegorical and that the "Fall" happened when we chose to follow Lucifer to this earth, leave the presence of God and be subject to mortality, sin and death - so I have no problem with the general idea of no death before the Fall. The passages in 2 Nephi that many use to reject evolution actually have no bearing on the actual mechanics of earthly creation for me.

In saying all of that, I am not arguing that our bodies were created through evolution.  I think that is the most likely answer, but I really don't know - and the Church's official position is that we don't know. 
I think this is a great example of how scriptures can be interpreted to mean various things, how it's important for us to be open to different ways to understand them, how we don't have to throw out the baby ("I am a child of God.") with the bathwater (young earth creationism that rejects evolution entirely). It is VERY easy for me to reconcile physical evolution with the Plan of Salvation as it is taught in the Church. I just have to be OK with not everyone agreeing with me - and that just isn't a problem at all.

Friday, November 30, 2012

I Wish the Word of Wisdom Was Not a Requirement of Baptism

I'm on record in multiple places saying I wish the Word of Wisdom was not a requirement of baptism and membership, especially since it's such a huge cultural issue in many places and because I believe everyone ought to have the same "grace period" the early saints had when it was given initially - and also because we (correctly, in my opinion) don't excommunicate members for not living the Word of Wisdom. If we allow members to remain members as they struggle with the Word of Wisdom, we shouldn't deny others membership for the exact same struggles.

Addictions are brutally hard for many to reject, and I think that is lost for some people who are from ancestry where church membership has not forced them to confront the addictions addressed in the Word of Wisdom. They get it intellectually, but they don't really understand.

I feel strongly about that, even as I have no problem with Word of Wisdom compliance being part of the temple recommend interview.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Is Mormonism a Cult? A Profound Article about What a Cult Really Is

The following post gives a stark, graphic picture of what a real cult is - and the concluding paragraph is one of the best summary definitions I've ever read.  It's worth reading, particularly as we hear so many people throwing around the word "cult" to mean nothing more than "those who believe differently than I do".   

Drinking the Kool-Aid: A Survivor Remembers - Jennie Rothenberg Gritz (the Atlantic)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fear As a Motivational Technique

Fear is the lowest form of motivation that can be used for self-aware beings.  Unfortunately, it also is one of the most often used in religion - starting with fear of God and eternal punishment, visualized most vividly with the image of a fiery pit.  Thankfully, Mormon theology removes the most blatant fear-mongering aspects of traditional Christianity, but there are plenty of people even within Mormonism who use fear as the primary motivational technique. 

Why is that so - especially with regard to good, caring people? 

1) Some people just aren't "people persons" - and fear is the easy way to deal with people when you are uncomfortable doing so intimately. (For that matter, "because I'm the leader and I said so," fits that category, as well.)

2) Some people have never had "love" modeled as a form of motivation. Even when someone "knows better", it's really hard to implement a model they have never seen modeled actively - especially during their formative years. That's one reason why those who been abused tend to abuse so much - the lack of a different response mechanism even as they hate the fact that they do what they abhorred in the abuser.

Recognizing that such approaches (motivation through fear) in the Church usually are the result of either "dealing with people" weakness or being the only model that a person knows helps tremendously to be charitable AND not succumb to the tactics.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012

When Someone Says, "The Church is perfect, but the members aren't."

"Perfect" is defined in Matthew 5:48 as "complete, whole, fully developed".

Based on that definition, the Church isn't perfect, since it isn't "complete, whole, fully developed". At the most fundamental level, our Articles of Faith say as much ("He will yet reveal MANY great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.") - and the organizational development continues to evolve.

To me that's so basic and obvious that I just have to laugh inside when I hear someone say that the Church is perfect but the members aren't. I don't dispute it much publicly, but I do address it whenever the situation makes it possible to be productive and not seen as threatening.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

My Daughter Just Opened Her Mission Call

Following the announcement during General Conference of the age change for sister missionaries, my oldest daughter who is in college called me. She gave me permission to share the following: 

She had been feeling strongly for a few months prior to General Conference that she needed to prepare to serve a mission. Given her age (barely 20) and place her education (just a few months into a program), she assumed that meant she should leave as soon as her program was complete - when she would be 21.  In the temple the week just prior to General Conference (to do baptisms for the dead), she got an overwhelming impression that she should prepare to go “immediately”. She told me it was one of the strongest, clearest impressions she has had in her entire life.  Again, she assumed that meant she needed to step up the preparation for when she would leave next year.

She was in tears when she told me she had contacted her Bishop that day and asked to start the process of leaving “immediately”. It was an amazing confirmation to all of us that He knows us individually. 

That was approximately one-and-a-half months ago.  It has been a blur.  She opened the envelope containing her call a few hours ago, with my wife and our other daughters participating via Skype.  Her older brothers are in college in Missouri, so they had to wait to hear about it via Facebook.  (I love technology and social media!!) 

She reports to the MTC on February 6th, 2013 - exactly 4 months after the announcement in General Conference - on her way to her mission in . . .

Germany, Berlin!!!!

At the risk of embarrassing her (which she will expect, knowing me as she does):

She has a strong, personal, genuine testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but she is a unique young lady.  She has her father's wicked sense of humor and her mother's heart.  She told me recently that she was in a bad enough mood to punch someone in the face - and "not just because I'm in Utah". (That was following a conversation in which she told a friend she had voted for President Obama and heard the response, "Are you serious? I'm not sure if you really did or are just stirring the post, like you like to do."  lol) Her wardrobe is not risque or inappropriate in any reasonable way, but she certainly is going to have to do some shopping to leave for the MTC. She is a bit of a fashion hound. She also is going to have to stop using some of her favorite expressions when upset - and even when not upset. (She once told a male friend to "grow a pair" when he was hesitating to do something that needed to be done.)

She will love the German people, and she is going to teach more than one companion the need for tolerance, I'm sure, and the true meaning of unity. In the imagery of Elder Wirthlin (another reference that won't surprise her or anyone else who knows me), she plays the saxophone and piano, but she can be a metaphorical kazoo at times. She certainly will add her own unique sound to the orchestra in that area. 

Congratulations, Sarah.  I love you and am proud of you.  You will be an excellent missionary.  Be yourself - your best self, but yourself, nonetheless.  You were called to that mission to reach someone, and only you (the real, full, authentic you) can reach that someone. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Some Interesting Facts about the Mormon Aposltes

After the 2010 April General Conference, I thought it would be interesting to compile some not-well-known information about the apostles at that time - some things that might surprise some of you now.  At that time:

1) The First Presidency hadn't had someone who was an undergraduate at BYU in over ten years.

2) Only five of the 15 apostles had undergraduate degrees from BYU.

3) Harvard was the second most frequently attended college or university for some level of degree.

4) Pres. Uchtdorf is a convert (as everyone knows); Elder Scott's father was a convert.

5) The First Presidency averaged 3.67 children; the six senior apostles not in the First Presidency averaged 7.5 chlidren - and Elder Perry was the only one with less than seven; the six junior apostles averaged 3.3 children - and none of them had more than five).  

6) There were more apostles who were educators than any other occupation; there were only three former lawyers and two former business executives; the other occupations were: publishing, pilot (two others were pilots in the military), accountant, doctor, salesman and nuclear engineer. 

7) SIX of the apostles did not serve a mission (mostly due to wartime military service), and, of the other nine, only one served in the United States; the other eight all served in a foreign country. 

and a bonus "fact" - although I haven't checked it, so it might just be a classic Mormon myth:

The first "bleep" of a swear word over the radio on any program was J. Golden Kimball in his talk on the first radio broadcast session of General Conference. [I just LOVE the irony, if that is true!]

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Deeply Profound Post (and Comments) about Repentance and What Keeps It from Happening

Repentance and Conflicts of Interest - Scott B (By Common Consent) 

On this Thanksgiving Day, I felt impressed to share a non-traditional Thanksgiving post.  I don't know why, but I hope it touches someone today and helps in some way. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Depression: Prayer, Study & Obedience Alone Are Not the Proper Answers

Depression and other complications of mortality can wreck havoc on one's ability to repent (change) and have joy - and they can lead to crushing guilt that can be seen at the extremes of self-criticism and self-hatred.

Praying harder, studying more, "obeying" more intently, etc. are not the proper initial or all-encompassing answer for people struggling with these types of issues. Finding good medication and/or coping techniques must be the foundation, since such problems won't disappear or become manageable until the imbalances that are causing the issue(s) are controlled to whatever degree possible.

The same can be said of almost anyone and any issue (that proper coping techniques are vital), but actual physiological issues must be approached differently and openly and without guilt or shame being added by others when traditional answers just don't work.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Church Orchestra Plays a Beautiful Sound - but Only if All the Instruments Are Appreciated

Piccolos are the highest pitched, shrillest instruments - and I think that's probably why Elder Wirthlin chose them to use as the example of the instrument God doesn't just value in His orchestra. ("Concern for the One")

It's important to have piccolos in the orchestra if you want the full range of sounds, since nothing else emits that particular sound, but it's just as important to hear the other instruments playing. The fullness of the Gospel isn't understood, in my opinion, unless all the instruments are playing together and in tune - and I see "unity" as a fullness of harmonic sound, not everyone playing the same melody. It's up to those who play the instrument that is in the largest section and tends to dominate in volume to allow all the other instruments to play, be heard and feel appreciated. 
I've heard the full harmony played in a ward in which I lived, and it's a gorgeous sound.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Embracing the Truth All Around Us - No Matter Where We Find It

One of the central principles of what I call "pure Mormonism" is that God gives revelation regardless of religion or denominational affiliation. It's the "bring it with you" concept - that if someone understands truth in a different way (or even an unknown truth to the Church at large), it's accepted simply because it's truth. Hence, "seek learning out of the best books", "even by study and also by faith", etc. Truth is all around us, if we only have eyes to see it and hearts to understand.

As organizations grow, they tend to minimize this, however. There tends to be an idea that we now have it all - even if that isn't supported (and even if it is rejected) in our canonized scriptures. It's just natural calcification, and it just makes change harder and slower than when the organization was smaller. It's a security trade-off for the free-wheeling discovery mode of the early time. It just is what it is.

The last books of the small plates of Nephi are interesting in this regard. Space on the plates was running out, and, paraphrasing the words of one of the writers,
"It's all been said. I don't know anything new. I'm just signing this to show that I took my duty seriously." 

Our plates aren't full.  We have plenty of available space. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

God will work with what we give him. We could do worse.

The following post is a very thought-provoking look at God and politics in our scriptures: 

God does not particularly care about your civil liberties - John C. (By Common Consent)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pruning the Church Together

According to Jacob 5, the Church is going to continue to need pruning by the servants right up until the end.
I can assist in that pruning if I stay in the vineyard and help wield a precise, careful scalpel - especially if those on my own tree aren't scared of the instrument I yield. I can't do it if I wield a machete wildly - or if I leave the vineyard altogether.

I'm not saying everyone has to stay and help in the pruning process. Only those who are willing to prune cautiously and with direction can do so properly. I'm just saying the Church needs help in that process from as many "servants" as possible. If someone can't do it now (or ever), I understand and am not going to condemn them. However, if someone can do it now (or at some point in the future), I'll join hands and share the task.
I'm going to do it regardless of how many others are helping (because it's my tree), but I'm going to be grateful for those who want to try to work with me - even if they are operating on different branches in different parts of the vineyard in different ways with different instruments.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

An Interesting Perspective: What Kind of Buddhist-Mormon Are You?

Are You A Theravada or Mahayana Mormon? - Mike S. (Wheat & Tares)

I really like the comment thread, as well.  There are some truly thought-provoking responses.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Dealing with Religious Indigestion

I believe there is an element of learning to digest some food that seems foreign or even a bit "yucky" upon first taste - a process of acclimation where we develop a taste for some things that are good for us but not necessarily "tasty" initially. I learned that lesson on my mission to Japan - and now I absolutely love sushi.  However, when that idea is used to insist that we dull our sensitivities and ingest things that, in that moment, with our current digestive systems, would make us sick or possibly even poison us - that is when I have to insist that I follow the dictates of my own conscience and take responsibility for the results of my choices. I learned that lesson on my mission to Japan - and I flat-out refuse to eat natto.  (Look it up; you'll understand why.) 

I believe in the concept that there is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven - but I'm not convinced that the concept includes as many applications as many people assume. I believe that pure laws are more like large umbrellas that cover many potential applications (like categories of food), and that there are fewer of those large umbrellas than most people believe. As long as I am eating a balanced diet (obeying the broad laws), there are many individual entrees, appetizers, beverages, desserts, etc. from which I can choose (more narrow rules that fit me individually) without harming myself or becoming sick. That also means, as Paul pointed out in the New Testament, that I am free to choose to NOT eat certain things that would put a stumbling block in front of those around me - even if, in isolation, those foods would not harm me in any significant way.

I believe deeply that we will not be punished for striving to understand and follow the dictates of our own consciences and trying to live as closely to Him as we are capable of doing - even as we get indigestion sometimes as we try to figure out the spiritual diet that will work for us. I think God will forgive indigestion in a sincere attempt to taste the full fruit of the Gospel far more readily than He will reward limiting ourselves to only what is easy to digest but never causes growth and enhanced health. However, I also don't think he appreciates it when we assume out of pride that we can handle anything we want to eat at any portion size.

Indigestion is not always cause to quit eating. It only means we need to adjust our diet - and, to me, pure Mormonism provides incredible flexibility to do so.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Change through Consensus

I think the rate of change in the Church is rooted in the principle that the tree only can be pruned according to the strength of the root. Traumatic surgery kills as often as it saves - especially if minor surgery is enough for the moment. I think the church's global leadership believes this and uses consensus as a means of not endangering the tree as a whole.

To use a different analogy, the band can continue to play on an ocean liner that is turning continually, but when a speedboat switches direction suddenly, passengers can get thrown around violently and even go overboard quite easily. I think there is an important purpose behind changing course only with consensus, and it is rooted in a concern for the safety of the passengers and not risking the boat capsizing.

Our history supports this position, frankly. Sure, Joseph's time was free-wheeling and exciting - but it also had the most schisms and most active, violent, dangerous persecution. It might appear to be exciting and appealing as we look back upon it, but people generally sank or swam - or died in the process. There is a time for explosiveness and sudden change in a young, evolving organization, but if such radical and constant change continues, those organizations tend never to mature - or they die. I understand the allure, and I would love to see more radical change in some areas, but I understand that it can't happen too quickly.
I think the world-wide training when the latest Church Handbook of Instructions was released is a great example of significant change accomplished gradually through consensus.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Most Correct Book Doesn't Have to Be Totally Accurate

In the early stages of the Book of Mormon, Nephi says that is record is 'true', primarily because he wrote it with his own hand and was being honest in his recording.  Joseph Smith also said it was a "correct" book, but he didn't explain what he meant by that. 

I make that point largely because the authors of the Book of Mormon mention in multiple places that there are mistakes in it - and because it is, at the most basic level, a religio-biographical record written and compiled years after the fact.  Thus, it can be both "true" and "correct" (even "most correct") without having to be mistake-free.  That is true both of what it says and what we tend to read into it, and it is true of the conclusions and descriptions it presents - especially those that deal with people other than the authors and abridgers themselves. 

Just to illustrate that final point:

I think there are far more Lamans and Lemuels in the world than Nephis - at least in the sense that "God maketh no such things (panoramic visions of eternity) known unto [them]". Nephi comes across as a wonderful person who also probably was a spoiled youngest son in his early years, at least - and perhaps even bi-polar or prone to depression, based on 2 Nephi 4. I'm not sure Laman and Lemuel weren't normal, decent blokes in their pre-flight lives - who probably were consumed by jealousy of a favored younger brother. We accept that easily enough with regard to Joseph of Egypt and his coat of many colors, and we might not have the full story about Nephi and his family's internal tensions. 

I also see Lehi a bit differently than many people, and I think I understand Laman's and Lemuel's reaction toward Nephi as much more natural and perhaps unavoidable than most people do. In other words, I don't condemn them for how they reacted in their own situation. I don't "relate" to them, necessarily, but I am inclined to be very charitable toward them - especially since stories told in retrospect, explicitly to explain and justify separation and warfare, tend to be exaggerated, even if unintentionally. (For example, if they really did want to kill Nephi, they had tons of opportunities and were really bad at it.)

Hindsight actually isn't 20/20 - especially when quite a lot of time has passed. Our memories tend to construct what we want to remember - which is why even a "most correct" book doesn't have to be unbiased and totally "accurate"

Monday, November 5, 2012

God Is Bound - but I Don't Bind Him

When I teach about covenants, I generally set the stage by talking about the ultimate objective of convenants - becoming godly. I discuss the idea that we "bind" God by our promises - and that I disagree with the way that idea gets interpreted too often. I mention that I have NO problem with the idea that God has promised to bless us and help us become like Him, but the actual "binding" passage in the D&C makes it clear that God binds himself - that he promises absolutely to keep his word. We aren't binding him in any way.

That might be seen as hair-splitting by some, but it's an important distinction to me. I don't control God. Period. Full stop. My covenanting (promising to accept what he has asked of me) simply opens the doors for him to help me - or, to phrase it differently, simply is an acknowledgment that I have committed to do everything I am capable of doing to tackle "becoming" as the ultimate object of my existence and "endure to the end" in that commitment.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Mormonism: Eternal Arrogance and Eternal Separatism

I have had numerous people over the years claim that Mormonism is arrogant in the way it claims faithful people can become gods while non-faithful people can't.  This often is included with a total misunderstanding of Mormon doctrine - with claims that we believe only Mormons will receive the greatest reward.  Other than to state the obvious for most members and point out how incorrect that complaint is, I want to address in this post the general idea of rewards and punishments in the post-mortal existence and how Mormonism is decidedly NOT arrogant or "separatist" - particularly in comparison to the rest of Christianity. 

Our ultimate theology posits that almost all will be saved and resurrected and receive a degree of glory.  In my own words, only those who look God in the eye and swing their fists receive no reward and, instead, are punished.  Thus, in Mormonism, nobody really gets "punished" for being born - made worse in the end than if they hadn't been born. That is opposed diametrically to the traditional concept of Hell and God as the eternal roast master. 

Finally, the specific reward isn't tied to clear, objective rules - since God, the Father, who alone sees the heart, is the ultimate Judge and Assigner - and each person is represented in counsel, if you will, by God, the Son, who argues for mercy to whatever extent possible. Thus, in the end, religious affiliation in mortality doens't mean a thing - not even a little thing - in the determination of reward and punishment.  In Mormon theology, truly all are alike unto God. 

The distinction within Mormonism is between the level of the blessed state, if you will, but it is tied to individual judgment by God based on individual effort and integrity - unlike pretty much every other Christian construct and most theological constructs.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Discussion of Suffering and Desire - and Salvation and Redemption

The following is a short conversation among some friends of mine about suffering.  I hope it makes sense and helps someone in some way: 

Friend 1) I posit that we suffer because we want suffering more than not suffering. We will suffer and cause suffering until we decide (collectively) to stop. This doesn't require a central authority (God) directing and orchestrating the suffering. In my own view, we can decide to no longer suffer. We can still experience physical pain, but spiritual suffering is a choice we make. We experience and cause suffering by wanting something else (anger, violence, revenge, theft, etc.) more than peace, especially more than giving up our mortal life.

Friend 2) This sounds like a Buddhist idea. I haven't studied a lot of the ideas, but a friend of mine was a Buddhist. He said that much suffering comes from wanting things. Fix your "wanter" and then you replace suffering with happiness. Not happy you don't have a nice house to live in? Then stop wanting it. Unhappiness gone.
Friend 3) To me suffering just is.  I know little about Buddhism but agree that all life is suffering, that it has a cause, and there is a way out of it.
Me) Rather than "fixing my wanter", I have worked on being at peace with the gap between what I want to be and what I am. Notice, I did not say "between what I want and what I have." There's an important difference. I also beleive there are plenty of people who simply are wired genetically to emotional suffering and others who aren't.  It's easy to overlook that.  It can be addressed and overcome, but it's not easy or natural.
That's where the idea of grace and mercy amid "failure" resonates so strongly with me. I live a life full of paradoxes, and it isn't easy to recognize them and strike an appropriate balance between competing extremes. It's the idea that there is "salvation / redemption" IN AND DURING what I call the "muddle in the middle" (the suffering) that inspires me to strive to become perfect ("complete, whole, fuly developed") while not letting my inability to do so in the here and now keep me from trying, regardless. (Personally, I like "redemption" more than "salvation".)
It's finding peace in the journey and letting go of the need to fight or struggle or suffer - and that isn't a natural thing, especially for those who are less inclined to let go than I am.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Maybe Our Bodies Aren't Temples: Suggest a Caption for This Picture (h/t: Mark Brown)

Words fail.  Just look and let me know what title / caption you suggest for this Halloween-appropriate picture. 

What Do I Call This Picture? 

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Atonement in the Simplest, Most Practical Terms I Know

In very practical terms, I believe that our "rewards" and "punishments" are determined within what we become.
In other words, in the end, we will BE our own reward or punishment - with grace / the Atonement providing the leeway allowed for us to muddle around and make mistakes as we become.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

How to Have the Greatest Love in Our Own Lives

A couple of years ago, in one of my New Year's Resolution posts, I started discussing the aspect of charity mentioned in I Corinthians 13:5 that says charity "seeketh not her own". I focused on my own life - what I learned from watching my father interact with my mother and what I learned as I served my future wife.

The next week, I developed that a bit further by focusing on another iteration of this same general principle - what I see as the ultimate expression of seeking not one's own. It is found in John 15:13, which says:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

I felt impressed to re-post today what I wrote back then, and I hope that impression was inspired and that someone who read it today will be helped in some way by it:
My main point today, as we delve further into charity seeking not her own is that this verse does NOT equate the greatest love imaginable as that which is exhibited by dying for someone. Rather, it is equated with the type of love that is required to "lay down one's life" for another. I believe dying for someone can be a form (a subset) of this type of love, but I believe in many cases it is the most simple, easiest manifestation of this type of charity. I want to use two common situations to illustrate this perspective:

1) When someone sees another in grave danger (like someone who is in a burning building), there often is a natural desire to save that person - even when the outcome might be one's own death. This is true in many situations even when the person inside the building is a stranger to the person who sees the predicament. This inclination appears to be a primal "survival of the species" instinct - or, if you prefer, the light of Christ that allows us temporarily in that situation to see someone else as worth saving at the cost of our own lives. It is "love" in a sense, but I do not see it as the greatest love imaginable.

2) When one's child or spouse is sick and in danger of dying, it is natural to feel something like, "Take me instead. I gladly will die in this person's place." That sounds noble at first glance, but think about it a little more deeply.

If the person offering to take the loved one's place believes in "heaven" or some other similar concept, the thought of death in this situation would bring feelings of peace and perhaps even a bit of joyous expectation. However, that death, in exchange for a spouse's continued life, for example, would leave the spouse alone - to deal with grief and pain, but also, in many situations, to deal with children and others who are devastated by that death. In other words, that desire to die for someone else is a selfish wish in practical terms, even if it is motivated by a sense of love.

I can't see that as an example of the greatest love imaginable.

So, what is left that would constitute such love and be consistent with the verse itself?

To "lay down" is an action verb - as opposed to "lie down", which simply means to "recline in a position common to sleeping". When someone lays down something, she takes something she has been carrying and lets go of it - placing it somewhere at rest and out of her grasp. I like to use the term "set aside" as a synonym - as in the following translation of John 15:13:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man set aside his life for a friend.

The Savior's ministry was the ultimate example of this, as his dying for others was "just" a subset of his living for others - the final "part" of the Atonement (excepting his resurrection), but nowhere near the entire Atonement. Think about the following:

A man was raised by Mary and Joseph. We have a story of him being taken to the temple as a baby; we read of him teaching the learned men at the temple when 12-years-old; and we find a statement in Luke 2:52 that he "increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man." (probably the least recognized, acknowledged and understood verse in the entire Bible) Other than that, we have no record of him until the age of 30, when he goes into the wilderness, is tempted, gathers followers, performs miracles and begins his ministry among the people.

Why is a record of the time between age 12 and 30 non-existent?

I believe it is because those were the years of "his life" - the life he "laid down" for his friends. He set aside his own life, and I believe it is important to realize that "Jesus had a life" that needed to be laid down in order to minister and preach and teach and heal and testify and die and rise again. We forget that simple fact so easily as we deify his ministry. 

I believe we hear nothing of wife and children and job and hobbies and travel specifically because that was "his life" that he set aside for us - and that, for me, is MUCH more powerful than if he had jumped into a lake to rescue someone and drowned. He set aside his own life and took up his cross, if you will. He left his own house and "ha(d) not where to lay his head". He might have walked away from the children in his own immediate and/or extended family, some of whom might have died during his ministry, and raised the dead relatives of others.

The example I gave last Saturday of my father setting aside his own life for his beloved wife is the closest example I know personally, but laying down one's life for others doesn't have to be so all-encompassing or singular in focus. It can be temporary, or sporadic, or "as needed". It can be short-term and involve multiple people. It can be as simple as stopping to help someone change a flat tire and being late to an important meeting as a result.

The key is being able to understand when laying down one's life is appropriate and noble - and, even more importantly, having a heart that is willing to act on that understanding and actually lay down one's life (seek not her own), no matter how long is required.
I want to share some advice in that regard with anyone who has been a member of the LDS Church for some time and is struggling to gain anything new from church:

When you go to church, lay down your life for that short time period and step into Jesus' ministry.  Start going primarily to find ways to serve people, not to be instructed. You can get the instruction you need outside of church, so whatever you get in church will be an unexpected bonus. I promise, there are lots of people who need to be served at any given time - far more, I'm certain, than need to be taught.

Focus on being the servant first (a savior to others) and be the student whenever that happens naturally. 

It really can change the life you lay down when you leave your house each Sunday. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

"Faithful" Members Can Have Differing Views of Scriptural Passages

The following experience happened to me a couple of years ago.  I came across my notes about it and thought I would post a summary here - as an example of how differently we can view scriptural passages and still be "faithful" members of the LDS Church. 

The Gospel Doctrine teacher talked about Elisha and the prophetic mantle, but what I thought was fascinating was when he got to the story of the bears killing the 42 "children". (or "young men" - as it says in the footnotes) He said he has heard a lot of possible interpretations of that story over the years - and proceeded to list and explain briefly four different options. He then said, in summary:

"My own favorite interpretation is that Elisha must have had a terrible day and been in a really foul mood - and had to do some serious repenting after cursing them when he heard about the bears killing them after his curse."

He said this with a huge smile - showing that he was kidding a bit, but he explicitly mentioned that there is a period (the end of a sentence kind of period, not a length of time) between the cursing and the attack of the bears - and that there is NO direct statement that the two events had anything to do with each other. He said that he believes the writers (and mothers of small children) took the two separate events and put them together to create a folk tale in order to scare the children and/or young men of the area into respecting the prophet.
My point is not to endorse his view, even though I like it.  Rather it simply is to point out that we can view scriptural passages in lots of different, and even contradictory, ways and still be solidly believing, active, faithful members of the Church.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

To Feel, Believe, Know, Do or Become

I believe what we DO trumps what we FEEL or BELIEVE or even KNOW when it comes right down to it - and what we BECOME is most important of all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Monday, October 22, 2012

Religions Die or Stagnate When They No Longer Are Relevant to the Masses

I had a statistics class in college in which the professor postulated that the driving force behind every revolution except the American one(s) was the result primarily of the governed people repopulating at such a higher rate than the governing people that they overtaxed the ability of the governors to care properly for the governed. The governed couldn't find work to support themselves, especially in times of agricultural distress - so rather than starve they revolted.

It was a fascinating theory, and I think there is a lot of truth in it.  I think, also, that there is an element of truth with that idea in relation to religion. I think religions die or stagnate when they no longer are relevant to the masses - when the needs of the masses are not met by their religious leaders - when the leaders lose touch with what is important to the members.  Frankly, however, the opposite is true, as well - that religions can die when the masses lose passion for what the leaders teach and demand only what they want to hear. 
If it was only about leaders teaching what members want to hear and will accept, it would be easy - but no real growth would occur, in most cases.  Members like to blame leaders for the decline of their religion, but, as often as not, it's the members themselves who cause the divide and disconnect - in numerous ways that are not the focus of this post. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Why I Love "Mormon Underwear" - as Much as I Hate That Term

The garment (especially for women) is one of the things that I really love about the temple and Mormonism, even as I understand that many women struggle to wear such visually non-pleasing "underwear". 

First, it is the one thing that says starkly to me that women actually do "have the Priesthood" in an important and powerful way - even if they aren't "authorized" in our current time and culture to "exercise keys" and perform ordinances outside the temple. Seriously, the visual representation of men and women being "clothed in the garment of the Holy Priesthood" and carrying Priesthood symbols as they leave the temple and enter the world is wonderful imagery to me.

In other words, if I can say it in this manner, when you get past the outward appearance and how the world sees us and get to what is "below the surface" and how God sees us, all men and women who leave the temple carry the exact same Priesthood symbols with them - just as they both can perform Priesthood ordinances while they are in the temple. Wearing the garment, to me, is more about taking the temple out into the world (being protected from evil in the world as if you still were in the temple) than it is about anything else - which is the main reason I personally don't struggle at all with the concept of wearing the garment.

For what it's worth, I also would have absolutely no problem whatsoever with someone wearing regular underwear beneath the garment, particularly in order to keep the symbolism of the garment more sacred in their own eyes and not let it come to be seen as nothing but weird underwear. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Shedding Our Black and White Glasses: or, Seeing the World in Technocolor

A friend of mine said the following once.  I have thought a lot about it over the years, and this post is what I would say to him if I had the chance. 

I used to believe things were black and white; now nothing is clear to me.

This might sound trite and odd, at first, but that is the first step, in my opinion, to the possibility of beginning to see a wonderfully complex, beautiful, vibrant, exhilarating creation in which real growth and enlightenment can occur.

There are two movies that capture visually what I mean: "The Wizard of Oz" and "What Dreams May Come".

When Dorothy opens the house door after landing in Oz and the movie suddenly goes from black and white to full color, and when Robin Williams' character sees the watercolor landscape world - that is what excites me about the elimination of black and white thinking. I have found great awe and grandeur and expansiveness within Mormonism that would have remained hidden to me, personally, if I had not shed my black and white glasses. My "testimony" or "faith" is stronger now than it's ever been, and seeing a "pure Mormonism" that is not black and white has been the major cause of that additional strength.

I still see through my glass, darkly, but at least now I see many things in technicolor - and I really do believe there is a vitality and depth of color in "pure Mormonism" that I haven't found elsewhere.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Mormonism's God Really Isn't the God of Mainstream, Protestant Christianity

Frankly, I see more similarities in the "big picture" theology of Mormonism to Buddhism than to most of Christianity - and I really can understand why other Christians say we aren't Christian. When I use the standard LDS Church vocabulary, I call it a restoration of ALL things - not just all things Christian.

(Just as quick examples: There is a strong strain of reincarnation [multiple life stages of growth and development culminating in oneness with the divine] in our theology - even though it is not the classic Buddhist version. There is a strong sense of focus on finding and creating ancestral ties - even though it is not the classic Shinto, Buddhist or Catholic version. It's much more of a combination - a melding of theologies, if you will. There are MANY examples of this within Mormonism.)

How does that affect my view of Jesus?

It really doesn't affect the core of how I view him and his mission, but it does expand his role for me.

Whether I view his life and death as having a literal saving component or as being purely symbolic (and by "purely" I mean "fully" not "merely"), I see "Jesus" as a universal Savior and his life and death as a universal model. (much like the name "Elias" means simply one who is sent to represent, leading to someone being "an Elias" - and much like "Adam" being a universal designator of "man" and "Eve" being "mother" - and much like we speak of individuals being "Saviors on Mount Zion") In this view, the terms Savior, Redeemer, Creator, Judge - and even God - become conditions and roles rather than unique titles for only one Being - with Jesus becoming the one who is the Exemplar of all these conditions and roles to bring us toward Godhood, not just God. He is the Model of one who became man to become God again - and, in so doing, bridged the previously unbridgeable chasm that lay between GOD and his children. He "marked the path and led the way" not just to God, but to Godhood. He is not just God, but rather he also is me - and you and all.

To me, pure Mormonism isn't about Christianity; rather, it's about Christ and Father as emulative goals for all. It's not about a chosen people; it's about humanity being chosen. It's not about us OR God; it's about a real, binding relationship between us AND God, our Father (and, beautifully, Mother). It's not about individual salvation; it's about inter-connected unity and exaltation.

I know that gets lost often in the clash between theology ("Mormonism") and organization ("LDS Church"), but this post is about Mormonism, not the LDS Church - and the transcendent nature of Mormonism largely keeps me aligned "faithfully" to the LDS Church. It's what makes that "duck" a unique and singular "swan" for me, to a large degree - or, more precisely, it's the venue in which we are taught that we ducks actually are created to become swans and that the same is true of all around us.

Finally, Christianity, as it is conceived and presented and believed by many, many Christians, isn't truly a universal theology. (It is for some, most notably many Catholics, but it is not for many, most notably the vast majority of Protestants.) It's a world-wide religion, but it's not a universal theology - nor even universal for this world. It doesn't posit that even the majority will be saved, much less that all will be saved and an unknown number exalted. (a larger number, in my opinion, than even most Mormons believe) Mormonism really is a world-wide religion with a universal theology - and it posits Jesus as the great mediator / savior / redeemer of all creation (even in "other worlds"). Again, whether or not that is taken literally or figuratively / symbolically, it is a transcendent concept that is fundamentally different than the view of Jesus within the rest of Christianity.

Jesus really is different in Mormonism than in Christianity - primarily because he isn't limited to being a "Christian" Savior / Redeemer / God within Mormonism.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

What's the Point of the Temple?

I really love the concepts and principles taught in the temple - what I see as the grand morality play that is performed in it and the "moral(s) of the story".  That is due to a large degree on the fact that I don't care all that much about the specific details of the ordinances and ceremonies.  Those have changed over time and might change in the future; it's the principles and concepts that resonate most with me.  Just to focus on one aspect today:

I think there is great value in the concept of making and keeping promises - and that there is even greater value in doing so with regard to things a person views as sacred.  Again, I don't care as much about the specific detail of sacred ceremonies - as long as those who participate gain something important to them as a result of their participation. 

In the case of Mormonism, that means I don't care as much about whether or not the person sitting next to me in the temple is getting the same things out of the experience as I am as I do about whether or not each person is getting something from the experiences that is important to her.  I don't care if something hits my wife but doesn't hit me - or if someone sees something as literal that I see as figurative - or almost any other discrepancy between the experiences of those who attend the temple.  I just want each person to sense or touch the divine somehow - or "learn" something new (not necessarily from the words of the play but perhaps from what registers in their hearts and/or minds) - to walk away with something that is of value personally - to leave committed to "make and keep sacred covenants", regardless of how that concept is interpreted individually. 

Whether in a Mormon temple or anywhere else, I see a dichotomy between those who understand promise / covenant making and those who don't - and between those who sense or recognize "the sacred" and those who don't. I think the details are FAR less important than the concept - and I believe strongly that too many people obsess over the details and don't learn the concept on an individual basis.