Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ: Casting Our Burdens Upon the Lord

As I was trying to figure out how to write the final New Year's Resolution post for this month about the Atonement of Jesus Christ, I suddenly remembered a post I wrote back in October 2008.  It was a flashing recollection that hit me in such a way that I knew I had to re-read it.  In doing so, it struck me that many who read my blog now weren't reading it back then - so I am going to re-post it tonight in its entirety, since it lays out how I view the Atonement in a way that I've never been able to explain better.  Here it is:


I had an interesting insight during a prayer a few months ago. In all my years as a member of the Church - in all the countless meetings I have attended and all the countless times I have read the scriptures - in all my pondering over the years, I have not had the same thought in quite the same way. I'm sure it's not earth shatteringly profound, but it was powerful and thought-provoking for me. I also am sure it is a direct result of the contemplation I have been doing concerning the Lord's yoke, His grace and our gratitude for His matchless mercy.

What struck me is that all of us, when we become members of the Church, covenant to take certain responsibilities. We promise to comfort those who stand in need of comfort and mourn with those that mourn. We agree to the sacramental covenants, then Priesthood or YW's covenants, then temple covenants - as well as various callings within the Church's organizational structure. Although these things are meant to bring us growth and understanding and joy, in a very real sense they are "burdens" we agree to carry.
Psalms 55:22 says, in part: "Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall sustain thee."

Ether 12:27 says: "And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them."

Matthew 11:28-30 says, in part: "Take my yoke upon you."

Here is what I learned:

The concepts in these three verses constitute a complete solution; without the first and second, the third is impossible.

In simple terms, the Lord wants us to cast our own burdens at His feet and pick up those that He knows will give us strength and bring eternal life. Please take a moment to create that mental picture. Envision yourself removing a pack from your back or shoulders, setting it aside, then picking up a new pack to carry instead. If we fail to leave our own natural burdens with Him, then all we do when we assume the responsibilities of membership in His kingdom is to pick up a second pack and increase a load we already are unable to bear alone.

Each of us needs to figure out what this means in our own lives, with our own personalities and struggles, but, at a minimum, we need to accept His atoning grace and quit beating ourselves up over our natural weaknesses and tendencies - those things for which He has paid the price already. We need to recognize and accept the forgiveness and grace He has offered already. We need to believe Him and what He has promised us.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by guilt or inadequacy or the burdens of your life, may I suggest a simple solution - not an easy one and not one that always will happen completely and all at once, but the only one of which I know that truly will work.

Find a quiet place, where you can kneel totally alone and unable to hear anything else, and pour out your soul to your Heavenly Father - able to approach Him directly because of the grace of His Son. Tell Him of your anxieties, your fears, your weakness, your pain - then ask Him to take the burden from you and help you walk away from it. Repeat that request (something like, "I gave it to you; please help me leave it at your feet.") whenever you begin to feel overwhelmed - even if it means you have to do so sometimes in the middle of the confusion and chaos of your daily life. Take a deep breath, close your eyes if you can, and ask Him to intercede once more and keep you from picking up your natural load.

I have a deep and abiding testimony that if you cast your burdens upon the Lord, He truly will sustain you as you shoulder His yoke and begin to carry the burden He has chosen to make your weakness become strength.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Literal and the Figurative: Either or Both

I know lots of members who take lots of things figuratively in our scriptures, but conversion (drastic change) often must be founded on a feeling of literalness - and differentiating (comparing differences, especially to establish supremacy) often is the root of conversion. Thus, many new converts ground their testimonies in literalism - and it takes maturing in the Gospel and personal confidence to begin to be able to let go of that and embrace figurative interpretations that generally are highly personal.

In other words, conversion to the group requires a degree of uniformity that is served best by literalism. The individual exploration that follows one who matures as a disciple requires one to let go of that literalism (to some degree and with regard to some concepts) and embrace a more figurative perspective. On the other hand, even most of the more mature members of any religion hang onto a literal interpretation of something - some core concepts or principles that remains literal for them. I believe the most mature members are able to consider BOTH literal and figurative interpretations - and actually see both kinds of perspectives as legitimate, worthwhile and inspired, even with regard to the same event or story. 

Literalness provides safety; figurative-ness can be dangerous and scary. Therefore, literalness is NOT a bad thing for those who need safety more than they need to explore. It just appears restrictive to the explorers.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Elitism in the LDS Church

Elitism is probably the single strongest natural (wo)man tendency that exists. Therefore, it probably is the single hardest natural (wo)man tendency to eradicate. Therefore, it is the single most deeply rooted "bitter fruit" that corrupts the vineyard. (Jacob 5)

On the other hand, self-esteem and divine potential are necessary, wonderful, empowering principles. They are the only way to fight the opposite of elitism - defeatism. (and that's not an intuitive juxtaposition of opposites) Therefore, we simply MUST be taught that we are of infinite worth.

Mormonism is a fascinating combination of foreordination and universalism (UNIQUE chosenness among the chosen ALL) - perhaps the most fundamental paradox that exists within its theology. We are special, but just like everyone else. There is great need for the Church and the Gospel in this life, but those who don't have it here will have a chance to have everything later.

I don't think "The Church" encourages elitism; I think mortality encourages elitism, and "The Church" is a product of mortality. I think "pure Mormonism" discourages elitism - but it's SO hard to get rid of that blasted natural tendency to separate us and distinguish us and lift ourselves at the expense of others.

It's motes and beams and pruning trees.

Monday, March 26, 2012

In the Church, Invitations Usually Are More Appropriate than Challenges

For what it's worth, I really don't like the culture of "challenging" that is rampant in the Church. I just don't like the attitude it presents. For example, it's NOT "Moroni's challenge". That word isn't there. It's "exhort" and "invite" - not "challenge".

So, I personally don't "challenge" people very often.  Rather, I extend an invitation - since that removes all of the "machismo" associated with a "challenge" - and since invitations can get turned down all the time when they simply aren't appropriate without any need to "save face" in some way. Appropriate invitations, on the other hand, are seen as a wonderful gesture - even in those times when they still can't be accepted due to reasonable conflicts.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Imagine If: What if the Point Is the Asking, Not the Answer?

My second daughter is a junior in high school.  She wrote the following poem on Tuesday; I read it Wednesday after my wife e-mailed it to me.  I want to post it today as my monthly New Year's Resolution Post for this week - for two reasons: 1) I am extremely proud of her and what this poem says about her; 2) I believe there is a direct and powerful application of the core message of this poem to the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the faith that fuels our search to understand its meaning in our own lives

Please feel free to share whatever hits your heart and mind concerning the Atonement (or anything else, for that matter) as you read it. 
The Map
by Jessica DeGraw

Imagine if
You are a child.
You find a map;
A pirate's treasure map.
You search.

Everyone searches.
For their keys,
For their shoes,
For their dreams.
They search.

When you are searching,
What are you searching for?
Something nonessential?
Something worthwhile?
Searching for change?

And how do you search?
Do you agonize over it?
Are you annoyed by it?
Do you feel anxious about it?
Are you diligent?

When do you find it?
After an hour?
After twenty-four?
After one-hundred and sixty-eight?
After you've given up?

What if you never find it?
What if you never stop searching?
What if the map is infinite?
What if that's the point?
Imagine if.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Living According to the Dictates of Our Own Consciences Is NOT Rebellion

I don't teach my kids rebellion - EVER. I teach them to think about everything and live according to the dictates of their own conscience. They can do that without rebelling, and I model that for them.

How do I do that?

1) By talking about things I hear at Church with which I disagree, but ALWAYS in the context of how much I love and admire the people who say them - and ALWAYS in context of how much I love serving in the Church - and ALWAYS in the context of why I disagree, based on my view of the pure Gospel of Christ and the pure core of Mormonism. My kids know full well that I don't believe everything I hear in Church - and even in General Conference occasionally - and often can tell me something with which I disagree before I mention it to them. For example, they know I don't like one of the lines in "Away in a Manger". They laugh about it now, but it will be a foundation for them when they hear things that really bother them - and that has happened with my oldest four already more than once.

2) By skipping some meetings / gatherings / events at church for other things - or simply because right now we can't afford the gas costs of driving 50 miles round-trip for such things. We go on Sunday, and we go on Wednesday - and we go to something else very rarely. All those other things are optional in their entirety, so we do what we can - and I teach them that making that choice is not wrong in ANY way.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Suggestions on How to Share the Gospel Properly

I have been asked more than once for suggestions on how to share the Gospel.  Here are some suggestions:

1) Distinguish between the Church and the Gospel. Share each of them for what they are without conflating them.

2) Distinguish between preaching the Gospel, sharing the Gospel and inviting people to worship or fellowship with you at church. These things can be done simultaneously, but they also can be done separately - and most of the issues I've seen in my life occur when one would be appreciated but a different one (or more than one) is attempted.

3) Share the Gospel with all, in word and deed; share the Church by introduction, invitation and sometimes inspiration, seeing with whom it sticks and with whom it doesn't.

4) Realize that some people desperately need the Gospel RIGHT NOW; some people really need the Church RIGHT NOW; some people really need both RIGHT NOW; some people really don't need or can't recognize the need for one or both RIGHT NOW - and that, if our theology is correct, they will have a chance to understand the Gospel and accept it at some point.

5) Realize, therefore, that our focus shouldn't be on converting / preaching to / sharing with everyone right now. Rather, it should be on helping everyone we can in whatever way we can - and that, for some people, sharing the Gospel and the Church really will be a great blessing. Seek and pray to find those people. 

5) Realize that some people have real needs that simply can't be met right now - and that all you can do is what you can do. Sometimes that is simply giving unconditional love, even in times when unconditional acceptance is not possible.

6) Pray / ask / yearn for inspiration to know / feel / intuit what individuals need.

7) Be confident enough to ask others to back off and let you be the one who lets them know when direct missionary discussions and conversations are appropriate. Seek that understanding actively. 

8 ) Finally, let go of the fear of not doing something perfectly and realize that doing your own personal best is enough - no matter what that personal best is.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Danger of Seeking for Miracles

I have come to believe strongly that those who simply MUST have miracles to believe will find them - but that what they find might or might not be of God, and what they find might or might not be good for them even if from God.

I have experienced the truly miraculous a handful of times, and at least one of the times I was exposed to the miraculous was a horrible experience with someone whom I believe truly had connected into an evil that I simply can't describe adequately - nor do I want to do so. Even typing about it brings back memories I don't want in my mind. However, I also have known good people who have experienced the miraculous and then obsessed over it to the point that they became miracle junkies - desperate for the next fix and convinced that their experiences made them special in some way, causing all kinds of damage to themselves and their families and acquaintances.

Finally, I think we tend to interpret the statement about an evil and adulterous generation seeking after a sign too narrowly. "Adulterous" is most commonly aligned with sexual sin, but one of the definitions of "adulterous" is "illicit" - and that word means "not legally permitted or authorized; unlicensed; unlawful; disapproved of or not permitted for moral or ethical reasons". In this light, and the overall context of the original statement itself, it is clear to me that the description is one of someone who "cheats on" God - who is UNFAITHFUL to the covenant he made with God.

The core of that covenant is faith, which, at its center, means an allowance that there are some things that are unknowable - that "signs" (proof) are not required for belief and discipleship. Demanding signs and miracles, therefore, is a direct repudiation of faith - since it takes the decision of when and how to present the miraculous to individuals out of God's hands and demands this be done according to the desires of the mortals who are unwilling to wait (to "be still, and know that I am God"). Again, I believe in the miraculous, and I have experienced undeniable miracles a few times in my life, but none of them have come through me seeking them. 

Sometimes, stillness is essential - and seeking for signs makes stillness and patient, humble reliance and faith impossible.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Children Bearing Testimonies of the Atonement of Jesus Christ

I love Fast and Testimony Meeting, even with the quirky aspects that drive some people nuts.  As I mention near the end of this post, I have reservations about one aspect of testimonies in some locations, but one of the things I love most about F&T Meeting is listening to "simple" testimonies - especially those of children. 

In our F&T meeting this month, an eight-year-old girl bore a simple, short, heart-felt testimony. It obviously wasn’t coached; it obviously was in her own words; it was sincere and focused on basic Gospel principles.

It was wonderful.

In that same meeting, a 33-year-old, mentally disabled woman “bore her testimony”. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the Gospel. She read from a piece of paper on which she had written some of the things she did that month, including her reaction to watching Whitney Houston’s funeral. It was simple and not at all “spiritual” in any traditional way. I looked around the congregation and saw all the loving, smiling, accepting faces (everyone paying rapt attention in dead silence) and realized that moment was a big part of the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It was wonderful.

My nine-year-old daughter bolts out the chapel doors every week the instant the benediction ends. She has told us for the last few months that she wants to bear her testimony. We have told her that she can do so whenever she’s ready to do it on her own, knowing she gets quite severe stage fright at the microphone. She bore her testimony this month, with her older sister standing beside her but completely in her own words. I’ve never been prouder of her.

It was wonderful.

I dislike rehearsed, automatic, rote words, especially those of others whispered into children’s ears, but, when a testimony is sincere and pure, a child’s testimony (even a 33-year-old child’s words) reminds me of the beautiful admonition:

“Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

Friday, March 16, 2012

Dealing with Members Who Let Us Down

Perhaps the greatest irony or paradox within the LDS Church is that the foundational theology of Mormonism allows for exaltation of those outside the faith throughout time (and that's pretty easy for nearly all members to accept, since they don't see and live and are hurt by and deal with those people's weaknesses on a daily basis) - and that same theology also allows for the exaltation of those inside the faith (but it's harder for many members to accept that - since we tend to judge most and most harshly those whose weaknesses we see most clearly and are hurt by most directly, with ourselves often at the top of that list).

Perhaps the greatest test of real charity inside the Church is how we deal with members who have let us down from inside the Church - who can't live up to our expectations of them. Think about that in relation to how someone sees you who does not approve of your beliefs or actions - perhaps a less active or inactive friend, or perhaps a family member, or perhaps an evangelical co-worker - someone who can't seem to understand and accept and value you fully for who you are - someone who seems to judge you as being "less than" she is.

Are you doing the same thing to her?  

In a very real way, each and every one of us has let God down.  He could judge all of us as being "less than" He is - and He would be justified in doing so.  He knows our faults and weaknesses even better than we do - and, yet, He loves us regardless and is patient with us.  If we are striving to be more godly - more Christ-like, this is one thing we should strive to emulate above almost all else. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Zion" Is Unity Forged Despite Differences

I walk a road much less traveled... a road I've never traveled, and it feels a little scary.

A friend of mine said that last year, and the following is my response to him:

"I hope you understand that many, many members understand that feeling. I've been walking my own road for a LONG time, especially since my individual road is neither that of the standard conservative or liberal groups in the Church. It's my own road, and it just happens to be one without walls or guardrails and one that straddles many intersecting roads - which means it's easier for me to fall, but it's also easier for me to communicate with those on other roads. That's a choice I made long ago, and I wouldn't change it for anything. I am gloriously happy and at peace in the LDS Church, but I am uniquely me, as well. 

My only caution in my response to you is to try to avoid thinking "the Church" is unique in its faults - and that you are alone in your views. I wish with all my heart it was the Zion of which we dream, but it's not - and it simply can't be unless all the membership intermingles with those who are different and learns to accept all. It simply can't be when those who see things differently than the majority leave. Zion isn't where all agree with each other on everything naturally. That, essentially, is Lucifer's plan - and it absolutely isn't what "the Church" teaches. Zion is unity forged despite differences.

There are FAR more members who don't walk in lock step with some perceived norm than most people realize - and the best wards, in my opinion, are those where differences are obvious and accepted. All of us like to think we are unique, but few of us really are. I believe a big part of "pure Mormonism" is to try to help those who might feel isolated and alone realize that there are plenty of others who feel that way - and I'm willing to bet my life's savings (granted, almost nothing) that most people who leave because "nobody agrees with or understands me" would be shocked to their core if they knew how many people in their own wards actually do agree with and understand them. Of course, that's not true of all congregations, but it's true of EVERY ward in which I've lived in my entire life - including more than one in Utah Valley.

I'm not saying everyone must stay actively involved in the LDS Church. That's up to each person - plain and simple. All I'm saying is that I believe strongly that there is a place in the Church for people like you - IF you want to engage on your own terms that are respectful and loving. (Elder Wirthlin is a wonderful example of that, if you need a role model.  His talk, "Concern for the One", is a masterpiece and should be internalized by every member of the Church.)"

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An Excellent Explanation of the Genesis of the "Curse of Cain" Nonsense

BYU Professor Margaret Blair Young is one of the LDS Church's foremost scholars of the former Priesthood ban, and she wrote a post on By Common Consent last weekend that is a short, powerful, insightful explanation of the genesis of the idea that black people are descendants of Cain and, therefore, "cursed" with black skin.  There are lots of other writings that go into much more detail about why our former reading of scriptures has been incorrect, but Margaret's post is an excellent starting point for anyone who doesn't understand how horribly flawed the curse of Cain nonsense really is. 

As is generally the case when I write specifically about the ban, this post is in response to recent statements by members who can't let go of the former justifications.  I am linking Margaret's post in the hope that someone will read it who has assumed there actually was such a curse - that someone who has believed it will be able to see how misguided and non-historic that justification was. 

With that introduction, here is the link:

"An Exception Having Been Made...OR You May Be a Racist If... - Margaret Blair Young (By Common Consent)

Monday, March 12, 2012

"Doctrine" Does Not Equal "Truth"

I have learned through the totality of my experiences, in all aspects of my life, that rules, commandments, laws, doctrine, etc. are absoltuley necessary for group survival - but also that they only can be general guidelines that apply to the majority of the people in the group. Often, they apply to the VAST majority - even 99+% in some cases, but, still, they are generalities - not absolutes.  (I believe that conclusion is supported fully by our canonized scriptures.) 

The danger in this recognition is that it is easy after that realization to start rationalizing one's superiority to the rules, commandments, laws and doctrine. There is a fundamental place in any organization / group for sacrifice of self-determined individual idealism for the practical good of the collective whole. Many rules, commandments, laws and doctrines are true, good and right for the community without having to be so for every individual if s/he were isolated from that community. It is a truism in the legal world that nobody can set themselves above the law - but it also says in Romans 2:14 that those who don't know the law but live the spirit of it anyway become a "law unto themselves". Even without "doctrine", those who live righteously can become "doctrine unto themselves". Again, however, the danger is that this recognition can lead people to cut themselves off and/or set themselves apart from the community that in all other ways can provide tremendous blessings. 

Therefore, to me, "doctrine" is whatever the prevailing wisdom outlines as the best collective vision for the group at the time. I simply don't equate "doctrine" always with "truth" - and that makes all the difference to me. In the end, I'm willing to accept a lot of "group doctrine" that doesn't match my own "individual understanding" - for two reasons:

1) My own understanding might be wrong, so I like to keep an open-mind;

2) I don't live alone. What works for the group (my tribe, if you will) is very important - and I have a social and familial responsibility to support and care for and protect my tribe. I won't do so in ways that I feel are destructive (careful choice of words) to others outside my tribe, but I will do so in ways that others might not understand easily.  

Much of life is a balancing act of competing demands - a practical application of the idea that there MUST be opposition in ALL things. I think that applies to "doctrine" as well - and that only can be if doctrine does not equal Truth.

I'm totally fine with that.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

"By Obedience to the Laws and Ordinances of the Gospel" Does Not Say Anything about the Church

As I have contemplated how to approach my New Year's Resolution post for this week, something jumped out at me that I have known for decades but that hasn't hit me in quite this way previously - so I figured I would share it, even though it is a very short thought for this type of post.

The 2nd Article of Faith, in its entirety, says:

We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. 

This Article of Faith says nothing about the LDS Church (other than the fact that the "ordinances of the Gospel" are included within it), and it says nothing about believing everything someone else believes, and it says nothing about cultural expectations, and it says nothing about general rules and instructions, etc. It only talks about "the laws and ordinances of the Gospel". 

I think that's important to consider.


Friday, March 9, 2012

A Very Personal Reflection about Joseph Smith (and Other Prophets)

I have absolutely no personal knowledge, based on actual experience, of how I would act or what I would do if I had the type of vision Joseph claimed to have had - especially if I had it when I was 14 years old. That experience can be analyzed in many, many ways, but I personally believe Joseph believed he saw God, the Father, and Jesus, the Christ. I believe he really did have a vision as he described - even as the details he shared were different throughout his life.  I have had to learn to be humble when it comes to my beliefs and opinions. I've had to learn to not get compulsive and obsessive about some things about which I feel strongly - and that's something I haven't mastered yet. I am more defensive of Joseph than some, because I see myself in him in many ways - and I see myself making many of his mistakes (and worse) if I had been in his shoes and his situation.

I don't mean that arrogantly in any way. I don't mean that I am something special - or that God would call me to be a prophet or lead a new religious movement. That very concept scares me more than I can express - and I have no delusions that I could handle it. I'm quite sure I would have flamed out young and hard.

However, I KNOW I would have tried my hardest and been sincere throughout my successes and failures. I only hope I would have been as dedicated and resilient as he was - that I would have "endured to the end" as he did.

I'm not trying to convince anyone in this thread that Joseph was a prophet of God. Honestly, I'm not. That's not the point of this post. My reaction isn't to someone who says, "I just can't see it. I just don't think he was a prophet." This post primarily is to people that take someone in whom I see so much of myself and focus SOLELY on his weaknesses and mistakes and failures and shortcomings. It's not that I take it personally, per se, but rather that I want to defend someone for whom I feel a kinship of sorts - especially from descriptions that simply miss the chaotic nature of his time and reflect perspectives that simply didn't exist for him.

Let me say it this way: 

I don't think Joseph would be a good apostle right now - but I also am convinced that Pres. Hinckley and Pres. Monson would have been even greater failures in Joseph's shoes. Those men as they are now would be totally inappropriate for the founding of a new religion. Founding a new religion, especially amid intense persecution in a wild, frontier environment, requires exactly the type of man Joseph was - and God has to use those who can do what needs to be done in the time it needs to be done. Likewise, I believe Brigham Young couldn't have filled Joseph's role or Gordon's / Thomas' role, and not one of them could have filled Brigham's role.

I simply think we do each and every one of them a tremendous dis-service when we compare them to each other, because we generally miss their unique contributions in the focus on their weaknesses and over-estimate their abilities to be someone other than they are / were. Part of my view of Joseph (and Brigham) as a prophet is my recognition that he just might have been the ONLY person available at the time in that location who could have done what would be required - and my even deeper recognition that I need to thank God every single day that it wasn't me who was in that situation. I'm fairly certain I would have failed miserably - and, honestly, I'm not sure I know ANYONE closely in whom I am confident in their ability to succeed in doing what was required of Joseph and Brigham - and, by extension, Pres. Hinckley and Pres. Monson.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

We Are Responsible, Largely, for the Experiences of Others at Church

[Normally, I would proivde a link to a good post from somewhere else today, but I felt impressed to share this memory, instead.  I hope that decision was inspired - that this post touches someone, somehow today.]

There was a discussion in a leadership meeting I attended once that centered on the question of why members left the Church and what we could do about it. I knew how it probably would go naturally, so I piped up right at the beginning and said that most of the people who have left with whom I have talked personally mention being bored and feeling unfed at church - and that the best thing we can do, in my opinion, is to make our services and classes and meetings at all levels and of all kinds more spiritual and more spiritually filling.

As I expected, there was an initial, immediate reflection of that onto the people who don't come prepared to feel the Spirit (as if it's their own fault for not feeling fed and feeling bored), but the conversation eventually ended up focusing on the "standard" idea that everyone needs a friend, something to do and nourishment with the good word of God. I agreed and simply pointed out that it is up to the leadership of each ward and branch to set the example of nourishing with the good word of God and insist that the membership do that, as well, to the best of their ability.

This is one issue where I agree completely with the "standard Sunday School answer". Everyone needs a friend (someone with whom s/he can talk honestly and openly without being judged or condemned), something to do (to not feel like a nobody and to serve others) and spiritual nourishment (thoughtful, uplifting, enlightening, spirit-directed teaching and sharing). One is social; the next is active personal; the last is spiritual.

If all three of these things were provided to every member, there still would be issues - but they would be much fewer, far between and less serious. So, my advice to everyone is simple:

If you want to deal better with some of the things that cause you to struggle at church, be a real friend to someone at church, find something to do at church that is important and meaningful to you (whether that is an official calling or not) and provide nourishment of the good word of God to those who need it (including yourself outside of church time, if you aren't getting it directly at church from others).

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Joseph Smith Was Not Infallible, and He Would Be the First Person to Say So

If there is one prophet of the Restoration who would roll around screaming in his grave at the idea that he was infallible, it is Joseph Smith. It is SO easy to forget that he is the most chastised person in the D&C - and it's not close! If he was willing to record those chastisements - and if he was willing to say what he said often about his own failings, we are judging him by a vicious standard if we turn around and expect him to be some super-genius, infallible wonderkind. I think we owe it to him to recognize his faults but honor him regardless for all the extraordinary qualities he really did have.

Along those same lines:

Brigham Young had major issues as I look at him (and I do not believe a number of things he taught, most obviously, from my multiple posts about it, that the Priesthood ban was appropriate or of God), but, seriously, who else could have held the Church together in those hellish times? When I try to look at the big picture with a charitable eye, I thank God "Brother Brigham" was around to lead the Church when he did - even with the baggage we inherited as a result. I truly believe the Church would have shattered and disappeared without him - as it was threatening to do after Joseph's death.

Life is a two-edged sword, and it's very easy to criticize even those who did remarkable things - since nearly all who do remarkable things fail mightily before, during and after the remarkable. I've been a history teacher, and that is true throughout history. Those in the lead fall often, and the ones I admire are the ones who keep getting up and living a life guaranteed to knock them down eventually every time they rise. When you fall from greater heights, it's much more visible to those around you; when you get back up and climb again to even greater heights every, single, stinking time . . . I will be the last one to condemn.
Criticism of specifics? Absolutely fine, as long as it's done charitably and with humility. Dismissal and condemnation? Absolutely not.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

There is a shortage of perfect(ly hilarious posts) in the world. It would be a shame to (miss this one).

No matter what you think of the topic this post addresses, the post and epic comment thread is hilarious.  Some of the comments are iffy . . . but, overall, I laughed hard enough that it probably qualified as sinning in some people's eyes.

Come Ye Poets of the Bloggernacle - Karen H. (By Common Consent)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Importance of Parsing

I've mentioned in the past that I am a hardcore parser.  I believe that approach is very important whenever we deal with things others have said - and the following is why. 

In the spirit of parsing (*grin*), the actual, dictionary definition of "to parse" is:
"To examine closely or subject to detailed analysis, especially by breaking up into components; to make sense of; comprehend."
I believe in parsing, because I believe in verbal and conceptual precision - and parsing is the only way other than deep conversation of which I am aware to get at the heart of what people actually say and write. This is true especially with people with whom it is not possible to converse directly about something. Since I've had countless experiences where someone (including myself) has said, "No, that's not what I said (or meant)," I believe strongly in identifying exactly what was said and allowing modification, where necessary, to clarify. Without the benefit of clarification, I simply must rely on parsing if I am to be both fair and charitable. 

I want others to parse my words (to examine them closely and subject them to detailed analysis - to make sense of and comprehend them), simply because I don't want to be misunderstood. I want to be judged by what I actually say, NOT by what others assume I must have meant. That has happened to me - people saying, "You can't have meant that, no matter what you said." My response always is, "I said it; I meant it." If I mis-speak, I want others to point out the meaning of what I actually say, so I have a chance to correct my mistake. However, I don't want them to jump to erroneous conclusions based on their assumptions of what I just had to have meant.

What others read into my words that isn't there is NOT my responsibility. I only can say what I mean, as clearly as I am able to say it in that moment. If it is misunderstood, I have no responsibility for that - IF I have done my best to express myself as clearly as I can. In that situation, it is up to the person who hears or reads my words to put as much effort into undertanding me as I put into trying to be understood - to parse my words for their actual meaning and grant me the consideration of believing I tried hard to write or say what I meant.

To me, that's nothing more than common courtesy and charity - not judging, not jumping to conclusions, not assuming to know one's "real intent" hidden cunningly behind one's words, not dismissing the parsed meaning and inserting other meaning instead. Again, I've been the target of enough non-parsing interpretations that I refuse to do it to others. Hence, I parse - carefully and consciously and as charitably as I can without intentionally twisting and distorting.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Atonement of Jesus Christ: Powerful Enough to Cover All, Including Those Who Believe(d) Racist Falsehoods

[NOTE: I want to express thanks before I get into this post itself for two posts that provided the inspiration for this post: "What A-Bott Black Mormons" (by Sistas in Zion) was the initial inspiration, and "Three apologies and a rule or 'How I learned to stop worrying and love Mormon racism'" (by John C.) inspired the self-reflection near the end.]

Over the past few days, the Bloggernacle and other social media that are frequented or run by Mormons and non-Mormons alike have been awash in posts, articles, Facebook updates, Tweets, etc. about a BYU Religion professor (Prof. Bott) who was quoted in a Washington Post article about the LDS Church and its past Priesthood ban.  Unfortunately, Prof. Bott shared his own personal views as to why the ban had been instituted - and those views were nothing more than the most condescending justifications that had been given prior to the lifting of the ban in 1978.  What was most distressing to me was that a popular BYU professor of religion would be stating such things even after numerous repudiations of those justifications had been given by modern apostles and prophets, including Pres. Hinckley's very forceful condemnation of any such beliefs since the receipt of OD2 and the lifting of the ban.

This situation inspired my first New Year's Resolution post this month, during which I will focus on the Atonement of Jesus Christ - but this post will not be what my "natural man" would write.  I have commented extensively on the numerous posts at BCC about Prof. Bott's comments (which I abhor with a truly deep and profound loathing), and anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows how I feel about matters of race, racism and the Priesthood ban (and if you haven't, feel free to click on the "Race" label near the bottom of this blog), but the heart of this post came to me only a few minutes before beginning to write what I had intended to write (an overview of how I see the scope of the Atonement of Jesus Christ).  I hope that sudden, dramatic change was inspired, since I had no intention to write what I am about to write until, literally, just as I sat down to write.

I believe in the universal power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ to reach all who ever have lived and leave us "amazed at the love Jesus offers (us) - confused by the grace that so fully he profers (us)".  I believe that the Atonement of Jesus Christ covers unconditionally our natural weaknesses, our ignorance, our transgressions, our disabilities, our unstoppable mistakes and every other manifestation of the effects of the Fall which we did not choose consciously.  I believe the Atonement of Jesus Christ allows us to be judged (to receive or acquire judgment, if you will) according to our "best selves" - who we would be without the limitations imposed on us by forces outside our control and not of our choosing.  I believe the Atonement of Jesus Christ doesn't make bad people good and good people better (and, importantly, great people infallible).  Rather, I believe the Atonement of Jesus Christ allows ALL people everywhere, of all times, in all places, throughout history and into eternity, to reach their highest potential without artificial restrictions of any kind.  I believe the Atonement of Jesus Christ is powerful enough to take deeply flawed "natural (wo)men" and raise them to the same eternal reward as barely flawed "natural (wo)men" - that the Atonement of Jesus Christ is the great equalizer of individual worth and growth and potential.

I am saddened deeply by Prof. Bott's recent words, but I also am deeply saddened by my own words in many instances.  I am outraged morally that he would believe the things he shared - that those things still haven't been eradicated completely from among us, but I also am outraged at myself on occasion - when I realize what things still haven't been eradicated completely from within me.  I honestly would like to see him removed from his position at BYU, if for no other reason than to prove to the world AND to the LDS Church that the views he shared will not be tolerated in today's LDS Church - but I also know that I do not want to be judged and treated "fairly" and "justly" according to the worst things I have said and done.  Most importantly, however, above and beyond everything else related to this appalling and sad situation, I do not want Prof. Bott condemned and rejected and shunned for what, in the end, might be (and I repeat, might be) nothing more than a manifestation of "the natural weakness, ignorance, transgression, disability, unstoppable mistakes and every other manifestation of the effects of the Fall which (Prof. Bott) did not choose consciously" - and, therefore, what, in the end, might be (and I repeat, might be) covered already by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

On a deeply personal note - to make this more personal for me: 

I have worked in many inner-cities throughout the Eastern US and have helped house and raise two young black men.  I have lots of friends who are black.  I have lived in the Deep South, and I was allowed once to see what tremendous growth the Church would experience there if the people (black and white, inside and outside the Church) could let go of their racism.  I write regularly about issues of race - trying the best I can to educate people about them. 

and, yet . . .

I also must admit that I am not free totally from the "little" manifestations of seeing people differently as a result of race.  For example, my initial reaction occasionally still is a bit different when I see a group of young black men congregated on a street corner than it is when the group is white. I have learned to recognize that initial reaction and change it immediately, but it is something I have had to learn.  I have had to recognize it for what it is and immediately address it head-on.  I am finding that it happens now much less often than it used to happen, but it still rears its ugly head occasionally - and it really is a necessary thing to admit and own up to that sad reality.  It's the first step in my on-going repentance - since it wouldn't be changing if I hadn't recognized it in the first place.

I can and will condemn Prof. Bott's words and his inability to discard the ideas that have been repudiated forcefully by our leadership for over 30 years, but I cannot bring myself, tonight, after having reacted naturally to those words this evening, to condemn Prof. Bott himself - and that conclusion only is possible for me because of how I view the Atonement of Jesus Christ.  I can and will condemn WHAT I should and must condemn, but I cannot allow myself to condemn another WHOM I am commanded not to judge. 

God bless you, Bro. Bott - even as I condemn your words and beliefs regarding this particular issue.

Friday, March 2, 2012

How to Express a Different Belief or Perspective in Church without Being Considered an Apostate

Basic human psychology is such that one negative experience often outweighs up to 7-8 positive experiences - and that one negative experience is remembered over those positive experiences.

Obviously, that has HUGE ramifications for those who struggle to fit in to a group, but it also has direct impact on how we should be commenting in church.

If we say something negative or contrary more than about 15% of the time, we will be viewed by many as a complainer - and what we say will be tuned out eventually or used as evidence that our position is just one that grumpy jerks take. Therefore, it is critical that the strong majority of things we say be positive and reinforcing.

Basic psychology also dictates that tone is every bit as important as content. Simply put, if my voice indicates superiority or condescension or anger, my words often will taken as negative - even if they really aren't. On the other hand, if my voice is calm and gentle and softly spoken, people naturally will not feel like they are being criticized or attacked - even if my words challenge what they have said. Sometimes, it's important to make a challenge an obvious challenge, but I probably can count on both hands the times I've felt I needed to challenge something forcefully and bluntly in church over the last 25 years. 

With that in mind, here are some suggestions: 

1) Pick you battles carefully and sparingly. Not everything has to be challenged right away - or at all. If someone perpetuates former racist justifications for the Priesthood ban, I'm going to challenge that - but . . .

2) Address the words, not the person - and avoid characterizations that label either. Keep it concise and on point. Don't say, "That's stupid" - or anything like that phrasing. In the Priesthood ban case, I might say something like, "I like what Elder Holland said in the PBS documentary - that he never understood the reason for the ban, but that the key is not perpetuating the former justifications for it." 

3) Reference current apostles and Prophets whenever possible. With regard to the ban, you might add something like, "I have a friend [me] who has compiled a list of quotes from current and recent apostles and prophets about that question, and they all agree that the former explanations shouldn't be repeated." Generically, it really helps to be able to say, "I love what Elder Wirthlin said in his talk 'Concern for the One' . . ." - or something similar.

4) Don't be or sound counter-dogmatic. Frame your comments in terms of thoughtful consideration or wonder. "I've really struggled to understand this, and it's helped me to consider . . ." or "I wonder . . ." or "Someone I really respect used to say . . ." or "I know members who have found great peace by . . ." or anything else that doesn't come across as an attempt to challenge and convert. Reflection works well; opposition, not so much. 

5) Be active in your local congregation. Whatever issues you might have outside the meetinghouse, fellowship regularly within the walls of the meetinghouse. Due to our financial constraints right now, we generally only travel to our meetinghouse twice each week (Sunday for Sacrament Meeting and Wednesday night for youth activities). We don't participate in all the other activities that occur throughout the week, including things like the Christmas dinner or another popular activity that just happened. However, we are there every Sunday and Wednesday - so everyone sees us as "faithful attendees". MUCH more latitude is given those with whom people associate regularly than those who show up only occasionally - largely because that gives you the chance to contribute positively enough to overcome the times when you feel compelled to challenge something

6) Serve others. People will accept lots more things people say who are known as active helpers than they will from people who rarely, if ever, reach out and love them proactively and in deed. 

7) Finally, be gentle, merciful, meek and non-judgmental. That generally takes conscious effort, but it is the ultimate key, imo. More often than not, it's not what you say but rather who people believe you are that is the biggest determining factor in if your words will be accepted.