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.