Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Why Would a God Need to Suffer for Us?

The Merits of Divine Responsibility - Morgan Davis (By Common Consent)

I have believed the central thesis of this post for some time, but I have not been able to articulate it as well as Morgan did in this post.  It is a challenging idea, but I believe it is incredibly powerful and beautiful.  It maintains the majesty of God while animating our Second Article of Faith in a way that I believe we often, if not usually, overlook.

I hope it touches someone in the same way it touched me. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

We Can't Blame the LDS Church (or Other People) for How We View Things

I think our individual perceptions are based as much on our unique personalities and our personal experiences at the local level (wards, branches, stakes AND homes) as by our interaction with / exposure to the global leadership. We see the global leadership twice a year, generally, and we read something one or more of them have written once a month, generally – and that is if we are about as diligent as is “reasonably normal” (which I am not, in this case, frankly). My own “exposure” is with General Conference and whenever someone else quotes somebody in a talk or lesson. So, in “real, practical terms” . . . my impression of how “The Church” operates and affects me is influenced most strongly by my upbringing (whether or not that was in the LDS Church) and my local leaders and congregation. However, we also tend to extrapolate our experiences with local leaders onto the global leadership – and that is “reasonable”, since we don’t interact with them enough to really know them personally.

We forget that, sometimes.

This means how we view tithing, tithing settlement and temple recommend interviews, for example, is going to be comprised, largely, by how we naturally see things and what we experience most directly. If we had an authoritarian, Old Testament / Paul style father, Bishop, Seminary teacher, Stake President, etc., we will tend to view these things much differently than if we had more “teach correct principles”, New Testamnet / John style parents and leaders. If we were taught initially that it was our never-wavering duty to attend every conceivable church-related meeting we are going to react differently to tithing settlement than if we were taught initially that Sacrament Meeting is the only “required” meeting and everything else fits into the “do your best to be involved in whatever you can and still be balanced” category. If we have had Bishops and Stake Presidents who were more “questioning” (intrusive) in their approach, we will see temple recommend interview differently than someone who has had Bishops and Stake Presidents who simply asked the questions and allowed those being interviewed to give the simple “yes/no” answers.

Therefore, I am left to look at how the “official” practice is handled and, to the best of my ability, attempt to follow that practice on an individual basis – in whatever way makes the most sense to me. What that means in terms of tithing, tithing settlement and temple recommend interviews for ME, as an individual, is:

a) Officially, there is no official “one way to figure tithing”. It is left up to me to make that decision, to the best of my ability and conscience. Therefore, I pay on net income, but I have no problem whatsoever with people who pay on “increase”. I also have no problem whatsoever with someone paying their absolutely essential, non-avoidable bills and then paying on what is left – but I do have a problem, personally, if they include credit card debt or a payment on a luxury car or their projected grocery costs or anything else that, imo, moves them away from any reasonable “spirit of the law”. Iow, for me, as long as their heart is in the right place and they aren’t trying to come up with reasons to pay less just to pay less, I’m totally cool with their decision – regardless of what it is.

b) Tithing can be paid locally through the Bishop or directly to the Church. How I pay it is left up to me. Therefore, I pay mine to our Bishop, but I have no problem with those who eliminate the middleman and pay directly to SLC.

c) There is a formal setting called a tithing settlement interview / meeting, but status can be declared without participating in that formal setting. How (or even if) I declare my status is up to me. I don’t mind sitting down formally with a Bishop for tithing settlement – but I have no problem with someone declaring their status in any other way that works for them. One year, for example, we had a brutal time scheduling an official visit, so we ended up telling our Bishop in the hallway after Sacrament Meeting. That was harder for my wife to accept than it was for me, but it didn’t faze our Bishop at all.

d) The official pattern for temple recommend interviews is the asking of specific questions and the answering of those specific questions. How I answer the questions is up to me. Therefore, when I have my temple recommend interview, I answer with nothing more than a simple “yes” or “no” (or, in two cases – honesty and family relationships – with, “I’m trying my best and am not aware of anything that would keep me from attending the temple.”) – not because I’m trying to hide anything, but because I have no desire whatsoever in that setting to get into a discussion about anything. I don’t see the interview as having that purpose, so I don’t go there. I give my answer to each question directly and simply and wait for the next question. I understand intellectually and emotionally why some people want to talk about the questions more, but I don’t think that’s the right time or circumstance – and I think the risk of misunderstanding outweighs the potential positives. Those conversations can be had elsewhere, and I don’t think they are wise or productive in the temple recommend interview – as a general rule. Therefore, I choose to answer as simply as possible.

In all the cases I described above, I believe I’m following BOTH the letter AND the spirit by doing so.

Oh, and if the response is, “That’s fine, but it’s not how the Church works” – my only response possible is, “That’s how it works for me.” It might not work that way for someone else, but that also might be due as much to the difference between that someone else and me as to the differences between our respective leaders. I can’t say in each case, but it’s a very good thought experiment and chance for serious introspection, at the very least.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: "To Mormons, with Love"

Rather than trying to recreate the conversation flow from class last week, I'm simply going to post the talking points we covered - with some examples of what was said by the students. It was a wonderful experience.

Since the topic this month is "Building the Kingdom of God on Earth", I shared the main suggestions from the book, "To Mormons, with Love" (written by Chrisy Ross, a non-denominational Christian living in Utah County) - and we talked about each suggestion, both in terms of how we share the Gospel (now and when they serve missions) and how we interact with non-Mormons, generally. In each case, after discussing the basic concept, we talked about how they would feel if someone in a different religion acted how we sometimes act when dealing with non-members.

To Mormons:

Know Other Religions: One of the students mentioned how much she hates it when one girl at school keeps telling her what Mormons believe - and is wrong every time. I mentioned how many comments I've heard in church meetings about what others believe that simply are wrong.

Referring to “the Collective”: Everyone agreed that this is a bit creepy, when they really thought about it.

Elusive Non-Members: Living in an area where they are the minority, they didn't understand this one at first. I was glad to see that lack of understanding.

Don’t Proselyte (Try to Convert Others): One of the students shared an experience when he was invited to dinner at a new friend's house - and the friend's parents spent the whole time trying to convince him that the LDS Church was bad and that he needed to become Baptist. They understood the importance of getting to know someone and being a real friend first and really loved the following quote:

“Long-lasting friendships can be tainted by an early effort to proselytize. A new family in an LDS neighborhood does not want to feel like the first thing everyone wants to do is change who they are and what they believe.”

Explain Invitations: One of the students said that he invited a friend to a ward party, not realizing it was a Pioneer Day activity, where everyone was dressed in 19th Century clothing, right down to long dresses and bonnets. His friend freaked out, understandably. We then talked about inviting people over for dinner (or any other setting) and not telling them the missionaries would be there - and referenced the other student's story about his Baptist friend.

Take No for an Answer: They all understood how obnoxious it would be if someone else kept asking the same question over and over and over again, even when they said they weren't interested.

Follow Your Own Rules: This one is the trickiest, since not all Mormons do everything the same way, and since I have stressed continually that I want them to own their own faith, even if it's different in some way(s) than others around them. We focused largely on the following concept:

Don’t present something as universal to all Mormons if it isn’t required of all Mormons - and understand the difference.

To non-Mormons (and, for the class discussion, Mormons living / serving missions in areas where they are a small minority):

Don’t believe everything you hear: You’ll hear weird rumors, crackpot conspiracy theories, and disgruntled stories full of bias. Believe your own experiences first and foremost.

For some Mormons, the bubble is real: Interestingly, every one of them understood this immediately - but they hadn't thought about it being true of other places dominated by other religions.

Give people second chances: Or more than that. Be patient in building friendships.

Accept where you live / serve: The reason most of your neighbors live there is because they like it, so fighting it isn’t going to win friends.

There is diversity if you look: When you only see people as “LDS” (or Baptist, or Catholic, or Jewish, or Buddhist, etc.) you fail to grasp the complexity of the person beneath that label.

Read the religious texts that are important to church members: Chrisy felt this was important to understand what people believed, so she read the Book of Mormon for that purpose. I told the students that if any of them are called to serve a mission in an area with lots of Muslims, for example, I hope they read the Koran.

Ask doctrinal questions of Mormons first, not non-Mormons: This applies just as well to us trying to understand others.

Lighten up: Don’t be offended when someone does try to proselyte. Don’t waste energy on negative feelings.

Follow the rules: This also is a bit tricky, because there are some things in other cultures we simply shouldn't do. The key is not to reject entire cultures just because they are different than ours - and, to the greatest extent possible without violating one's own conscience, doing as the Romans do when in Rome. Even in cases where you don't feel good about "following the rules", don't flaunt it. (It would be like taking beer to a Mormon ward party - or serving pork at a Muslim gathering.)

I really enjoyed this lesson, since it had a lot of participation from the students.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Accountability: God Is Within and Among Us

My favorite part of the concept that we are gods and children of the Most High God, and that the kingdom of God is among/within us, is that it takes away our natural tendency to blame someone outside the collective "us" for the bad things that happen and puts the responsibility to deal with those things squarely on us as individuals and as a collective people.

It makes Hitler responsible for what he did, but it also makes Mother Teresa responsible for what she did - and it makes me responsible for what I do on both sides of the scale. Mormonism's addition of degrees of accountability and the idea that our judgment is and will be nothing more than an acknowledgment of who we are and become (what we make of our "divine nature") is precious to me - and both of those concepts point toward the "god within".

I think it's interesting that the temple endowment paints a picture of competing Gods in this world. It hints at the primary contest being who we will follow in this world - that the ultimate goal is to build the kingdom of God on earth and establish Zion - that the struggle is to see who will be able to say, in the end, that it is the day of their power. I also think it's interesting that much of the early Mormon vision was focused less on theology and more on kingdom building - and that one of our Articles of Faith says we believe part of the plan is to make the earth a paradise.

I believe in seeing where the LDS Church has legitimate, important similarities with other religions, and I have no problem admitting and celebrating those similarities, but I think one area where we have become too much like the rest of Christianity is in our current focus on the Celestial Kingdom as somewhere out there and after this. I think we have lost sight to a degree of the idea of creating the City of Enoch here on earth, and I believe that idea is centered on the concept of the god within each one of us and the kingdom of gods we can build into Zion in the here and now.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Through God's Eyes: How Most People Never Get to See Us

 "Tenderness" - Tracy M (Dandelion Mama)

I like to think of “the Book of Life” as a scrapbook, and I can’t wait to see the pictures in it that reflect God’s view of me “how most people (including myself) never get to see (me)”.  If those pictures are anything like the ones in Tracy's post of her own son, my heart will be full indeed. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

In My Heart and In My Mind: The Analogy of the Kite

This post was inspired by two other posts by people I admire greatly.  If you want to read them before reading this post, please do so:

"Reining in the Analyst" - jmb275 (Wheat & Tares) - [I linked to this post last year as one of my weekly highlighted posts.]

"Unrelated (but still really great) Thoughts" - Clean Cut [Clean Cut (with a Coke)]

I first realized I thought differently than most other members of the Church when I was about 7 years old - the first time I read the Book of Mormon and thought:

"Wait.  That doesn't say what people at church think it says."  

(As a simple yet important example, I probably was about 10-12 years old when I first realized that the Lamanites must have joined a large, indigenous, darker-skinned population, much like the Nephites did with the Mulekites - since that was the only thing that made sense to me when I read that the Lamanites still outnumbered the Nephites greatly, even after their combining with the Mulekites - and since it explains the Nephite statements about skin color so well.)

In that way, I have had the "luxury / blessing" of starting very early and naturally to learn that it's OK to be different - and I now have had over 40 years of practice at letting my mind (my analyst) roam free for most of the time I live and reining in my mind (my analyst) at times at church.  I live very comfortably in both worlds at this point - the settlement and the wilderness, so to speak. 

The best description I've ever heard is that of a kite:

My mind flies all over the place, flitting around looking at lots of things and thrilling in the ride - but my heart is grounded firmly by the string that connects me to my community, my family, my church, my "foundation".  Without the kite of my mind, my heart might break - but without the string of my heart, my mind might fly off into the sun and burn. 

In other words, I have "studied" things out in my heart AND my mind - and "reining in the analyst" helps keep the kite of my mind from causing too much tension and breaking free of the string of my heart.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Atonement Is All-Encompassing, Not an Event

I think perhaps the biggest practical theological "failure" among the membership of the Church is that too many members have bought into the idea that the Atonement is an event - or the time period between two events: Gethsemane through Golgotha.

I see the concept much more expansively than that. I see it as the entire core of Mormon theology - the idea that God can take something that is not "like God" (intelligence - whatever that means) and recreate God from it. The Atonement is the Alpha and the Omega - the beginning through the end. It's taking us from a state of not being "at-one" and, through a creative process, making us "at-one". It's "eternal life" - from start to finish. It's the entire purpose of creation and existence.

With that foundation, I accept totally Jesus of Nazareth's role as Savior and Redeemer - again, since I can view it in any way that makes sense to me. The view of "atonement" I described above is too expansive to be contained within one interpretive model; it bursts the bonds of that sort of intellectual constraint, if you will, and can be described by differing people with differing experiences and differing paradigms. The concept itself can be the core of multiple world religions, with just the details differing (including the detail in question here - the identity of the central figure in it all).

The Mormon view of the atonement is a fascinating mixture of Christian terminology and East Asian myticism and ultimate destination. It's not one or two events to which centuries of Christian dogma limited it. I can accept it totally, particularly since it still amazes me sometimes when I get a glimpse of something new now and again.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Establishing Zion - an Uncomfortable Conversation

Today we dealt with the concept of establishing Zion as part of "building the kingdom of God".

We started by reading the entry under "Zion" in the Bible dictionary. We ignored the definitions that were focused strictly on geography (since the other descriptions of Zion can apply to pretty much anywhere the conditions exist) and discussed two specific verses: D&C 97:21 ("this is Zion: THE PURE IN HEART") and Moses 7:18 (the description of the city of Enoch).

D&C 97:21 - I asked them first to define "pure". One of the students who loves science said it is a condition where there are no impurities, e.g. pure water, pure gold, etc. We talked about other words that are used to mean the same kind of thing - clean, uncontaminated, spotless, chaste, innocent, etc. We then talked about what it means to be pure in "heart" - with the heart being the center of feeling and what send blood to the rest of the body, helping circulation keep body parts from deteriorating. We talked about the concept of studying things out in our hearts and minds - thinking about things but also paying attention to how we feel about them. I pointed out that being "pure in heart" is not modified in any way with a statement about how people think; rather, it is focused solely on their feelings and desires - what they want and how they see and act toward people. That was important, since it laid the foundation to talk about the city of Enoch description.

Moses 7:18 - The Lord called them Zion, because:

"they were of one heart and one mind"

We talked about how "one mind" was the second thing listed - that "one heart" comes first. I mentioned that I like associating with people who love me, even if they think differently, more than I like associating with people who think a lot like me but whose hearts are in the wrong place. I also asked them if they would enjoy living in a place where everyone thought exactly alike about everything. They all agreed that such a condition would be extremely boring - and I then pointed out that there was a plan proposed in our pre-mortal life that, in practical terms, would have enforced that sort of uniformity. Given that, we talked about how being "of one mind" can be a good thing - that if our hearts are pure, and our desires are directed by love, then our minds look for ways to help and serve people. Thus, no matter how we think differently about any particular topic, we still can be united in what follows in this verse - meaning this verse is progressive developmentally. The "communal" things follow the "individual" things.

"and dwelt in righteousness"

We defined righteousness. It started with "keeping God's commandments" and ended with "being right with God" - which, in context of this verse, means "doing what God wants to be done".

I then asked what that means - what God wants to be done with regard to establishing Zion. That stumped them for a minute, so I asked them to read the verse again and see if they could answer that question. Of course, the answer is found in the last statement in the verse:

"and there was no poor among them"

I told them that the rest of the lesson was going to be a bit uncomfortable - that this is an area where we tend to rationalize away not dealing with the core of what it means to establish Zion.

I asked them not to answer me (to keep the next questions rhetorical), and I then asked them when the last time was that they helped someone, in some way, who was "poor" in some way. I told them I was asking as broadly and generally as possible, and that "in some way" was important to my question. I gave them a couple of minutes to think about that, in complete silence.

We then read Job 13:4 ("ye are all physicians of no value"), Jeremiah 8:22 ("is there no physician there"), D&C 31:10 ("you shall be a physician unto the church") - and then we talked about Matthew 9:10-12:

And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, "Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?" But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, "They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick."

I asked them what the central issue was in this story. They understood that it was that some people thought Jesus shouldn't have been with "publicans and sinners" - so I asked why that would be. That led to a discussion about the concept of being "unclean" and the Hebrew focus on avoiding uncleanliness. I pointed out that their focus was on what they ate - and people who had communicable diseases - and people who were not "the chosen people" - and anything or anyone that might make them unclean in some way.

I asked them why people would choose to avoid other people, and they came up with avoiding physical danger or some kind of abuse, not wanting other people to think less of them or misunderstand them, worry about improper influences, etc. I told them I understand totally not getting near someone holding a knife and talking wildly or separating from someone who is abusive, but . . .

Jesus tipped that on its head by breaking every possible taboo at once. He not only associated with people who were considered unclean, but he actually ATE with them. He touched what they were touching and put into his body what they had touched. Remember, many meals were of the "breaking bread" variety (and "supping" by dipping that bread into a communal soup pot - even double and triple dipping), not handled with gloves, cut by knives and eaten with individual forks and spoons that are sterilized between each usage.

We then turned to the answer Jesus gave to their question about why he was eating with them:

"They that be whole need not a physician, but the sick."

I asked the students if they could remember an instance when Jesus went to a rich person's house and ate there - or did anything, really, that focused on serving the rich without it being a case where the rich person approached Jesus (like Nicodemus and the rich young man asking what more he could do. They couldn't think of a single instance. I told them that Jesus' entire ministry was focused on people "society" labeled and scorned - who were "poor" / "sick" in some way.

We then talked about the concept of being "in the world but not of the world". I told them that, to phrase it like my daughter's statement that started our lesson, I think we often try so hard not to be OF the world that we avoid being IN the world - and that the ideal isn't to be not of the world but to be both not "worldly" in nature but also live fully in the world. The opposites are the hermit who avoids everyone and the priests and nuns who spend their entire lives surrounded only by those who are the most like them.

I asked the students to think about another rhetorical questions:

Who are the people in your family, school, community, etc. whom you avoid - and why do you avoid them?

In each case, if you were asked why you avoid them, what would your answer be?

If the reason(s) matched anything that would have been a motivation for the Pharisees' question, what can they do to overcome the natural avoidance tendency and learn to "eat with the publicans and sinners" - and, more importantly, get to know them, love them and serve them better?

I ended the lesson by saying again that this is an uncomfortable conversation for most of us, including me, to a degree, because it challenges us to step outside our comfort zones and risk harm in the pursuit of Zion. It requires a level of faith that isn't easy - that we, as insignificant individuals, actually can make a difference and "change the world" (even if it's just our own "sphere of influence") in a significant way. I asked them to think about that throughout the week, especially as they walk around school and see the "outcasts" - the publicans and sinners in the school. I asked them to spend more time with them, to "enrich" them in whatever way they can - financially, emotionally, socially, physically, etc. I told them that if they spend all of their time associating only with "those that be whole" and keep a distance from "the sick" (for whatever reason), they will be modern Pharisees and will not be establishing Zion in any real way.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hitler Might Not End Up in Hell: Why I Believe This Life Alone Does Not Determine Our Eventual End

When it comes to who we believe will be punished for their actions, we make exceptions all the time, gladly, for those whom we understand to be less than fully accountable for those actions – including their acceptance of Jesus and/or Heavenly Father in this life. We generally limit that type of exception to children and the mentally disabled, but I have no idea about any specific limitations Hitler might have had that might have limited his accountability – so, even in that case, I’ll leave the judgment to God.

(Psychopaths are a fascinating discussion when dealing with agency and accountability, since, by clinical definition translated into Mormon-speak, they are understood to be unable to feel the type of remorse that leads to repentance. Were Hitler, Dahmer, Bundy, etc. truly accountable? I certainly want to believe so, but I simply have no idea when it comes right down to it.)

I like the more complicated, multiple-glories concept of Mormonism specifically because it leans toward a break down of the tendency to categorize and judge others – to label them as either Heaven-bound or Hell-bound - to damn them in a real and practical way in our own minds. Sure, we still do it with three degrees of glory and Outer Darkness (and even degrees within the Celestial Kingdom), but the more gradations there are the less likely we are to be positive we understand someone well enough to make that call – or, at least, I hope that is the case.  

If even for no other reason than that, I like the multiple degrees of glory far more than the heaven/hell split. I prefer a simple “many mansions theology”, and I like the idea of etermal progression that ends only when each person has reached his or her ultimate potential (whatever that is individually) – so I tend not to accept the idea that our final reward is determined when we leave this mortal existence. I see at least five stages of development built into our theology already – so, while I don’t believe in multiple mortal probations exactly, I certainly am open to the idea of more stages after mortal death about which we simply don’t have or need information at this time.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

I Don't Know if I Would Have Accepted Jesus if I Had Lived During His Mortal Ministry

If I had lived when Jesus lived, there is an incredibly small chance I would have heard him preach - so there is a huge chance I neither would have rejected nor accepted him.

Looking at the accounts in the Bible, my reaction probably would have depended largely on my socioeconomic status, since his message probably would have appealed to or angered me accordingly.

To make that applicable to our own church situation today, there is a real tension between messages that connect naturally to those in differing economic and social situations. Preaching a message that connects with multiple situations isn't easy - and people generally think it's much easier than it actually is. It's easy to say that "pure truth" should be preached, but even the exact same words are interpreted differently all the time by people who simply hear or read them from different perspectives.

What am I like? What do my words mean? People who know me, even in the same time period and in the same forum, will and do answer differently. If that is true of me, it was even more true about Jesus of Nazareth in his own lifetime. 

So, what's the point? How do I liken this to my own life now?

I need to exclude and dismiss fewer people, even those who believe and/or preach things I naturally wouldn't accept, and include, love and serve more people.  After all, everyone who rejected Jesus, of Nazareth, was convinced they were right to do so - and they all believed they had "good reasons" for what they did.  In one way or another, they judged him to be of naught, as Isaiah said - which means of no importance. 

Jesus spent his ministry serving and preaching to those who were viewed as "of naught".  How many people do we see as "of naught"?  How can we say we would have accepted and followed Jesus if that number for us is higher than zero? 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Just because It Is Good to Laugh, Even at Christmas Time

Calvin and Hobbes Snow Art Gallery

This never gets old.  Enjoy!

(And Happy Anniversary, Babe.   27 years.  Wow.  We're getting old.)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

At the Risk of Sounding Blasphemous, What Was Jesus Really Like?

I'm going to say this carefully, with full understanding of the implications:

If we take out the theological assumptions inherent in the typical acceptance of Jesus, of Nazareth, being "The Savior and Redeemer of the World", I would say he was a faithful, heterodox Jew.  He was a radical, revolutionary itinerant preacher who was "extra-establishment" (meaning outside the establishment) at the core and anti-establishment when dealing with what he saw as abuses of power. I also believe there is a strong possibility that he intentionally played a role in facilitating his death - or, at least, the trial that ultimately led to his death.

Without the theological assumptions I mentioned above, I see Jesus of Nazareth as very similar to Moses - and Mohammed - and Martin Luther - and Joseph Smith - and Gandhi - and any other revolutionary prophet. I think he would be rejected by the vast majority of Christians now, including Mormons (and, probably, me) as the "Savior and Redeemer of the World", if we was re-born tomorrow and lived the same life he did then.

I have no problem defining "sinless" in such a way that I can believe he was sinless; I define "perfect" in such a way ("complete, whole, fully developed") that I believe he was perfect only at the moment he died.

I have no problem accepting him as "The Savior and Redeemer of the World" - but that is because I can interpret those titles in ways that make sense to me.

However, in the end, we really have no objective idea. The faith that animates our belief provides our understanding, since even the Biblical claims cannot be proven objectively. We just don't have anything that we can accept as objective fact upon which to base our beliefs. Every bit of it is a matter of faith - one way or the other.
Having said all that about what I believe, I have a HUGE problem with the image of him portrayed in quotes like, "Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes," and, "He never got vexed when the game went wrong, and he always told the truth."  I've written about that in other posts, so I won't explain further in this one.

Monday, December 16, 2013

What Would Jesus Eat? or, How NOT to Teach about Generous Fast Offerings

In a post to which I linked last year, the author described a speaker who said the following:

At a church meeting a little while back, a priesthood leader was encouraging young couples to pay a generous fast offering. “You may eat really cheap meals or beans and rice or ramen,” he said. “If you make your fast offerings based on the cost of those meals, you will not be paying a generous fast offering. What would you serve the Savior if he came to your house for dinner? Would you give him beans and rice? Or would you buy a good steak and make a nice meal?” Then he encouraged us to make our fast offering calculations based on the cost of the meal fit to serve our Lord.

I cringed when I read, “If you make your fast offerings based on the cost of those meals, you will not be paying a generous fast offering.

Um, I’m not asked to pay fast offerings based on what rich people spend on their meals. I’m asked to give on what I and my family spend on our meals. “Generous” to me means more than the cost of two of OUR meals – which can be significantly lower than the cost of one meal eaten by a gluttonous rich person or one meal served by a professional chef to an honored guest.

That rant aside, what I would serve depends on how much notice I have and how close to payday it is. I can’t imagine Jesus would want my kids to eat less for the rest of the month because I spent more on his food that meal (or that we not attend church the next Sunday because we spent our gas money on his food) – so he would get the best we would prepare normally for any other special occasion.

I am sure he would understand and approve. 

(Honestly, I don’t know what we would feed him, since that decision likely would be by committee – and my wife and daughters would out-vote me in the end, anyway.)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: The Kingdom of God and How We Help Build It on Earth

The subject for this month is "Building the Kingdom of God on Earth", which has a lot of potential. I am excited about this month, especially since I want to incorporate a Christmas and New Year's slant the last two weeks of the month (focused on modeling Jesus' life as an aspect of building the kingdom of God and on New Year's resolutions as a way to learn repentance - both of which I am going to discuss in the context of establishing Zion).

Anyway, the lesson last Sunday was very much a discussion lesson. I started by putting the month's discussion topic on the chalkboard and writing "What?" on one side and "How?" on the other side.

I asked the students to define "the kingdom of God" how they see it. I got the following responses:

Those who follow God

All of God's children

Those who try to keep the commandments

Those who serve others

I was really happy with those answers. I have some wonderful students in my class.

At that point, I asked for any other definitions people might give, and I got the following:

Members of the Church

We then talked about who constitutes each group, and everyone agreed that all of them except the last one include members and non-members alike - especially if we define "God" as broadly as possible to mean "whatever people call God". Given that understanding, I mentioned that we would talk in the next lesson about how we "build up" those who follow God, all of God's children, those who try to keep the commandments, those who serve others and members of the Church - and I initiated the next conversation by sharing what my oldest daughter said after her first endowment session in the temple:

Dad, we work so hard to build up the kingdom of God that we forget to establish Zion.

I repeated that we would focus on building the kingdom through "missionary work" in this lesson and talk more about establishing Zion in the next one.

We talked about the difference between the Gospel and the Church, and the we talked abut how to share the Church effectively - since we will talk more next week about sharing the Gospel in the context of establishing Zion.  I asked how many of them had hunted and/or fished. Most of them had fished, and a few of them had hunted.

I asked how we fish now, as concisely as possible. One of the students said, "Rod, line, hook, worm." We laughed, and since I can't be that concise, I rephrased it as, "We pick a spot where we think fish are, pick bait we think they will want to eat, and throw that bait and hook on a line into the water where we think they are." I asked if there was any other way to fish, and one mentioned fly fishing. I described that style as, essentially, the same thing but using a different method of trying to attract the fish - a more quick-hitting method of putting the bait on the surface instead of deeper into the water to mimic a different kind of bait for different kinds of fish.

We turned to hunting, and the summary was, "Gun." (Teenagers can be hilarious.) We talked about how the only real difference between hunting and fishing as we had discussed was that when you hunt you can see your target and choose whether or not to shoot a particular animal, whereas with fishing you have to real it in to see what it is and whether to keep it or not. Hunting is much more like choosing a particular person to approach.

I then asked how people fished in Biblical times, and we discussed the difference in using nets cast into the water.

We ended the lesson by applying those methods to missionary work - discussing how we can target an area where we think interested people are, choose a topic (bait), throw it into the area and see who asks questions (takes the bait) - or we can focus on a particular person, wait for them to come into our view or seek them out and launch an attack (rifle hunting) - or we can cast a net (by talking with everyone about our lives and seeing who swims into the net).

We talked about how each person will respond to various methods differently and how it is important to try to understand people as well as possible before picking a method for any individual - to not assume one approach method will work for everyone. We talked about what can happen if we use the wrong method on people - for example, how the students would feel if someone else tried to convert them in a way that simply didn't resonate at all with them. We also talked about how people react when they feel "targeted" or "attacked" - how much more effective sharing anything is when the other person knows it's being done out of real love and genuineness.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Power of "I AM" - and "We Are"

I simply love the Lord’s answer to Moses when he asked about when Israel would ask who sent Moses to them. There is great power in the idea of “I AM”. 

It’s interesting to me that I have been called apostate-liberal by some people and ultra-traditional-conservative by others – and everything in between by still others. Those claims have said much more about the perspectives of the people making them than they have about me.  The truth is, my views are all over the spectrum, depending on the exact topic in question – and they have changed in many cases over the years. I’m not trying to be any classification in particular; I’m just trying to be my own “I am” the best way I know how at the moment – with the hope that eternity will last long enough for me eventually to become my own “I AM”.

I know I’ve said this previously, and cited it more than once here and there, but I absolutely love Elder Wirthlin’s analogy in “Concern for the One” of God’s orchestra. Zion won’t exist until all instruments are allowed and desire to play together, creating a complex and beautiful symphony that just isn’t the same without each instrument, harmony and counter-melody.

I’m a bit torn between the individual ideal of being able to color with every imaginable crayon and the same collective ideal (that all of us will use a particular color or two and the whole community will include every color imaginable), since I like aspects of both ideals – so I tend toward a unity of the two (the communal being my immediate objective and the individual coming much, much later as I learn and acquire new abilities and like more things).

In the end, it doesn’t really matter to me if I can play every instrument beautifully or if my own saxophone contributes to a whole, complete, fully developed orchestral performance. If the picture or score created includes my offering, I will be happy – whether it is mine or ours or both.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Garment: At the Risk of Sounding Sacrilegious

I was talking with a woman recently who was told that she was being immodest because she wore something that allowed the garment to be seen.  It wasn't a matter of too little coverage; her blouse was just light and thin enough to see that she was wearing the garment.  She asked me what I thought about the charge of immodesty, and I responded by telling her:

If they aren't supposed to be seen, then there are lots of men sinning by wearing a white shirt to church. 

She laughed and told me that the comment was made by a man who was wearing a typical white shirt - which showed much more clearly than her blouse that he was wearing the garment. 

My comment about white shirts is exactly why I don't take it seriously when someone says they shouldn't be seen. I don't want to walk around showing my "underwear", so I get it - and I respect that standard greatly.  however, we as a community have gone so far past that point as a culture that I just shake my head silently and go with whatever is comfortable to me personally.

Seriously, any man who wears a typical white shirt to work or church with typical garments underneath and then talks about not letting garments be seen hasn't thought very hard about it - or is unconsciously sexist in his application of that standard.  Frankly, that hypocritical sexism bothers me much more than anything else about the story she told me. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Who Advocates for the Outcasts of Our Culture?

“Who advocates for the outcasts of our culture?”

[Angie C wrote a thoughtful post on By Common Consent a couple of years ago that made me stop and consider something in a way that I appreciated.  It was titled, "Who are the Anti-Mormons?" - and it included the question I used as the title of this post.  The following is my comment in that thread:]

This was a great post, Angie – but that line above jumped out at me. Who are the “publicans, sinners, lepers, etc.” within our own Mormon culture, and how are we treating them? Further, how many people, including those whom we have treated as outcasts, who now legitimately can be called “anti-Mormon” would be anti-Mormon if we were treating them as Jesus showed us how and told us to treat the outcasts of society and those who persecute and despitefully use us? (The anti-Mormon comments on newspaper article threads hurt my head sometimes, but the responses by LDS members often hurt my heart.)

At heart, I believe most anti-Mormons are sincere people expressing sincere beliefs that reflect a real concern for the welfare of Mormons’ souls. Many speak from a history of deep pain from when they were part of "us".  I think, in general, they “hate the institution, but love the member” – as well as they know how, which in some cases is badly. I think, however, that the same can be said by others about many LDS members – that they “hate other denominations (generally not other religions), but love the members” – as well as they know how, which in some cases is badly.

Often, given their theology (or their move from Mormonism to atheism, which is common), that’s to be expected of them; given ours, it shouldn’t be expected of us. So, who is under greater condemnation for being “anti-others”? Who is more responsible for eliminating internal “outcasts”? (and by that I don’t mean at all the elimination of core doctrinal standards and an acceptance of everything as fine and dandy, even as I believe the recent explanation of the Priesthood ban and its justifications makes it clear that we, as fallible mortals, often turn theories and "the philosophies of men" into doctrine where it ought not be)

Is it any different for them to reject us as Christians for believing differently than we do than it is for us to reject “our own” as Mormons for the exact same thing? 

I believe it is worth asking the question:

Who are the outcasts of our culture, why are they outcasts, what part did we have in making them outcasts, and who advocates for them?  

After all, charity suffereth long and is kind. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Atonement: Great and Flawed Ancestors - and Me

Some time ago, a speaker in Sacrament Meeting talked about the theology behind the temple ordinances. It was a very good talk, and he started by sharing the story of his 3rd-great uncle - a captain in the Confederate army who was known for the brutality of his attack methods. This ancestor was captured and executed, essentially as a war criminal because of the way he acted in his command.

The speaker then talked about two of his great-grandmothers and what wonderful women they were - that he wished he could have known them personally but how he appreciated the stories he was told by the people who knew them.

His point in sharing the stories was to say that the Mormon concept of the Atonement and the accompanying temple work we do makes it possible for him to believe that his war criminal ancestor has a chance to be redeemed and saved just like his saintly ancestors.

That is a powerful point - and, as someone who is between the two extremes in his talk, I take heart in the idea that there is room in the Atonement not just for those extremes but also for a regular, middle of the road guy like me. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

God Is Not More Important than Wife and Kids

I read recently (and hear fairly often) the statement that our priorities should be:

1) God;
2) Family;
3) Church;
4) Community ("others")

I believe if you separate God from family (and even from "others"), you’ve missed the heart of the Gospel. The account in the Gospels that is used to justify that separation (Mark 10:28-30) is misinterpreted badly – taking something that was said to disciples / apostles called on specific “missions” and extrapolating it to everyone.  That passage says:

28 Then Peter began to say unto him, Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee.
29 And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s,
30 But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.

I believe it is critical to read this passage in context - not reading more into it than is there. 

Peter was married.  We know this, because Jesus healed his mother-in-law.  (Matthew 8:14)  We don't know from the record, but it is likely that he and his wife had children.  It is likely the same was true of the other disciples who traveled with Jesus.  Therefore, it is correct for Peter to say, "Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee." 
However, it is a HUGE stretch - an erroneous assumption, imo - to think that they literally left their wives and children for good - that they "divorced them", per se.  That runs counter to everything else that Jesus taught - and that was taught after his death by those apostles.  It is much more likely that they left them to serve a mission, if we translate it into our modern terminology - and that Jesus was assuring them that if such a decision led to their family divorcing or disowning them they would be compensated richly for their sacrifice. 

Finally, as I've said in others posts, Adam had a choice in the Garden of Eden: Leave God to stay with his wife, or leave his wife to stay with God.  He chose his wife over God, trusting in faith that, by so doing and truly becoming one with her, he would not be leaving God at all.  I believe that is one of the primary messages of the Garden narrative, and I think we devalue our theology when we devalue marriage by placing God above it

My priorities are:

1) My wife and kids;
2) Others.

God is the constant that runs through and binds all of my priorities, not a separate priority in and of itself. 

There’s a lot more I could say about that, but I believe the idea that God is more important than wife and kids is a pernicious misconception that is tied to the Protestant, apostate idea that our highest divine hope is purely individual.  That ought not be taught among us.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Repudiating Racism in Our Mormon Past: An Update with Yesterday's lds.org Statement

Back in April 2009, I wrote a post compiling the most direct, explicit statements from LDS Church leaders about racism and previous justifications for the Priesthood ban.  The Church just published an updated statement in its online Gospel Topics section entitled "Race and the Priesthood", so I edited my previous post to include the latest statement.

I am including two links in this post: the first to the official statement published yesterday afternoon and the second to my updated compilation post.

Please, anyone who reads this post, share both links.  This is information that must reach as many members as possible.

Race and the Priesthood

Repudiating Racist Justifications Once and for All

Friday, December 6, 2013

There Must Needs Be Opposition in ALL Things: We Don't Take That Seriously Enough

I believe the principle that “there must needs be opposition in all things” requires that many things be legitimate choices which do not result automatically in punishment – and I believe it also means there will be individual leaders, at all levels, who will get some things wrong (even some important things). Otherwise, there really isn’t opposition in all things. In general, I don’t think members take that verse literally enough.

Also, I personally look at D&C 1:38 in the following way (copied from a post I wrote back in July 2009 – The Word of God in Modern Times):

“What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice (SINGULAR) of my servants (PLURAL), it is the same.”

I believe this verse says “it is the same” when the servants speak collectively (plurality of individuals over time) as a united body (singularity of message) – not when any one or two or six speak as individuals. That’s worth considering.”

There are relatively few things that “the servants” collectively have said with one united voice over time – and I accept those things as God’s will. I believe I am responsible to try to understand everything else to the best of my ability and act “according to the dictates of my own conscience”.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sustaining and Supporting vs. Following and Obeying: People Are Not Yet Gods

I will not and cannot follow someone down a path that I believe is highly destructive and morally wrong, even if that person is my mortal leader. At some point, that becomes a slippery slope and, with the wrong leader or command, suicidal. In other words, to cite our Article of Faith, in the end I simply must follow the dictates of my own conscience. I believe in following and obeying God, completely and without reservation; I believe in sustaining, supporting and respecting mortal leaders.  People are not yet gods, and my "submission" to both is different in nature, just as they are different in nature. 

Proposition 8 for California members was a perfect example of this, in my opinion. Many members could sustain and support their leaders but refuse to contribute their time and/or money to the campaign, while others sustained and supported their leaders by contributing. Sustaining and supporting does not have to mean walking in lock step to every mortal request as if it was eternal, divine command. 

It's important to me to remember that the heart of Lucifer's plan was, "I will make them do whatever I say, and I will bring all of them back to you - in the exact same condition as they are now, with no growth or progression." It's also important to remember that nothing should be commanded and obeyed solely "by virtue of the Priesthood".  Growth and progression are found in the lessons of both victories and defeats, success and failure - and those have to be my own lessons to be most beneficial to me. I have to "muddle in the middle" to a degree and find my own path, and I can't do that by reflexively following OR not following other people. I have to walk my own path amid the paths of my faith community - and that sometimes includes doing things or not doing things contrary to the desire and/or expressed request of my leaders. I can't treat my leaders as if I want them to enact Lucifer's plan - ceding the responsibility to exercise my agency and conscience - shutting down my mind and heart and asking or allowing them to treat me as a robot. I can't follow anything solely by virtue of the Priesthood or because they are my leaders. 

I have to live with myself and the choices I make (and who I become as a result), so I have to make those choices carefully and intentionally. Lacking strong feelings otherwise, I support my leaders by doing what they ask me to do, and there have been multiple times when my first reaction was negative but I accepted and followed anyway (either because those issues were not critical in my mind or because I came to agree upon further consideration) - but I don't do so when I feel strongly and deeply that I must do differently.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

If We Divorce Our Actions from Our Beliefs, We Are Left with "Dead Works"

"Faith is the substance of things HOPED for, the evidence of things NOT seen." 

In that light, our faith consists of those things for which we hope but for which we have no objective evidence that has been observed.  I have not seen the resurrected Lord, and I have not heard him tell me personally what he taught in the Bible (and, I believe, elsewhere), but I absolutely hope he was right and his words are true.  That is my hope - that he really will accept me and my sincere efforts to do what he has told me to do - that he will "find favor with me". 

At a deeper level, how we act (the things we do or our "works") is the manifestation of that faith - the "evidence" that we really do believe what we can't see but for which we hope.  That's why James said so simply, "Faith without works is dead, being alone." 

If we divorce our actions from our beliefs, we are left with "dead works" - since there is nothing that animates those beliefs and makes them "living" (which, interestingly, means "capable of growth and change").  "Repentance", at the root, means nothing more than "change" - and when we act without an intent to change, we become "dead" (or nothing more than "inanimate" objects). 

Jesus made one very radical alteration in the Jewish culture of his day; he repositioned humanity as supreme and the law as created to change humanity (rather than humanity being created to serve the law).  He made the law all about "repentance" (progressive change that produces growth and literal transformation), instead of an end unto itself. 

That's the true focus of our "works" - a recognition that they are nothing more than our best attempt to create evidence that we really do believe that in which we say we hope.  That in which we hope is the heart of the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ - that we really are "children of God" who can become "heirs of God and joint-heirs of Christ" and, ultimately, "be one, even as we are one" - seeing Him as He is, because "we shall be like Him."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

We Can Learn from People Whom We Naturally Think Can't Teach Us Anything

Throughout my life, I have found the most profound insights often come from people from whom I naturally would not expect to be able to learn anything – and they have come almost always when I am in the right frame of mind to listen carefully to what someone is trying to say and not get so caught up in crafting a response that I forget to listen to everything they say prior to reaching a conclusion about what I assume they are going to say. In other words, these insights come when I am more focused on understanding than arguing or being understood. 

For example, I have had experiences of not liking what someone has said in General Conference and then, when I read the talks afterward, realizing they really didn’t say what I thought while listening to the talks live. In nearly all cases, the disconnect was my focusing so intently on one statement that I failed to hear the surrounding statements or consider context enough to realize that I had misconstrued the original statement and turned it into something other than what had been intended. That same experience has occurred in conversations with fellow members, with talks they give in Sacrament Meeting, with co-workers, with my wife and children, while reading blog posts and comments, etc – and it generally is because I was thinking of a response before they were done talking or before I was done reading.

If it happens with people from whom I want to learn, I know it happens even more frequently with people from whom I am not as inclined naturally to want to learn.

I have learned over the years to try to listen to everyone (their voice, in person, and their words, in a forum like this) with the primary purpose of learning from them rather than arguing with them - and, while I am not yet perfect at it, the result has been amazing to me. I truly have been able to learn from people from whom I didn't expect to learn anything.

Monday, December 2, 2013

We Can Be "Wrong in Our Heads" as Long as We Are "Right in Our Hearts"

I've said multiple times in lots of places that our general inability to accept the truly "liberal" parts of our theology is the single biggest reason for much of the misunderstanding we experience from other Christians - and the idea that people outside of the LDS Church can have a "mighty change of heart" and a "true conversion" is one of those "liberal" aspects of our theology.

It's not hard to understand why other Christians get mad at us when the message they hear is,

"Your beliefs are wrong, and your conversion isn't real."

since we get upset at them when they say the exact same to us

I think we can believe the first part of that statement and still reject the second part - or, as Joseph Smith once said, I don't think anyone should or will be condemned for erring in doctrine. I believe, as our Article of Faith implies, that we will be judged by the intent of our heart and sincere efforts (for Christians) to "exercise faith in God, the Father, and Jesus, the Christ" - not by the specifics of our understanding of theology and doctrine. In other words, I believe we can be "wrong in our heads" as long as we are "right in our hearts" - even as I believe it is important to try, to the best of our ability, to be right in our heads, as well.

"We claim the privilege of worshiping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow ALL men the same privilege, let them worship how, where or what they may."

I believe we will be judged primarily by how truly we worship according to the dictates of our own conscience - and that God probably sighs in exasperation over our collective inability to be more charitable toward those who worship / believe differently than we do, especially since all of us "see through our glass, darkly".

Friday, November 29, 2013

Eternal Life / The Atonement: The Caterpillar and the Butterfly

In my last post, I talked about why most Christians reject the power of the Atonement.  In this post, I want to give an example of why it is so easy for good, believing, sincere Christians to do so - by focusing on what "faith" means on a practical level.  

Consider caterpillars and butterflies: 

It would take no faith whatsoever for a caterpillar to be changed into a butterfly. It's simply a natural process.

However, if no caterpillar ever had seen another caterpillar "die" and "rise again" as a butterfly (recognizing it for what it was), it would take GREAT faith for that caterpillar to believe she literally, actually could become a butterfly. A butterfly could say to her:

"I used to look like you. I lived as one of you. Look at me now. You can become like me and live as I live - and all you have to do is what I tell you must be done to live long enough to experience the metamorphosis" - 

and it would take "abiding" faith (faith that lasts despite and through "things not seen") to believe the butterfly.

The words of Jesus during his ministry constituted, at the most basic level, his promise of what could be - while his words after his resurrection and the words of his early disciples and apostles constituted their testimony of what had been for Jesus and may be for us. Their admonitions and pronouncements about what we have to do constitute the directions of our own "eternal manual" (what will produce the promised metamorphosis) - and they boil down to one simple (but not easy) statement:

"Have hope in the "substance" of what I've taught, and use my life and teachings as the "evidence" of the things that can't be seen."

In other words:

"Have abiding faith that I can make the impossible come true - and trust me enough to do what I tell you must be done, even though you are naturally inclined to believe it can't have any merit or effect."

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Meetings Can Be Bad, Mediocre, Good, Better or Best: Prioritization Is Important

I have a friend who is serving in a Bishopric.  We were talking about how easy it is to let meetings multiply to the extent that they become overwhelming - and about how both of us have heard some people say we ought to eliminate Sunday School and use the extra hour to do service or hold the "extra" meetings we tend to schedule.  He said the following, and I want to comment on it here:

The rule for me is sometimes to do what it takes to maintain sanity and a healthy family, even if it means having to skip meetings. There are other meetings that bishopric members are supposed to attend that don't add much value in my opinion or that are more of nice to do if possible.

I agree totally.

I don't believe in attending every single meeting possible just because the meetings have been scheduled, and I and my family have skipped lots of meetings and gatherings that others consider to be important or even mandatory over the years. I believe in being active in the Church, but I also believe in prioritizing meetings and eliminating, consolidating or shortening so many others. When it comes to meetings, I believe in good, better, best - and we ought to eliminate some meetings that are good (and, in too many cases, not even good) for things that are better and best.

In terms of our meetings, I think Sunday School actually can be a better thing, at least, and even a best thing, in some wards. I know I don't want the teenagers in my ward to miss the Sunday School class I teach, and I don't want our leadership to miss the Gospel Doctrine class being taught by a wonderful teacher. I understand that experiences in different wards and branches vary in quality and impact, so I understand it's much easier for me to say that in a ward in which Sunday School instruction generally is excellent, but that's an issue that needs to be considered before anyone talks of eliminating Sunday School. Seriously, eliminating Sunday School for many members would eliminate the only chance they have to "study the Gospel with the Saints" - and that opportunity to learn from each other is important to me, especially when it comes to new converts and the youth.

I hear some people complain that the Church doesn't do enough to teach everything it could possibly teach about the scriptures and its own history and that it needs to do a better job of teaching these things to the youth, but eliminating Sunday School literally would reduce the available time significantly to do that. For new converts and youth who are the only members in the families and have no support at home, that's a very significant change - and not a good one.

I understand that callings can get in the way of life in negative ways, but eliminating the only meeting in the Church that is designed as a communal study opportunity isn't the way I would approach the issue. I would eliminate so many others things, instead - and, ironically, Elder Packer, of all people, has said the same thing numerous times over the years. (and he's not the only one)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Most Christians Reject the Power of the Atonement because They Lack Real Faith

The following are questions about faith I was asked once - and the answers I gave: 

"So what I was asking is this: If the first gift of the atonement is eternal life, and it is given to all, do I need faith in Christ for it?"

The first gift of the atonement isn't "eternal life". It's salvation from physical death (an actual, real, physical resurrection of some sort) - or, as we term it, immortality. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15, "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." (It's indisputable, imo, that the resurrection was seen by the early saints as literally physical, especially given the description of Jesus' appearance in Luke 24.)

"If I must qualify for eternal life, why do I need faith in Christ for that?"

I believe the numerous admonitions of Jesus himself and of his early apostles saying that there is more to everlasting life than mere immortality is THE central theme in the Bible. We could be vegetative and still be immortal. What the Bible teaches is that we not only will be resurrected (be physically immortal), but that we also may become "eternal" ("at one" with God). This principle is what constitutes the "New" Testament - by which the "Old" Covenant of collective servant-hood was replaced by the "New" Covenant of personal "heir-ship". The verses and passages that teach this change are almost innumerable in the New Testament, so I won't quote them in this post - but they just are brutally difficult for most people to accept.

The idea of true "at-one-ment" is counter-intuitive to most mortals, since we know we naturally are separated from God by a bridge we simply are unable to cross on our own. Because it is so blatantly counter-intuitive, it takes REAL, DEEP, ABIDING faith in the teacher of it (Jesus) and those who taught it after his death (Peter, James, John, Paul and others) to accept it.

Thus, it takes no faith to receive the free gift of immortality - unless one counts the pre-mortal decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior (and I do count that decision), but it takes "abiding" faith to believe the unbelievable.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ultimately, People Are More Alike than Different

For the past few years, my mother has been sending her kids lots of written stuff she has accumulated over the years. She recently sent the following poem, and I thought I would share it with here. I preserved the ALL CAPS, because I just don't have the energy to fix it. 










Monday, November 25, 2013

The Parable of the Oasis: Faith, Works, Grace, Love, Atonement, etc. Are Not Distinctly Separate Principles

The Parable of the Oasis

There was once a man dying of thirst in the desert. He had sought for water but had not found any. Just as he was about to give up, lie down and perish, someone found him.

“See here,” said his discoverer. “On the other side of this hill is an oasis, where you may revive and refresh yourself!”

“I fear I am too weak,” replied the man. “I have been out in the desert too long. I no longer have enough strength to climb the hill, even to save my life.”

“Then lean on me,” said the other, “and I will bring you over the hill to the fountains of water on the other side.”

Then man pulled himself to his feet, and leaning upon his guide, struggled over the hill to the oasis on the other side. There, he revived himself from the springs of clear water, and his life was saved.

What saved the man?


The words of his benefactor?

Following the counsel to cross to the other side of the hill?

His own effort in struggling to his feet and persevering in crossing the hill?

His continued reliance on the strength of his guide, moment by moment, leaning on him as they crossed the hill?

Or was it actually drinking the water?


Or was it all of the above, rolled into one great, eternal whole?  

We are inclined to separate principles into small pieces, dissecting things that should not be ripped into pieces.  "Grace" / "Atonement" is such a transcendent concept that fracturing it in order to analyze it and describe its component pieces literally can do great damage to the perfection (wholeness, completion, full development) it is.

I believe that if we collectively could grasp that grand principle, so much of that with which we struggle so mightily would fade into oblivion - and (wo)men really would be that they might have joy.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Comprehensive Self-Reliance and Creating Zion

The focus for next week is going to be self-reliance in the context of thanksgiving, so the lesson last Sunday was more of a lecture format than I usually do. There was some participation, but I talked more than normal today. Therefore, this post is going to be more of a summary than a detailed description.

1) Scriptural Interpretation Methods

Parables are understood to be representative stories that didn't actually happen but teach a moral or a lesson. We have been told Jesus taught parables (they are labeled as parables for us), so we read them as such. Many stories, however, aren't labeled for us, so we often read them as being literal accounts of actual events.

There are multiple ways stories can be read, including as being: literal, allegorical, symbolic, mythological, etc.

We talked about what can be taken from the following scriptural stories using each method above: Noah's flood, the Garden of Eden and Job. We then talked about various views of the Atonement: Penal Substitution, Representative Suffering, Symbolic Ordinance (the traditional scapegoat), etc.

2) Spiritual Languages

God speaks to us "in our own language, according to our own understanding". Moroni's promise says ONLY that God will make truth known to us, particularly about extending mercy to His children. Oliver Cowdery's experience isn't applicable universally. I am a good example of that, since most of my "answers" haven't come in that way. So, missionaries should stop using Oliver Cowdery as the end-all-be-all, one-size-fits-all answer method.

We all need to discover our own native "spiritual language" and allow others to do the same.

3) Physical, Emotional, Financial and Educational Self-Reliance

We talked about each aspect and the need to do the best we can, specifically in order to be able to give the help others need - and to be able to accept that help from others - in an atmosphere that fosters Zion.

I ended the lesson with a direct, blunt discussion of making sure each spouse in a marriage has enough education to be able to support self and family, even if they want to have a traditional marriage where "one parent" works outside the home and "one parent" doesn't have a paying job. I mentioned that over half of the married women in the Church work outside the home now, for many reasons. I told the boys not to insist that their wives leave school without adequate education, and I told the girls not to let their husbands insist that they leave school without adequate education. There simply are too many situations that happen to too many people now to assume they won't need a personal, adequate education to support themselves and their families at some point.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What Is Scripture? FAR More than We Tend to Think

I think the definition of scripture in the LDS Church’s Bible Dictionary is instructive. I’m going to quote it below almost in its entirety, with the parenthetical additions and emphases being mine:

“The word scripture means [nothing more than] a writing, and is used to denote a writing recognized by the Church as sacred and inspired.”

(That last statement points more toward “canonized / official scripture”, imo – since it puts limits on the “pure” meaning.)

“It is so applied to the books of the O.T. by the writers of the N.T. (Matt. 22:29; John 5:39; 2 Tim. 3:15)..."

(It’s important to remember that there are LOTS of books referenced in the NT that we don’t have in our OT – meaning there were LOTS of things that the NT authors [and, presumably, Jesus] accepted as scripture but are not available to us currently.)

“Latter-day revelation identifies scripture as that which is spoken under the influence of the Holy Ghost (D&C 68:1–4).”

(That final addition throws the doors wide open for things like “a letter, note, epistle, book, etc.” — basically religions writings [ranging]  from religious romance novels to essays to the five books of Moses to popular music and poetry" [So ... what is scripture] – and I am glad it’s in the Bible Dictionary. I believe it’s determining individually exactly what falls into that final category, both within and without our “canonized scriptures” that is the issue – since even Joseph Smith excluded some of the “canonized scripture” from “actual scripture” (the entire Song of Solomon and everything he changed in his translation), as did Martin Luther (The Epistle of James), for no other reason than they didn’t feel the contents were recorded “under the influence of the Holy Ghost”.)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

God Is More Patient than We Tend to Believe

I think that God is much more patient than we tend to think - and He has time and all eternity to be patient with us.

Sometimes, the simple things are the most profound. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How Much Control Do I Really Have Over My Actions? I Don't Know, but I Have Faith in God.

I have no idea how much free will I have as I make the decisions of my life – but it’s good to believe I have some degree of power to choose. It’s also good to believe it’s not all in my control, especially as I keep struggling to change what appears to be unchangeable in my nature – and it helps keep me from condemning others who also struggle to change (or appear to not be trying at all).

I have no idea why God very clearly and obviously spoke clear revelation through me on at least three occasions – but in the other hundreds of times when He could have done so He didn’t. It’s good to believe he will do so when it’s really important and not do so when I just need to do my best and learn from the chips falling where they may.

I have no idea why some of the decisions I just knew were inspired turned out so badly at the time – or why some of those ended up being really good decisions in longer hindsight, while others still look like bad decisions now. It’s good to believe he will stop me from making really bad decisions that will hurt other people badly while letting me make bad decisions that will hurt me but from which I can grow.

I have no idea why some people have been healed or protected in truly miraculous ways, while others have been left to suffer tremendously without protection or relief. It’s good to believe He loves us in those situations, but it’s bad to think He doesn’t love others in their situations.

I have no idea why the distinction obviously is NOT objective level of righteousness. Of everything else I’ve written in this comment, that is the only area about which I am certain. Sincere effort to be righteous can result in misery and pain, while wickedness actually can be happiness – at least in all objective measurements dealing only with mortality.

All of this could lead me to question God’s existence and/or love, but I know from personal experience there is something / someone out there that knows me personally and really cares – and that’s enough to keep faith that, despite my lack of understanding of issues like this, there is an answer that will make sense eventually.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Truth Is Reason" - We All Rationalize Some Things in the Eyes of Others

To "rationalize" means to make something "rational" - and, at the most practical level, "rational" means nothing more than "understandable (and acceptable) to the mind". What is completely rational to one person can be completely irrational to someone else - like those who call something "mental gymnastics" that is totally understandable and acceptable to the mind of person who believes it.

We all rationalize, generally to the same extent. We just reach different conclusions than others do - and, because we can't understand and accept others' decisions, we label others' decisions negatively as "rationalizations" while not doing so to our own. (Those who are more intellectual in nature tend to love the word "rational" but not the word "rationalize" - which is deliciously ironic to me.) We also tend to make this criticism about conclusions that are the most removed from our own - which is why prophets / visionaries / charismatics / etc. tend to be loved or hated, accepted or rejected, praised or reviled and have very few indifferent reactions. They usually inspire intense admiration or just as intense revulsion - and that is both good and bad.

I personally am wherever I am on each and every issue and topic, which has caused some people to complain that I am wishy-washy or too hard to characterize. They want me to be consistently on the same side of a line on everything, and I simply am not that way. I attempt to find a view that is rational to me in each and every case - which means I am conservative, moderate and liberal depending on the specific issue. If there is a consistent standard I try to recognize, it is the line between charity and judgmentalism - but even that isn't always a bright line, since, ultimately, it is based on my own reasoning and rationalization. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Mentality Shift at Church: Female Leaders Should Not Have to Interrupt Male Leaders

In the November 2010 CHI worldwide training, Pres. Julie Beck interrupted Elder Holland and Elder Bednar at one point to make a particular point – and neither of them batted an eye or seemed surprised in any way. It appeared that they were used to being interrupted by her – or, to be more precise, it appeared that they were used to a free flowing conversation in which she was not seen as “interrupting” them.  That is an important distinction, and it is badly misunderstood by many, in my experience. 

Generally speaking, I believe the global male leadership listens to and values their female counterparts MUCH more than too many local male leaders do (and that they truly see each other as "counterparts") – and I also believe the male global leadership sees the female global AND local leadership as truly “in charge” within their callings more than too many of the local male leaders do.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Spiritual Self-Reliance: Understanding Scriptural Stories

For the last three weeks, we have been looking really closely at passages that talk about becoming like Jesus: the Beatitudes and Paul's treatise on charity in 1 Corinthians 13. Last Sunday, we talked about another way to study the scriptures to become more self-reliant - stepping back and reading to understand the stories being told, rather than proof texting verse-by-verse and word-by-word.

I started by telling the students that it's important not just to understand doctrine deeply and consider new ways to gain meaning from verses and statements in the scriptures but also to be open to new lessons that can touch them as they keep an open mind and not assume they understand the stories in our scriptures, just because they have read them and been told what they mean. I also explained how important it is to understand the themes, settings, the people involved, their back stories and personalities, the interpersonal dynamics, etc. In other words, I told them that there is a lot that can be gained by reading scriptures the same way they would read an assigned book in an English Lit class.

To show them what I meant, we looked at four stories in the scriptures: one from the Book of Mormon and three from the New Testament:

1) 1 Nephi 15 tells about Nephi returning from the mountain where he received his own vision of his father's vision. I asked everyone how Lehi and Nephi had received their understanding of the Tree of Life and people's actions with regard to it, and one of the students said Lehi had a "dream-vision". (I was happy to hear it worded that way, since that is a good description of how Lehi explained it.) Nephi reported having a "vision" - but everyone agreed that we don't know exactly what that meant and that it might have been the same type of "dream-vision" Lehi described. We then read verses 1-10 and talked about what they appear to say about the family dynamics that can help us understand the story better.

Verses 1-3 say that Nephi saw his brothers arguing about what Lehi had told them and that Nephi's immediate reaction was to mention that they were hard-hearted and wouldn't ask God for themselves. I pointed out that we always zero in on Laman and Lemuel, but that Sam was a brother, too, and there is nothing that says he wasn't arguing about it just like Laman and Lemuel. I also pointed out that Sam hadn't immediately accepted Lehi's first vision - that he only accepted it after Nephi did. It was only after Nephi's immediate judgment of his brothers that he actually talked with them, which means his interaction was colored by how he already viewed them.

Verse 5 says, "I was overcome because of my afflictions, for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all." I raised my eyebrows a bit, grinned and said, "Really?! Great above all?! Daddy's favorite son had it worse than anyone else - by implication in the history of the world?! Over-dramatic a bit?!" They got the point. I told them that I love Nephi, especially since we have 2 Nephi 4 (Nephi's Psalm), but that he comes across as a spoiled youngest child in some places in the account.

In verse 7, they tell Nephi that they don't understand what Lehi taught, and Nephi's immediate reaction in verse 8 ("Have ye inquired of the Lord?") shows that he was being influenced by his pre-existing view of them.

Verse 9 is their response: "We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us." I mentioned the reference in Sacrament Meeting by the returned missionary who spoke about the 9-year-old girl he taught who had an incredible vision before finding and approaching them [and it really was an amazing experience], and I told them that I was nearly 50 years old and had never had an experience like that - that I have never had that type of "dream-vision". I told them that if someone asked me if I had prayed for a similar dream-vision, my response might be translated accurately as, "I have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto me."

In verse 10, Nephi rips into his brothers, harshly, and tells them that they don't get dream-visions because they are wicked.

I then recapped the inner-family dynamics of a younger, favored brother giving away all their possessions and then killing a community leader to get a history book, as well as preaching at them constantly. I asked one of the young men in the class how he would feel if his younger brother (who also is in the class) acted that way to him - and he smiled and nodded, showing he understood. I asked them how things might have been different if Nephi's immediate response (then and in previous situations) would have been, "I understand. Let's sit down and talk about it" - delivered with a loving smile. He explained it to them, but only after ripping into them first.

At that point, one of the students said, "You mean the Book of Mormon is a record of a dysfunctional family?" - and I grinned, nodded and told him I hadn't ever phrased it exactly like that but that I would say that - and that I can't see how anyone could read the record and not describe the family as highly-dysfunctional.

2) We then talked about Judas Iscariot. I told them that I was going to share an alternative reading of his story I heard in a Divinity School class years ago that stuck with me - not as something they have to believe as accurate, but simply as an example of how the same stories can be read and understood differently.

I asked them how we view Judas, and they all agreed that he is seen as the ultimate traitor - so much so that Christians have called traitors "Judases" ever since then. I asked them what Judas did in Jesus' group - what his main responsibility was. Some of them knew he was the treasurer - that he managed the money. We talked about why Jesus would need a treasurer, and they hadn't thought about that in-depth. I described what it takes for an itinerant preacher to travel with an entourage and explained that it could happen only if someone provided the money necessary for their needs. James and John were successful fishermen, and there were other professionals who probably had available resources. Perhaps Lazarus, as a dear friend, helped. We don't know, but they obviously needed someone to take care of the money and keep the books - or even solicit donations from followers, which was and still is common. (It's the same reason we need financial clerks in the Church today.)

We talked about how Jesus seems to have "forced the issue" the final week of his life: riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in a way that appeared to mock how the Roman leaders traveled, clearing the temple, etc. I then explained that some people believe Jesus wasn't accusing anyone during the Last Supper of being a traitor, but rather was telling them that one of them would have to betray him to cause his arrest. That could have been because he knew he was innocent and the trial would be a chance to enlarge his exposure in Jerusalem, or it could have been because his death had been prophesied to occur during the Passover, so he had to make it happen more quickly than the Jewish and Roman leadership would have moved on their own. Thus, perhaps Judas wasn't a traitor; perhaps, being known as the treasurer, he was the one to whom the Jewish leadership would be most inclined to listen - and to provide a payment that Judas thought would add to their cause once Jesus was released.

The detail that leads some people to believe this interpretation is Judas' reaction when he realized that Jesus was going to be killed. He didn't run off with the money, as a hard-hearted traitor generally would; rather, he killed himself. Some people see that as a guilty conscience, but others see it as a heart-broken realization that what he thought would happen (an arrest, trial and release) wasn't going to happen - that his role had led to his leader (master, Lord, etc.) being killed.

3) The next situation we discussed was Peter denying Jesus on the night of his arrest. I mentioned Elder Holland's discussion in General Conference a few years ago of this different view and then talked about it in detail. Like the story of Judas, we discussed how it would change the generally accepted interpretation if Jesus wasn't accusing Peter of future denial but rather insisting that he exercise the self-control to stay alive and not get caught up in the arrest and subsequent crucifixion.

I "acted out" the anguish he might have felt as he progressively fought back his desire to defend Jesus each time he was asked (and had to curse the final time to get through it), and how that would have caused him to "weep bitterly" (with pain and relief) when the rooster crowed and he realized it was over - that he wouldn't have to deny Jesus again.

If Jesus' original statement wasn't a sad, "You are going to be so weak that you deny me three times tonight," but rather a pleading, "You have to fight your natural inclination to fight to protect me, since you can't be taken, also," it changes the situation dramatically - and is much more in line with Peter's impetuous, brave, impulsive, passionate nature than the coward he usually is portrayed to be in this story.

4) We ended with Peter walking on the water, and I simply pointed out that it is illogical to criticize Peter for lacking faith in that situation. I said, "Dude jumped out of a boat and started walking on water!" That got some chuckles, but they got the point. I then used the story to illustrate that Peter was walking toward Jesus, but he kept reaching out even as he realized his situation and started to sink. I talked about how that story is one of the best summaries of the entire Plan of Salvation I have ever read - and I would rather read it that way than in order to criticize Peter.

I finished the lesson by sharing the story of my parents' mission and how, sometimes, God really can make it possible to do the impossible. For a description of that mission, read the following post: "Exercising Faith and Seeing the Hand of God".

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Special, Personal Request to My Online Friends

My wife's family has created an online donation site for people who want to help them get her parents back from the Dominican Republic, where they were serving their fourth mission (his fifth) when he had a severe stroke. Given his condition, it will cost about $48,000 to arrange a special flight to get them back home.
My father-in-law is a temple sealer.  He served his first mission as a young man in France, and, after his retirement from the BYU Continuing Education Department, he and my mother-in-law served together in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Chicago - before returning to the Dominican Republic for their current mission. 

If anyone is able to help Michelle's family raise the money they need for her parents to return home (and/or share this request with others), any amount would be appreciated.
If the flight costs end up being covered somehow or donations exceed the target amount any extra donations will be used to provide care costs once Dad returns home. 
 The site is:
Bring Ron Malan Home