Monday, April 29, 2013

Heaven Is Not a Place or Destination

One of the things about the concept of eternity in Mormonism that is radically different than any other Christian theology - and is one of my favorite aspects, frankly - is the idea that "there must needs be opposition in ALL things".

I know that can be discouraging to some people who just want to rest from all their cares and troubles, but I just can't accept eternal laziness with no opposition or personal growth and effort. (the sitting around on a cloud forever playing a harp and telling GOD how wonderful he is - pardon the snark, but I just don't like that image) To me, that would be Hell. Thus, I believe we become "heavenly" by being able to create "an internal heaven" no matter our external circumstances. Iow, we become Celestial Beings - to put it into more traditional Mormon verbiage. Ioow (in other, other words - *grin*), "heaven" is not a place or destination; it's a condition - just like "God" is not a person or Being; it's a condition.

Please, nobody take that as a beating stick to add guilt if you aren't heavenly inside. I don't mean that at all. I just believe it can be an empowering goal and process - as long as it's understood upfront that not being there is FINE. Again, it's the effort and the journey, not the current situation.

It's much like the Elizabeth Edwards quote I posted recently, which I would recommend reading if you haven't already.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: Apostasy, Restoration and the Atonement

Last Sunday, we talked about the general meanings of the words "apostasy" and "restoration", then we talked about how the concepts of apostasy and restoration fit into the concept of atonement. We didn't talk about specific instances of organizational / societal apostasy, and we didn't talk about "The Restoration"; instead, we talked only about the concepts and what they mean at the big picture level.

One of the students started by defining both terms. He started by asking everyone how they define the terms. The answers were really good for that age group, including the example of restoring furniture and antiques by returning them to their original condition. The student then gave the definitions he had found, which included both "abandonment" and "digression / deviation".

I wrote the following on the board:

Apostasy ---> Restoration ---> Atonement
abandonment, digression/deviation ---> re-establishment, return ---> bringing together, fixing

I drew a crude outline of the classic Plan of Salvation picture - the one with circles for the Pre-Mortal Life, Earth and the Three Degrees of Glory and lines connecting them. I asked them when apostasy officially began relative to our lives. Earth was mentioned initially, but we focused on the War in Heaven and the fact that apostasy didn't occur when Lucifer proposed a different plan. Rather, it occurred when he insisted on that plan once Heavenly Father had said, "No, this is what we will do." I talked about a Ward Council and how there is no hint of apostasy when people in a council disagree about solutions to any problem, and not even when people don't agree with the decision of the council, but only if someone then takes a different path and tries to implement it instead of the decision of the council. Thus, apostasy happened only after Lucifer rebelled and recruited people away from Heavenly Father and to himself. (I also told them that I like the interpretation of ancient numerology that believes 1/3 means "an unspecified minority" and 2/3 means "an unspecified majority" - since, in terms of the War in Heaven, that interpretation means we can say that some spirits followed Lucifer, but most followed Heavenly Father and Jehovah.)

We then turned to mortality, and I asked when apostasy started here on earth. The consensus was The Fall, so we talked again about how apostasy started there only when Adam and Eve chose to follow Lucifer's plan instead of what God had commanded them - not when they first questioned the commands. I also told them that I personally view the story of the Garden of Eden as a figurative retelling of the War in Heaven and our need to be in mortality where Lucifer was cast, but I emphasized that I don't really know for sure.

We then talked about when apostasy first begins for us as individuals. In the sense of "digression/deviation" that is when we are born - since birth separates us from God and makes us subject to heredity and all the crap with which we deal in this life; in the sense of "abandonment" that happens when we sin, by choosing to do things we know we should do. One is not our fault, since we simply were accepting God's plan for us; the other is our fault, since it involves choices we make that are in opposition to our consciences. Thus, the effects of one (transgressions due to birth) are covered automatically by the Atonement (2nd Article of Faith), while the other (sin due to choice) is covered conditionally upon our effort to repent (change).

We then turned to the concept of Atonement and how it fits more fully into the eternal progression picture.

I asked them which plan (Lucifer's or Heavenly Father's) was the best plan IF, and only if, the ultimate purpose was simply to bring God's children back to him - to "restore" them merely to their former condition. It took a little thought, but they all saw that Lucifer's plan was perfect for that purpose. I then stressed that what I was about to say should not be how they explain this to other Christians, without substantial background and prior discussion, since it can sound much harsher than I mean it to be, but the picture of being spirits in the presence of God praising him forever with no true growth or progression is Lucifer's plan - precisely. That is exactly what he proposed - and it was pointless, since that same condition is exactly what we possessed prior to birth. That plan makes ALL of the pain and suffering and trials we experience in mortality pointless, and it makes God a sadist who allows us to suffer terribly for no reason other than to make us praise him for saving us from what he demanded we do - which is why Lucifer's plan essentially would have eliminated all of our mistakes in the first place.

In Lucifer's plan, there would have been no need for restoration, since there would have been no apostasy. Thus, no need for atonement of any kind, if atonement meant merely returning to live with God - if it meant nothing more than "restoration of condition", like the example of the furniture being restored to its former beauty. To have any meaning, restoration and atonement need to go beyond that and include some other kind of condition - which I labeled as "restoration of potential".

I mentioned that the promise we were given in the Pre-Mortal existence was the potential to become like God, not just to live with him. Apostasy (both the transgressive aspect as a result of the Fall and the sinful aspect as a result of our choices) thwarts that potential; Jesus paid for that apostasy through his life, in the Garden and on the Cross; he restored us to our former condition of purity and empowered us, as a result, to claim our promised potential. He took care of the restoration of condition completely on his own, as a gift freely given; we tackle restoration of potential through taking his yoke upon us, taking up his cross, etc. and trying to become Christ-like / godly (all aspects of full repentance). He freed us from the debilitating guilt of our human-ness to pursue our potential for godliness - and we deny the Atonement and accept Lucifer's plan, in a very real way, when we reject that godly potential - in ourselves and in others.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Why Do We Have So Much Scripturally about Heavenly Father and So Little about Heavenly Mother?

For what it's worth, I think we talk of Heavenly Father so much more than Heavenly Mother because our scriptures were written by men. Period. Full stop.  If we had more scriptures written by women in matriarchal societies . . .

I really like the concept of Heavenly Mother, at the very least just to state explicitly that women can become like God just as well as men. There's so much cultural and historical crap wrapped up in seeing God as exclusively male that I'm glad Mormonism makes the claim that such a construct is wrong - even if we have next no nothing in our actual scriptural canon to talk about her in anything more than broad, generic terms.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wise Words from a Woman Acquainted with Sorrow

Elizabeth Edwards died of cancer on December 7th, 2010. She said the following a few days before she died - when it was announced publicly that she only had weeks or days left:

"The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful."  

What a profound statement.  I hope I can say when my time has come that others can say of me that I learned and followed these words in my own life.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Path Not to God's Love but to Know You Are Loved

From "Love, love, love and love" - Gwen (Back and then)

"The atonement is the path, but what it leads to is not God’s love - because His love is everywhere; it is there for us no matter who we are. It is a path for us to know we are loved.

It is like being in a dark room with no door or window or light of any kind and we get lost and start crying for food and water when it is actually in abundance everywhere. The atonement is not the food or the water; it is someone turning on the light."

Monday, April 22, 2013

Service as Sanctified Sacrifice

A friend once told me he found he wasn't serving others as much as he would like, and he asked what advice I had for him.  The following was my response:

Find people who need help badly that you haven't served in the past - and give them the help they really need, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel at first.

Go to a nursing home and sit with someone who has no family to visit her.

Go to a hospital and hold someone who is dying of AIDS.

Go to a school and read to little children.

Go to a homeless shelter for families and give them small gifts outside of the Christmas season.

Go to a battered women's shelter and help teach them job skills so they can survive on their own - or just hold a baby so a mother can get away for a few minutes.

Exactly what you do is up to you, but find someone who normally would qualify as a publican, sinner, leper or Samaritan in your eyes and serve them until you see them differently.

Choose whom and how you serve, but absolutely serve - and do it at a time and in a manner that is a real sacrifice, including giving up something else you would like to be doing.

Friday, April 19, 2013

My Emotional / Spiritual Testimony vs. My Intellectual Testimony: The Analogy of the Kite

My emotional / spiritual testimony is radically different than my intellectual testimony.

I have had a few incredibly powerful spiritual experiences that weren't just emotional, but I also have deep emotional attachments to the LDS community and people I love dearly. That combination keeps me firmly grounded within the community as a faithful, believing member.

My intellectual detachment, if you will, allows me not to sweat the details (what I personally see as the small stuff). I absolutely love the "grand cosmology" of Mormonism - the vision of eternity that is so unlike anything else within Christianity. I also realize that many of the things I see differently are only visible to me because of the foundation that I receive from Mormonism's theology. In other words, my testimony includes gratitude that I have an orthodox background in my life that is available to me and allows my personal heterodoxy to be as powerful for me as it is. I don't begrudge others the fact that they don't see what I see, since they see what is beautiful to them - and since, in a very real way, I only am able to see what I see because of them. I also realize that I might be wrong about lots of things.

I don't know if that makes sense to anyone else, but it's fundamental for me.

I liken my emotional and spiritual testimony to the kite string that keep my intellectual kite connected to a safe harbor, if you will. My intellectual kite can fly all over the sky trying to "figure it all out", but it's not going to get separated from the string and be burned by the sun or frozen in the atmosphere before it gets to the sun.

There are a lot of things I feel comfortable saying I know - and lots of things I believe - and lots of things I really do want to believe - and a lot of things I hope. I like being part of a religion where that is said to be ok in the actual scriptural canon - and, most recently, by President Uchtdorf in General Conference.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I Am Responsible to Build My Own Own Heaven on Earth

Our own individual lives - and our family lives - and our church lives - and our community lives - and all other aspects of our lives can be "heavenly" (or "heaven on earth") if we feel free and comfortable within each of those spheres. By "free" I don't mean sharing anything at any time, but rather able to choose freely what to do and say and be; by "comfortable" I don't mean totally at ease, but rather happy generally with one's self and one's life within the circumstances of life as they are.

In my own case, my life is heavenly in most ways. I am comfortable and feel free within my own individual life; I am comfortable and feel free within my family; I am comfortable and feel free within my church life; etc. Of course, there are things that would change in what I perceive to be the ideal, but I am comfortable and feel free from micro-managing to a large degree. 

My work life has been different at different times. It has been a much more micro-managing and more restrictive (less freeing and empowering) environment in some cases; thus, it has been less "heavenly" and more difficult. I worked on that, however - which leads to . . . 

My final point is that there are elements of micro-managing in my family and church lives. I simply have chosen to accept their existence as part of being able to be part of a family (marriage) I adore and a church in which I believe and fellow members with whom I want to be associated. I have eliminated much of the micro-management that many find in the Church simply by choosing to ignore it without making huge waves - just going about my business in the way that makes the most sense to me without challenging others about it. If someone wants me, they get me.

In other words, I have created my own heaven by building it myself. 

Once I stopped trying to rely on others to build it for me (a form of reliance on micro-managing), I was free to build it myself. So, my mansion might look quite different than many others, but I'm happy and at peace because it's mine - and because I built it among people I really do love.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Scriptures Don't Promise Justice in This Life - and That's a Good Thing

"No Justice, No Faith?" The Danger of Misunderstanding God's Justice - Jeff Lindsay (Mormanity)

I only will add here that I am glad we don't see God's justice fully in this life.  I like that the promise of justice applies specifically to our eventual end, not each step along the path toward that end.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Conversion Should Not Be the Central Goal of Service

I spoke in one of the units in our stake a few years ago about how we should recognize, understand and follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost outside our church lives - at work, in the community, in our interactions with other religions, at school, etc. To make a long talk short here, I stressed early on that "conversion" can't be our central goal - that unconditional love without expectation of ANY reward or reciprocation, or even acknowledgment, is the highest objective.

I also stated directly that our critics sometimes say we only help others in order to convert them to the Church - and that they are correct in way too many cases. I paused and repeated that slowly - then I went into examples of what I called Telestial, Terrestrial and Celestial service, distinguished exclusively by our motivation and the type of people we serve. I asked everyone to consider who are the "publicans, sinners, lepers and Samaritans" in our own communities and based on our own group standards - the ones who can't pay us back and probably won't join the Church - and start by finding a way to serve someone in one of those categories they naturally wouldn't serve

After all, what good is it if we serve only to make others do what we want them to do.  Do not even the worst sinners do that? 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Please Read This Talk, Even If You Heard It Delivered Live

Four Titles - Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf (2013 General Conference, Priesthood Session)

The section titled "Disciple of Christ" is particularly important. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

We Tend to Be Too Hard on Our Own

Within Christianity, Mormon theology is one of the most expansive, "universalist" in existence. Our entire structure of temple ordinances is based on the idea that absolutely anyone can "pass the test" regardless of the religion they believe during this life - or even if they are hard-core atheists.

It's also not correct to say that such universalism applies only to some degree of glory but not the Celestial Kingdom. Absolutely everyone (minus a few Sons of Perdition who are the exception that proves the rule) will receive salvation within Mormonism simply through the Atonement of Jesus, so temple work can't be about people qualifying for the Telestial Kingdom - or even the Terrestrial Kingdom, since that essentially is the same place just with nicer people. (Seriously, that's the best description of the difference I've ever heard.) It has to be about opening the possibility of the Celestial Kingdom to ALL - making sure ALL have a chance to pass the test, if you will.

The difficulty is that we tend to be harder on our own than we are on those we don't know. The standard is the same, but we tend to think those who have been in the Church have had their chance while those outside the Church haven't. We forget that we aren't judges of final rewards. It's one of the most deeply ingrained "natural (wo)man" tendencies that exists, and, as a result, it exists in many members and, thus, within the LDS Church - but it's not part of pure Mormonism. I believe it's REALLY important to understand that. 

Sure, too many members don't get that fully, but it's there in great big font and blinking neon colors within the theology itself.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Committees vs. Councils: The Difference is Important

There is a big difference between decision that need to be made individually and those that are made best by a committee of some sort.  One of the problems I have seen in every organization in which I've been involved throughout my life is distinguishing between those two situations and acting accordingly. 

With that in mind, I want to share the following generality - understanding it is not a universal constant that applies to all situations:

If the Spirit is telling you to do something, he's likely to share that with others involved.

Often one person will receive the initial inspiration, but if others are going to be impacted to a large degree and in important ways, I believe it is critical to allow for those others to receive confirmation of that inspiration prior to implementation of the decision.  This is one of the reasons I like the council model so much for groups. I don't like committee decision making, necessarily, in many instances (although it is important in some instances) - but I like "counciling". There is an important difference. 

Committee decisions require no decision be made until everyone can reach a mutual decision, which means  that the ultimate decision often is a compromise (or is postponed indefinitely) - OK, but not even close to ideal in many situations.  True council decisions require open discussion and active, sincere consideration of all voices and perspectives - but, ultimately, the decision must be reached by the leader of the council and accepted by the group body. Council decisions can and often should be a compromise from the leader's initial thought, and those decisions can be postponed, but this approach allows decisions to be made that do not require consensus in the traditional way.  They require acceptance, and that is not the same thing as pure consensus. 

The key, in my opinion, is that the leader ask and listen PRIOR to sharing his or her initial opinion - which, in practical terms, means that the group body might not know in the end what that initial opinion was.  I believe the Spirit can share aspects of inspiration with individuals that differ in perspective from that which is shared with others, and combining those aspects into one vision / answer / solution can be powerful. 

In the case of spouses, I believe strongly that one spouse should not dictate to the other. After all, those two are supposed to be one - so, theoretically, one half shouldn't be making major decisions for the whole. Thus, I appreciate the change that has been made in the past few years in the way that the global Church leadership has addressed the concept of presiding in the home - focusing on a couple presiding together as equal partners.  In this instance, the best decision-making process is more of the standard committee model, not the council model. 

It's hard for some members to let go of the former paradigm, but it's important to accept that change.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"We" Don't Know Anything: or, Thank You, Thomas, for Saying It So Beautifully

Last Thursday, I linked to a stunning post about Heavenly Mother.  In re-reading the comments, I realized that I want to highlight one specific comment, from one of my favorite commenters in the entire Bloggernacle - Thomas Parkin.  I love a lot of his insights, but this one struck me as particularly appropriate to lots of things about which I write here.  I want to share it here, therefore, with no other personal commentary (but with my old bolding):
(quoting from someone else's comment) “we don’t know everything.”

“We” don’t know anything. There is no such thing as what “we” know, since “we” is not at agent that can possess knowledge. I have brought this up several times, and mean to do it every chance I get, however quixotic it might begin to seem. I think it is important because the idea that this is something _we_ should or even can come to know collectively steers us badly. It may cause us to hesitate where we need not, or become overly sure of ourselves where we ought not.

Knowledge, of Heavenly Mother, Heavenly Father, or any other matter in the cosmos, is an individual project. In fact, while we may speculate together, and frame the discussion in beneficial ways, knowledge comes to us personally, individually, through direct experience, as we individually apply our selves to the end of gaining it. The “church” provides some context, importantly provides and protects the ordinances through which mysteries can be revealed, provides scriptures that can be both touchstones and portals, and, at least in theory, a body of believers engaged in the same project. But each person stands individually, not along a linear path that ends in knowledge but at a point in a three dimensional space where the center point towards which all seekers move represents all knowledge. There is no such thing as forbidden knowledge, and we are more than invited to seek.

The key scripture, to my mind, is Alma 12:

“It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him … ” 

It seems to me the thing learned here I highly recommend finding such that it is possible for any person to come to know the mysteries, but that those who know them will not generally be found speaking about them. (In this, may I say how important for me it has been to have deeply trusted friends, especially my own dad, with whom I do feel I can openly speak. I highly recommend finding such people.)

I’d really like to say that I believe that I have received revelation concerning Heavenly Mother, and that I believe this is not an uncommon thing. I find all the information that I’ve come to know about God through the Spirit deeply comforting, including information about Heavenly Mother. None of this has ever happened because I’m a very good person, because I am not a very good person. When I look back at my life I see that I produce pain and discomfort everywhere I go. Also, no one is ever going to mistake me for a typical orthodox Mormon. But these revelations have almost invariably come to me at times in my life when I have been taking my covenants very seriously, when I have been actively trying to do what we promise in the Sacrament: to remember Christ and keep His commandments in order to obtain the Holy Spirit, which is the only way these revelations can come to us. For me, “commandments” primarily means having Faith in Jesus as best as I understand Him, repenting or trying to actively improve myself in any number of ways, including improving in knowledge, and trying to conform myself to the kind of person that is presented in the Sermon on the Mount and in the parables and elsewhere in His teachings. In addition, the commandments of God to me are those personal directives that come to me through the Spirit. This in place, they have come at times when I have actively gone and sought.

Also, they have not always come; we are only ready for those things that lie just over whatever our personal horizon is. This wisdom in what we don’t receive sometimes doesn’t become obvious for a long time. In such cases, I try to recall the comfort of what I have received. Nor is any revelation the final word on any subject. While each is comforting, more is always needed, and new light always casts a different aspect on old information. I think the directive is to hunger and thirst for it.

Nor are my personal experiences a measuring stick for any other person. Every person is in their own place, with their individual histories and horizons.

I understand that there is a desire for some kind of official statement or pronouncement of doctrine – but may I suggest that this would not quench the desire, since the desire lies in the soul and is not an academic matter and can’t be satisfied by hearing people’s opinions on the matter. In any case, waiting may mean waiting till doomsday, when there is no need to wait.

Do girls yearn for the comfort of their mothers more than boys? I doubt that very much. To girls delight less in the approval of their fathers than boys? Maybe not important questions. I feel quite sure the comfort will come when we are ready for it.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Different People Need Different Messages Delivered in Different Ways

If there is one part of our Mormon "culture" I would smash to pieces in a heartbeat if I could, it is the idea that we have to be "perfect" (meaning mistake free) or constantly focused on our mistakes.  I believe in repentance deeply, but, as I've said elsewhere, there are two aspects of repentance: the redeeming one that covers our sins and the enabling one that covers our weaknesses and unconscious transgressions and so much that causes so many such grief. 

The idea that we really are good enough but simply need to try to do a little better as we go through life was one of Pres. Hinckley's central messages. Unfortunately, for those who naturally have a perfection complex (which is a fairly good-sized percent of all groups) - and for those who had a distorted version of perfection pounded into them (which includes many members of the Church) . . . it can be hard to believe the magnitude of what Christ has done for us already.

It really is a balance, however - and it's really easy for many people to overlook that. People collectively tend to gravitate to the extremes ("The Church is a soulless cult" vs. "All is well in Zion" - or "I am fine just the way I am, thank you, so quit telling me I need to try to be better" vs. "I'm a horrible person and never will be good enough" - etc.) - so teaching a message that works to motivate people at both extremes and everywhere in between them is really hard.

Frankly, I think that's one reason why different apostles and Prophets have different personalities and perspectives - so everyone can hear someone "speak to them personally". For example, in General Conference this weekend, there were multiple talks about obedience and keeping the commandments - but each person addressed that principle in different ways.  I really loved one of them, was somewhat ambivalent about another one and just didn't "feel" a third one much at all.  I know that bothers some people, but I appreciate it - even when I hear something that just doesn't move me in any real way or even grates to some degree.  There also were multiple statements in General Conference that stressed the importance of accepting others who are different than we are, and it was applied to people both inside and outside the LDS Church.  What moves us through "the spoken word" is part of that. 

It makes it hard for people to listen to someone preaching to "the others" - but, at least, the others do get to hear their message, as well. It's when someone is in the group that hears "the other message" more often than "my message" that it gets most difficult.

Recognizing that both messages are being taught, conflicting though they might be, helps.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: The Role of the Cross in the Atonement

Today was the last lesson of the month, so it was the last lesson about the Atonement. Before summarizing the lesson, I just want to say how wonderful it has been to have five straight lessons through which we could dig deeply into the concept of the Atonement. It's been the best church calling experience of my life.

Today we focused on the role of the cross in the Atonement.

I started by listing a few key moments or periods in Jesus' life in the process of atonement: 1) Pre-mortal volunteering to fill the central role; 2) Birth; 3) Personal Life; 4) Mortal Ministry; 5) Garden of Gethsemane; 6) Golgotha; 7) Post-mortal ministry. I mentioned explicitly that we have not talked much this month about Gethsemane and told them that I made that decision entirely because we focus so much on it in every other setting at church that I wanted to focus this month on the elements of the Atonement that we tend to address rarely - or even ignore. Thus, a lesson about divine accountability, one about Jesus' mortal life and ministry and the one today about the cross.

I asked them to estimate, as a percentage, how often we talk about Gethsemane compared to Golgotha (the garden compared to the cross). The consensus was over 90% Garden and under 10% Cross - and perhaps 99%-1% when all is said and done. I told them I think I know why we focus so much on the garden (since so many other denominations focus almost exclusively on the cross), but I told them I think that is a shame - that we miss SO much of the overall message when we ignore Golgotha.

As an example, I asked if it's OK to wear a cross - and why we generally don't do that. I got the standard answers - and one I'd never heard and actually like. (That garments include the symbolism of our worship, so we don't need outwardly visible symbols like a necklace with a cross.) I talked about how symbols can be misused and corrupted if we can't worship or pray without them, but I told the students clearly that I have no problem with using a cross as a symbol of faith in Christ and would support my daughters fully if they chose, for example, to wear a necklace with a cross.

We opened the Topical Guide to "Cross", and each student read a verse in that section - and we discussed each verse as we read it. We talked about why Paul described the "glory" of the cross, why the cross was "foolishness" to unbelievers, what it means to "take up your cross and follow me", etc. We talked about exactly what happened with the cross, particularly the fact that Jesus literally had to carry his cross as part of his suffering - and that it was too much for him in his weakened state - that someone else had to "take up" Jesus' cross and walk with him.

I emphasized that the Garden of Gethsemane is where we teach that Jesus suffered for our sins but that our sins and iniquities are only two of the dozen or so things our scriptures list for which he suffered. He experienced everything else throughout his life and on the cross - including the final, most powerful suffering he endured.

We read in Luke where an angel strengthened him in Gethsemane and where the man strengthened him on the road to Golgotha by sharing the load of the cross. We read his final statements recorded in the Gospels:

"My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

"It is finished. Into thy hands I commend my spirit."

I pointed out that the cross was the first time in our record where Jesus was "forsaken" - the only time he was abandoned and left completely on his own. None of the students has ever felt totally alone and forsaken, and they all agreed that they couldn't imagine how that would feel. I pointed out that Jesus wasn't just killed; he was tortured to death in a particularly cruel, sadistic way. I reiterated that he might not have felt every single pain know to mankind, but I'm sure he got sick throughout his life - and broke bones (or, as a carpenter's son, smashed fingers) - and lost loved ones - etc. - but it was at Golgotha that he experienced non-sin suffering, to the deepest degree, and atoned for so many of the non-spiritual suffering we experience. I told them that we talk about overcoming physical and spiritual death, but we focus so much on Jesus overcoming sin (spiritual suffering and death) that we often devalue Jesus overcoming transgression (including all of our physical, mental, emotional, social, etc. suffering and death).

We read Matthew 5:48, substituting "complete, whole, fully developed" for "perfect" and I pointed out that it was only at the end, on the cross, when Jesus could say, "It is finished" - to say, in essence, "I now am perfect." 

I ended with a plea that they not fall into the trap of disparaging the cross in any way and that, as they continue in the LDS Church, that they find ways to help others understand and value the cross properly.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Potential Power for Good and Bad of Feeling Inadequate: Contrasting Theologies

Retaining a sense of inadequacy is not a bad thing, in and of itself. It helps blunt our natural egotism and keeps us focused on growth and change (repentance) - or, at least, it does in proper balance and moderation.

It's when it turns toward self-loathing and becomes a shackling tool that it becomes "bad".

Theologically, this plays out in the classic debate over faith vs. works.  Understanding that we never will merit salvation strictly on our own merits can be seem as "retaining a sense of inadequacy" - and it can be a very good thing.  However, when it is stretched to the extreme and becomes a justification for the idea that there is an unbridgable gap between man and God, at that moment it becomes a "bad" shackling tool.  It's the theological balance that says we can never deserve what is promised to us through the Atonement, but it still is promised to us through the Atonement, that is empoweing and noble and enlightening and liberating.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Personal Example of Why I Believe in Inspiration

I was visiting one of the branches in our stake a few years ago and had a really neat experience. For the full picture:

My daughter had to return to college after the Thanksgiving break, and, given the timing of her available ride, I thought I might not be able to attend the branch I normally visited each fourth Sunday. At the last minute, she told me that her friend who would be driving wasn't going to be ready until after our ward's meetings were over (completely unexpectedly) - so I had time to visit the branch and make it back in time to take her to her friend's house.

When I arrived at the branch, the counselor who was conducting told me that one of the speakers probably wouldn't be able to make it - so he asked if I would be willing to speak, if necessary. I agreed - and told him to put me last so I could take whatever time was left.

The topic for the day was "happiness" - so I started thinking about it as soon as I sat down, which was about five minutes before the meeting was to start. I immediately had a thought that I suppressed, since it just didn't seem like something someone normally would say in Sacrament Meeting - especially with the Stake President visiting and sitting on the stand. You see, it was, in a nutshell:

"Not everyone can be happy just by keeping the commandments, praying, attending church and reading the scriptures."

Instead, I looked through the scriptures and started crafting a more traditional talk.

As the first speaker began, I realized she was giving a good but quite predictable talk about happiness - and focusing on the benefits of the things I mentioned above. It really was a very well-organized, thoughtful talk. The second speaker spoke similarly - with different verses and different focal areas, but also stressing the things I mentioned above. It also really was a very good talk. In the middle of both talks, the same basic thought hit me - each time progressively stronger. So, I changed focus and looked for a way to teach the idea that hit me and still make it inspiring and not dismissive in any way of the other talks.

I started by mentioning my struggle to accept my first impression, then I read Psalms 46:10 and focused on the injunction, "Be still, and know that I am God." I mentioned that having a mother with schizophrenia had taught me a lot about happiness. I said that my father did two things for her to help her be happy: 1) He sought professional help and found medication that controlled her schizophrenia; 2) He shouldered ALL the responsibilities for the family in order to shield her from worry and anxiety. I said that my father's example was an extreme one due to my mother's condition, but I stressed that the same basic approach was important for many people.

I then mentioned that I had really enjoyed the previous two talks and that their advice was excellent for the vast majority of us - but that there are some members who struggle with depression or bi-polar disorder or other issues who feel crushing weight when they translate what someone says about happiness as:

"If you only tried harder, you wouldn't be unhappy. It's all your fault. You're useless and hopeless."

I mentioned that I believe those people must: 1) find out if there are medicines and/or coping mechanisms that can help control their debilitating tendencies; 2) find a way to "Be still, and know that I am God." They need to understand and accept the idea that the Atonement redeems us from things that we didn't choose, like the chemical imbalances that cause depression and other issues - that they are not "guilty" of those feelings and the attendant struggles they cause.

I then quoted Matthew 11:28-30 and focused on the part that says, "Take my yoke upon you, and I shall give you rest." I said that many people are so busy in their everyday lives that they fail to find time simply to pray, contemplate, meditate, ponder and rest. I asked everyone in the congregation to try to find ways to "be still" and "receive rest" - so that they could have time and energy to "count their blessings" and "see what God has done" in their lives. I finished by explaining how my wife has kept a blessings list (through her blog) each weekend and what that has done to her daily perspective over the last three years.

Now, to address the title of this post:

A woman came up to the stand after the meeting and told me that she had woken up that morning and almost decided not to come to church. She said she has been battling depression for a long time and that it has been worse the past few months since her father died. She told me the Branch President has been very supportive and "wonderful", but that she almost stayed home. She said she felt a strong impression to go anyway - at least to Sacrament Meeting. She then said that the moment I started speaking (before I had even addressed the issue of depression), she had felt an incredible peace flow through her and the thought entered her mind:

"See, someone understands what you are going through. I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE GOING THROUGH. It's OK; I love you just as you are."
I don't know the mechanics of inspiration, and I have no idea why things like this happen for some and not for others. I just know I really do believe in inspiration - and that there is someone out there who really does know us as individuals.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Trying to Convert vs. Sharing the Gospel

In the last 26 years, I've lived in Massachusetts, Alabama, Ohio, Missouri and Nevada. People in those states talk about church and religion naturally. It just comes up regularly in conversations, since it's part of their lives.

I think, too often, we're so focused on trying to convert people that we forget just to share the Gospel by sharing ourselves naturally.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Completely Non-Religious but Abso-Stinking-Lutely Hilarious Visual Post

The 25 Happiest Animals in the World - Buzz Feed

In honor of April Fool's Day, I thought I would provide a link to something that kept me laughing for days when I first saw it.