Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Being Nice Isn't Enough: Love Wins, but Love Isn't All-Encompassing Acceptance

I attended a sermon at a local church where I lived a while ago to support a friend who was giving the sermon. The topic he had been assigned was based on a couple of passages from the Old and New Testaments, and his sermon title was, "Being Nice is Not Enough".

It was an excellent sermon, and the main point was that we all need something to use as our foundational standards that we uphold as good, right and true. Essentially, he said that we simply have to stand for something - and that we can't accept the spirit of the Bible statements about love without trying to distinguish between acceptable actions and unacceptable actions. Of course, making that distinction can be very hard for many people, and it ought to be done with fear and trembling, but drawing a line with regard to actions is an important part of the Gospel as taught in our scriptures.

Yes, love does win - absolutely. What "love" means, however, is the real billion dollar question - and I believe trying to learn to do so charitably and without unrighteous judgment is a big part of our purpose in mortality. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Why Mortal Suffering?: or, We Are Meant to Be the Gods of This Earth

Adam and Eve were told they would be "Lord of all the earth" - and "Adam" and "Eve" are generic terms for "man" and "mother".  Thus . . .

I believe we have been given the power and authority to "be God" on this earth - that our decisions and actions (our allegiances - whom we follow and emulate) determine who is the God of this earth.

So, why does God allow terrible suffering and abuse?

Maybe it's because we aren't willing yet to step up and assume our intended roles - and we allow it to continue and be so pervasive. We like to blame God, but we aren't willing to see ourselves as the God we are blaming. In my own sphere of influence, I am that I am - but it's easier to shift the blame to the great I AM and not tackle what goes on around us in our own kingdom of embryonic gods.

Yes, there must needs be opposition in all things, so suffering is inevitable.  How we deal with it, however, is up to us.  If we know someone is being abused and do nothing to stop it . . . if we know people are starving and do nothing to feed them (or simply over-consume and keep resources from them) . . . if we know women and children are being forced into prostitution and sit back without trying to stop it . . . if we know of evil and don't fight it . . .

We can believe that such things are a result of the Fall and part of the Plan, so, in a way, we can say God is responsible for their existence - but WE, collectively, are responsible for the degree to which these things flourish, and we have examples of peoples who banded together and simply refused to allow them to continue within the spheres of their own influence.  They stepped up and represented God, in a very real way - and they changed the world around them.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Temple Ordinances (Laws) and Covenants

In our previous lesson we talked about the ordinances and covenants outside the temple, so last Sunday we talked about the ordinances and covenants in the temple. Given their relative inexperience with the temple, this lesson was much more a traditional lesson (I talked most of the time.) than our normal lessons.

We started by writing the definitions from last week on the board again:

ordinance: "a physical action that represents / symbolizes a covenant"

covenant: "a spiritual promise between God and humanity in which God sets the terms and we accept those terms, with a reward or benefit associated with faithful adherence to the terms of the covenant"

I explained the difference between "high church" worship (elaborate and ceremonial, like Catholic mass and our own Sacrament ordinance) and "low church" worship (common and horizontal, like many Protestant services, but especially like our open involvement model). I explained how hard it can be for Catholic investigators and converts to accept the low-church aspects of our regular worship but how easy it is for many of them to accept the temple, since it is very much a high church model - and how the opposite is true for many Protestant investigators and converts.

We listed the regular ordinances that are performed in the temple: baptisms for only the dead, the initiatory (washing and anointing) for the living and dead, the endowment, marriage sealing. We talked briefly about each of them and what happens, skipping the endowment to discuss in more detail as the last part of the lesson.

Since we talked about the initiatory last week, we didn't spend much time on it this week. We only talked about the introduction of the garment - and I told them the covenants we make in the temple regarding the garment: "to wear it throughout our lives and not to defile it." I told them that lots of members want to told what to do in too many situations, so the handbook has examples of things that generally should or shouldn't be done, but then the handbook says the specific decisions are up to the members to make with the actual covenants in mind.

We talked about the differences between being married/sealed in the temple and a civil wedding. They knew about the "til death do you part" difference, but they didn't know about the actual nature of the ordinance - the promise-based wording that is very different than the traditional wording. We talked about the difference in the US and other places where the government recognizes a temple sealing as a legal wedding and where the government does not but requires a civil ceremony. One of the students asked about someone who is sealed in another country without being married civilly first and then moves to the US - if that sealing is recognized as a valid marriage in the US. I explained that governments only recognize marriages authorized by other governments, so it would not be valid in the US - which is why people who get sealed in those countries get married civilly first - and why they don't require a waiting period for the sealing that follows.

We then moved to the endowment. We defined "endowment" as "gift". I talked about how some people miss a lot of the beauty and meaning of the endowment because they take everything in it literally - and I mentioned the quote about walking past the angels who stand as guardians to the Celestial Kingdom (modified to remove any reference to the signs and tokens). I mentioned that understanding it as symbolic (going back to the definition of ordinance above) and/or literal allows me to see much more meaning and "learn something new" when I go, since seeing it as literal would limit my understanding and end up being nothing more than sitting through something I have memorized by this point in my life.

I drew a linear representation of the endowment: l---Pre-Mortal Life---l---Telestial---l---Terrestrial---l---Celestial---l

I explained that the endowment is an interactive play (in movie form in most temples now, but still with live actors in SLC and Manti, at least) which depicts out eternal journey from the Pre-Mortal life back into the presence of God in the Celestial Kingdom. I explained that it uses Adam and Eve to represent us - and we talked about the meanings of those names (Adam being "man" and Eve being "mother / initiator / introducer"). Interestingly, one of the students is named Adam, and the meaning associated with the name in baby books is "earthly" - which fits really well. I explained the physical set-up of the rooms and how we move from room to room as we move through the eternal stages. I also mentioned that most of the smaller, most recent temples don't have extensive murals in the rooms but how the earlier and bigger ones depict each stage visually - and how there are more rooms and moving around in the older and larger temples.

I listed the "Laws" that are associated with each stage and room, and I pointed out again that "ordinance" can be translated as "law" - and that making that connection is important in the temple. I told them that I see the endowment as being structured around a series of ordinances - termed "laws" in the actual endowment wording - and the covenants associated with those ordinances or laws. I told them that there is almost nothing that we are commanded not to discuss outside the temple, as long as we are respectful and reverent in the way we do so - but that there are a few things I would not be discussing, particularly the exact form of the ordinances themselves (the way we perform the ordinances associated with the specific covenants). I think seeing the endowment in this manner makes more sense when dealing with the ritualistic aspects that were adapted from Masonry - seeing those aspects as ways that promises are made in the performance of individual ordinances.

We discussed the telestial laws / ordinances: the Law of the Lord, the Law of Sacrifice and the Law of the Gospel.

I mentioned that the Law of the Lord doesn't provide specifics but is focused on hearkening to the voice and commandments of God - and that the woman's covenant includes the promise to hearken unto the "counsel" of her husband as he hearkens unto the Lord. I told them that there is nothing in the wording that requires a woman to "obey" her husband or even accept his counsel if he isn't righteous or simply because he is her husband - that the promise is to listen to him and consider / follow his "counsel" as (to the extent and in the same way that) he is listening to and following the Lord. Importantly, the wording places the right and responsibility to make that judgment with her, not with her husband.

They all understood the basic concept of the Law of Sacrifice, so we didn't spend much time on it - but I did point out that it is a type of preparatory law / ordinance prior to the terrestrial Law of Consecration. I asked them for examples of sacrifice that might apply to this law, and they mentioned tithing and serving in callings.

The Law of the Gospel isn't defined clearly in the temple, so we talked briefly about what "the Gospel" is - faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, love / charity, service, enduring to the end, etc. We talked about why those things are necessary to move from a telestial state to a terrestrial state.

We then discussed the terrestrial laws / ordinances: the Law of Chastity and the Law of Consecration.

I gave them the exact wording of the Law of Chastity in the temple: "no sexual relations except with a husband or wife to whom you are legally and lawfully wedded". We talked about how non-specific that wording is and how that is intentional. I mentioned the lists of standards in the For Strength of Youth pamphlet and how they represent a kind of Law of Moses approach to chastity - and how the temple wording moves away from that approach and represents our covenant to understand the law more fully and make informed decisions on our own without being commanded in all things.

I also pointed out that the Law of Chastity is accepted in the terrestrial state - and how I believe we devalue it too often when we assume it should be easy for people to live. It actually is the second highest law in the endowment, followed only by consecration, and is accepted as preparation to enter the presence of God. It's not required of people to be considered terrestrial beings, which means people can be committing fornication and still be considered good people who are terrestrial in nature. (I think that's important to understand, and I think it is not understood very well among the church membership, including leaders at all levels.)

We talked about the Law of Consecration and how it is a step up, if you will, from the Law of Sacrifice. I gave the the exact wording of being willing to give our time, talents and everything with which the Lord has blessed us and everything with which he may bless us to the building up of the kingdom of God on earth and to the establishment of Zion.

I ended by sharing with them something my oldest daughter said after her first time going through the temple and experiencing the endowment. She said:

"Dad, we focus so much on building the kingdom of God that we sometimes forget to establish Zion."

We talked about how those two things ought to be synonymous, but how we sometimes separate them. I asked them for ideas about how that might happen, and they mentioned focusing so much on baptism that we forget to fellowship, love and retain new members - that we focus so much on tithing that we forget about fast offerings - that we focus so much on church stuff that we forget about family stuff - etc. I asked them to think about that and talk with their parents about it, since I believe that might be our biggest failure as a people when it comes to truly understanding the temple ordinances and living according to the covenants we make in the temple.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Very Short Definition of "Ideals"

Ideals are the best generalities a people can envision at the time. 

I like that, and I think it's really, really, really important to remember.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Power of Loving Each Other Depsite Ourselves

Brad wrote a moving post about reconciliation on By Common Consent last year, and I want to link to it today as a reminder of the power of forgiveness to change hearts.  This post is a tremendous reminder of what is possible in life if we are open to setting aside enmity and estrangement and simply loving each other despite ourselves:

Enmity, Estrangement, and Reconciliation - Brad (By Common Consent)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I'm Glad the Book of Mormon Contradicts the Bible and the Modern LDS Church in Some Ways

I have a friend who left the LDS Church a few years ago, and we were talking about his reason for doing so.  Frankly, the conversation was a bit frustrating, since I thought (and still think) the reason he gave me was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of history and the role of scripture.  He said, in essence, that if the LDS Church now is different than the society described in the Book of Mormon, and if the Book of Mormon doesn't agree precisely in every detail with the Bible, it all is "a bunch of crap" (his exact wording).

The following was my response to him:
Yes, the Book of Mormon presents some things differently than the modern LDS Church practices and the Bible teaches.  

So what?

I don't mean that flippantly - and I don't mean to make light of what you've said to me. It's just that nothing about our theology and ideology even comes close to implying that nothing should have changed from then to now (either from 600BC-400AD to now, if someone accepts the literal timing claims of the Book of Mormon, or from 1829-2011, if someone doesn't). Sure, there's a "same organization" mentality - but even that can't be totally accurate when we look at an evolving organization.

If you look at what was taught in the Old Testament and how it is different than what is taught in the New Testament, for example, you can reach either of the following extreme conclusions quite easily:

1) The New Testament is crap! It contradicts the Old Testament.

2) The Old Testament is crap! It is contradicted by the New Testament.

I prefer the following conclusion, personally:

It's neat to see how different people viewed God differently - and how those differences influenced their teachings and organizations. It gives me more options and possibilities as I try to figure out what makes the most sense to me, personally. I'm glad I have such competing, sometimes conflicting accounts and perspectives - since, if we accept all of them as "scripture", it allows me to find my own way and not think it has to be exactly like someone else's.

For me, that beats, "It's crap!" every time.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Short Post about Addiction and Porn

To me, an addiction is something that someone can't quit - or can quit only through intense, difficult, painful focus. I don't care much for clinical definitions in cases like porn; I care much more about whether someone is justifying the continuation of something that is done privately (secretly) that would have SERIOUSLY negative ramifications if discovered.

Call it addiction or just prioritization; I really don't care. If someone "cleaves" to porn at the potential expense of their spouse, that person "values" porn more than they value their spouse. To me, that is an addiction - again, even if it might be just a matter of prioritization.

For what it's worth, I have a bit of an addictive / obsessive personality - and I have struggled all my life with not letting myself get obsessed with various things (including blogging). I'm not addressing this from an intellectual, removed perspective; it's personal to me in a very real way.

Having said that, it's interesting that we tend not to care about "addictions" we don't see as "sin". 

That, in and of itself, is a fascinating topic.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Covenants and Ordinances - Nature and Meaning

I began the lesson last Sunday by asking the students to define the words "ordinance" and "covenant".  We talked briefly about the fact that each word has application outside religion ("ordinance" as "law" [like city ordinances] and "covenant" as "contract" [like a rental agreement between landlord and renter]), but we then turned specifically to definitions within the realm of religion.  The definitions upon which we settled were:

ordinance: "a physical action that represents / symbolizes a covenant"

covenant: "a spiritual promise between God and humanity in which God sets the terms and we accept those terms, with a reward or benefit associated with faithful adherence to the terms of the covenant" (much like the rental agreement, where a landlord promises to allow habitation as long as we pay the established rent - understanding that we don't get to decide how much the rent is or pick any house we want regardless of the amount of rent we are willing to pay)  

We read the section on "covenant" in the Bible Dictionary, and we talked about the sentence that says "covenant" sometimes is translated as "testament".  I referred to the Bible itself and asked, based on that sentence, what the "Old Testament" and the "New Testament" might mean.  The students immediately realized that those terms could draw a distinction between an old covenant (the terms of being God's chosen people before the birth of Jesus) and a new covenant (the terms of being God's chosen people after the birth of Jesus). 

We talked in detail about the change from circumcision to baptism as the "ordinance" (the symbolic representation) of a people's relationship to God.  I mentioned that circumcision had and still has practical health benefits, but the ancient Israelites were able to imbue it with spiritual, symbolic meaning, as well.  I mentioned that it is so widespread and common now as nothing more than a medical procedure within multiple non-religious cultures that it has lost its religious meaning entirely for most people.  Thus, we have no problem replacing it with a different ordinance (symbolic representation) that makes sense for us.  We talked about the specific covenants and symbolism of immersion and why we immerse instead of sprinkling or eliminating baptism entirely - and I pointed out that some Christians sprinkle or don't require any form of baptism specifically because they don't accept and/or understand the symbolism that we accept and understand.  They don't necessarily reject the covenant; what they reject is the symbolic representation of that covenant. 

I mentioned the fairly recent change in how the initiatory (washing and anointing) is administered in the temple.  I explained how it is done now (much like a standard Priesthood blessing in form) and how it used to be done (by touching various areas while pronouncing the blessings).  I asked them if they could think of any reason why such a change would be made, and one of the students mentioned how hyper-sensitive many people now are about "inappropriate touching".  I mentioned how we are much more aware of physical abuse than we used to be and how many people, especially women, have been abused in such a way that they are traumatized to some degree by how the initiatory used to occur - even though there was nothing that I would deem to be close to objectively inappropriate and even though the ordinances is performed by women for women.  Given how our culture has changed, we needed to make sure the way we represent that particular covenant continued to convey the intended symbolism - so some of the ordinance form was modified.  (I mentioned that changes in temple ordinances and ceremonies can be hard for people who see everything in the temple literally as having come straight from God's mouth to the temple, but I told them it's no big deal if the symbolism - and the reason for symbolic representation - is understood.) 

I then had the students list ordinances that exist within the LDS Church, and we listed the covenants represented or symbolized by each ordinance.  The list they created, along with the associated covenants, was:

1) Sacrament (renewal of baptismal covenants) 

2) Baptism (becoming Christ's children, with all of the associated details of that covenant)

3) Sealing of marriage (eternal companionship and "increase")

4) Endowment (return to and becoming like God)

5) Gift of the Holy Ghost (constant companionship of the Holy Ghost)

6) Priesthood Blessings (pretty much anything given through revelation through the blessing)

7) Washing & Anointing (cleansing and specific blessings associated with physical health and enlightenment)

(We stopped there, just to make sure we had time to discuss each of them.) 

I then asked the students which part or aspect of the ordinances was the most important.  They didn't understand what I was asking at first, so I took them back to the definition on the board ("a physical action that represents / symbolizes a covenant"), told them to read it looking for its "parts" and asked the question again.  They agreed that the covenant being represented or symbolized is the most important part. 

I used baptism as an example.  I told them that I was going to say this very carefully, because I didn't want to detract in any way from the sacred nature of baptism, but that I would have no problem with baptism being replaced by dressing up a cow in ceremonial garb and enacting a play about being cleansed and becoming God's children - IF such a symbolic representation was powerful and meaningful in a particular culture.  We talked about why we use baptism (because that is what Jesus did and because it works for us as a symbol for being "born again" and "spiritually resurrected").  If, like the washing and anointing, it needed to change somehow to continue to convey that symbolism, I would be fine with it. 

Next week, we are going to talk about the covenants we accept in the temple. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

One Way I Handle Hearing Things at Church with Which I Disagree

There are times at church when someone says something that I believe to be truly dangerous - or so wrong that it has to be addressed openly.  That doesn't happen very often; most things I hear with which I disagree can be ignored without any harm whatsoever, especially when other members share slightly different perspectives that make it clear what is said isn't immutable Mormon doctrine. 

I have found over my decades in the Church that there are multiple ways hearing conflicting things can be a good experience. 

I like to take things that others say and see how I would say them to make them make sense and be meaningful to me. If someone says something in a church meeting with which I disagree, I like to pull my mind away and figure out how I would say it if I were speaking to a group. It keeps me from getting upset, and it also has been the genesis of a few talks in my life - as new thoughts came to me and a way to explain them became a little clearer.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Determining One's Own Wheat and Tares

The following post is very long in comparison to most posts I write and to which I link, but it is incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking.  I recommend it highly, despite its length:

Which Side of the Lines" Wheat or Tares? Choose. - Bonnie (Wheat and Tares)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What Advice Would You Give to a Parent Whose Adult Child Is Struggling with Faith?

A friend of mine once asked me for some simple advice on how to deal with an adult child who was struggling with some aspects of the LDS Church.  I am removing the overall discussion details and providing here just the bullet-points I gave her:

1) Love him (actively, in word and deed).

2) Love him (emotionally) for who he is - not just for whom you want him to be.

3) Believe in a more powerful atonement than most members can understand.

4) Don't preach. Bear testimony, when appropriate, but don't preach.  He's heard it enough; he has to figure out now what he believes as an independent adult.

5) Support him as an agent unto himself.

Also, fwiw, "when they are old" might be much longer than most people assume. If we are eternal in nature, time as we measure it truly is irrelevant. 
I would love to hear more advice from anyone who reads this post - and remember, this is an adult child.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Serving Those Whose Pains We Don't Understand: Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy - J. Stapley (By Common Consent) 

My comment from the thread is #18:

I believe deeply that one of the worst aspects of our modern Mormon culture is out tendency to remove ourselves from the lives of people who are objectively different than we are in ways we consider to be sinful – specifically because segregating ourselves from them robs us of the chance to feel their pain and succor them in it. It removes us from the actual life-model of Jesus of Nazareth.

I loved Pres. Uchtdorf’s talks in which he told us all to stop it – and, specifically, to stop judging others for sinning differently than we do – and to be His hands. Until we feel someone’s pain in some real way at some real level, we simply can’t partake in the Atonement in a real and meaningful way. At the most basic level, that simply must include real-life interaction and personalization. It has to rest on empathy, not sympathy – and certainly not loathing, disgust and disdain. It has to involve succoring people IN their pain, not just preaching to / lecturing at them about why we think they caused that pain and how we think they can make that pain stop.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Why It's Important to Rank Sins - and the Danger of Doing So: More on Alma 39:5

[Two years ago, I wrote a post entitled, "Sexual Sins Are NOT Next to Murder".  As a follow-up to that post, I want to add some more detail about why I do believe in ranking sins - as well as the danger of doing so.] 

I think it is important to “rank” sins – at least broadly, especially as an attempt to avoid the type of misreading I believe occurs in the common interpretation of Alma 39:5. I don’t like it when it becomes Pharisaical and ends up being an excuse to commit less serious sins or elaborate innumerable sins, but I think it actually is extremely important to be able to see distinctions in degrees of sin.

To use crime as an example, if someone points a gun at me, I want to be able to say, “Take everything I have, but if you pull that trigger you are committing a MUCH worse crime that doesn’t need to be committed to get what you want.” More fundamentally, some sins really are more serious than others – and I can’t fathom a reasonable argument against that statement.

The most important reason to rank sins, for me, is to be able to discuss what truly is sin and what might not be sin – to avoid an unthinking condemnation of some things that don’t deserve condemnation. Please don’t read any specific thing into that statement. I don’t mean it to be about any particular issue; I just mean to point out that lots of things that are cultural end up being classified as sinful by those who simply don’t understand and are appalled on an instinctive, gut level.

I think we classify way too much currently in our culture as sinful that isn’t, and having an initial conversation around seriousness of sin is a good starting point for that broader conversation. 

Further, it is important to understand that there is a difference between likening all things to ourselves and interpreting what the passage actually said and to whom it actually was addressed. Alma 39 was addressed to one person. It wasn’t speaking to men or women or any other group of people. That’s obvious, but it’s important – since likening it to ourselves, in this instance, changes radically the meaning.

Finally, I think it’s important to remember that Alma did NOT write / engrave these words into a book of scripture, onto metal plates. Alma 35 was written by Mormon, and verse 16 says:

“Therefore [because he was grieved for the iniquity of his people - vs. 15], he [Alma] caused that his sons should be gathered together, that he might give unto them every one his charge, separately, concerning the things pertaining unto righteousness. And we have an account of his commandments, which he gave unto them according to his own record.”

In other words, Mormon had access to Alma’s record of what he told his sons. Alma didn’t write what he told his sons as part of his scriptural record. It was included as scripture by Mormon in his abridgement of all of the records to which he had access. Alma apparently recorded what would become Alma 36-42 in his own diary – or priestly record – or letters to his sons recording what he had told them verbally – or something else like that.

Interestingly, the chapter heading to 39 starts with, “Sexual sin is an abomination” – NOT, “Sexual sin is next to murder in seriousness.” All that means is that such an interpretation is merely that – an interpretation, not “scriptural” in and of itself. 

To summarize, I believe in the need to understand varying levels of sin - to "rank" sin, in a real way.  I just believe we walk multiple dangerous paths in the process, so we should be very, very cautious about the conclusions we reach in doing do.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Dealing with Differing Understandings of God's Love

I believe love is the principle upon which all else hangs, and I believe actions that mirror what we believe to be God's love are the manifestation of our love for others.

If someone interprets God's love as the words of the prophets and apostles, fine. If someone interprets that as some of the words of the prophets and apostles, fine. If someone interprets that as none of the words of the prophets and apostles, fine. If someone interprets that as a combination of the words of the prophets and apostles and the voice of God to them directly, fine. As long as the person is following "faithfully" what s/he believes to be the word of God, fine. I can disagree with them, in some cases vehemently, when it comes to points of doctrine and the actions that follow from those points of doctrine, but I can't disagree with their sincere efforts to live God's law and exhibit God's love. 

It's not my place to judge, and I agree with Joseph Smith that, in the end, God won't punish anyone for erring on points of doctrine. That statement is one of my favorites from any prophet. 

I understand that most people have a huge issue with that idea when it is taken to the logical conclusion (think the Twin Towers bombers, for example), but I personally am fine with that logical conclusion. I think God really is that powerful, and I think God really is that merciful - and I think "redemption" and "salvation" (two VERY different things) really are that expansive.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Learning from People in Other Religions

I drove in rural Southeastern Ohio years ago on a regular basis, and the only radio options were farm-related stock exchange rates and religion - so I listened to the religious program. There was a Protestant minister who regularly preached openly about "Mormon cultists" and mentioned occasionally that nothing good ever comes from such devilish sources. Most of what he preached was stuff with which I disagreed, but some of it was inspired and made me think about and see some things in a new light - for which I was grateful.  At the risk of sounding dismissive (which I don't want to have happen), I had to sort through a lot of what I saw as doctrinal garbage to find the pearls of wisdom - but I really enjoyed the beautiful pearls when he presented them. 

I had to laugh one day as I heard him tell his listeners about a wonderful idea that James Hobson (Focus on the Family) had been inspired to teach. It encouraged Christians to set aside one evening each week to spend with their families - to share the Gospel, testify and engage in fun activities in order to strengthen the family and bring Christians closer to God. He said it obviously was prophecy for our time, and he thanked God for inspiring Hobson in such a manner - and he had no clue whatsoever that the idea was modeled after the Mormon program of Family Home Evening.

We certainly can learn things from others, but they certainly can learn things from us - even if they can't attribute those things to us.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Poignant, Profound Post: "Blessings from Weakness and Loss"

A former Relief Society President in a ward I used to attend is an amazing woman. She probably is my favorite RS Pres ever - an incredibly humble, caring, wonderfully-flawed woman.

She wrote an astounding post last year on her personal blog, and I want to provide a link for everyone. I can't recommend it highly enough. ... -loss.html

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Irony of Protests about the LDS Church Being a Racist Organization

A couple of years ago, I came across a newspaper article about a member of the Scottish Parliament complaining about how racist BYU and the LDS Church was.  As I read that article, I was struck by something I have known for some time - something that includes the former Priesthood ban but goes to the power of continuing revelation and the synergy that is found often within the LDS Church. 

The real irony of the parliamentarian's claim is that, despite the ban and our relatively recent implementation of official integration, we are WAY more integrated than most of the Protestant churches that surrounded my family when we lived in the Deep South in the 1990's.

Say what you want about about the previous policy, and say what you want about the danger of group-think and such, but when Mormons and the LDS Church mobilize around "good" they tend to do it better than most others. This is one great example.

Sure, there still are some racist members in the Church - and, yes, there are some wards and branches that struggle with racism - and, of course, there still aren't enough black members in many places - and those are important issues - but there also are many units where black members sit side-by-side with white members and members of other races and ethnicities, both in the pews and in leadership callings.

One of my most memorable temple experiences was seeing the Lord put forth his hand at the veil and realizing it was black.

When we do something good, we tend to do it very well.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: Balancing Two Lines of Communication

[Warning: This lesson summary is LONG.]

Today, we went through Elder Oaks' talk from General Conference in 2010 titled, "Two Lines of Communication".

For this summary, I'm going to highlight sentences from the talk that we discussed as we read the talk:

"We must use both the personal line and the priesthood line in proper balance . . . All should understand and be guided by both of these essential lines of communication."

I reminded them of how often in the past two months we have talked about exactly this principle - that balance means finding a point in the middle of extremes that works for us and allows us to live according to the dictates of our own consciences. I mentioned that Elder Oaks repeats this basic charge (to be balanced) throughout the talk and never, not once, stresses one line of communication over the other. Rather, what he does is lay out the pros and cons of each - or, more accurately, of relying too much on either.

"In the personal line, we pray directly to our Heavenly Father, and He answers us by the channels he has established, without any mortal intermediary."

I mentioned that this is a refutation of the old Catholic teaching that the Priest served as an intermediary between God and humanity - that this is what we discussed when we talked about "The Priesthood" and "the priesthood" in a previous lesson.

"The direct, personal line of communication to our Heavenly Father is based on worthiness"

I asked them what this means, in practical terms. Before any of them could answer, I asked them who is most worthy of communicating with Heavenly Father: each of us in the room, attending church or a homeless guy begging for money on the street or someone who used to be a member of the Church but had become inactive (or even started attending another church). After a few answers, two of them said, essentially, "You haven't given us enough information about the other people to know how worthy they are." I agreed, and we read Alma 41:5, which begins with:

"The one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good"

I asked what it takes to receive answers to prayers, and one of the students immediate answered, "Praying." That got chuckles, but everyone agreed.

We talked about "worthiness" being defined best, in the context of communicating with God, as "proper condition of the heart" and "willingness to ask, listen and accept" - rather than adherence to a checklist of do's and don'ts. It is measured more in terms of doing the best you can to follow what you believe. However, it also is influenced by actions that inhibit one's ability to hear - and the best example of this might be addictions that alter one's ability to see and feel clearly and/or act upon belief, knowledge and desires.

I asked them if they could think of a prominent example of someone who received communication from God without appearing to be worthy of it. Alma, the Younger, was mentioned immediately, but I pointed out that his father, the Prophet, had been praying continually for him - so some people could say that his communication really was a result of his father's worthiness. We then talked about Saul, of Tarsus, and his vision.

I told them to think about Saul and tell me who, in generic terms (as in what type of person), a "Saul" would be now - whom we might compare to Saul based on our own time and circumstances. Someone mentioned a person who leaves the LDS Church and then fights against it (an apostate in the clearest sense of the word), but I pointed out that Saul never had been a Christian in the first place. I told them that perhaps the best example would be a preacher who condemned and persecuted Mormons - a classic, traditional anti-Mormon agitator (like a man I know in Idaho who has made it his ministry's mission to lead members out of the LDS Church). I asked them why God would communicate directly with Saul, given how we would tend to call him an evil man if he lived in our time and persecuted us the way he did the early Christians.

We talked about the description of people who inherit the Celestial Kingdom - those who are "valiant" in their testimonies. Saul certainly was valiant and passionate and dedicated - and he was exactly that way after his conversion. Even though his actions prior to his conversion were not "worthwhile" in our eyes, he was "worthy" to receive communication from God. I emphasized that we can't dismiss other people's "revelations" and communications with God, simply because their actions aren't what we would consider to be worthy for us.

"On this personal line of communication with the Lord, our belief and practice is similar to . . . Christians (who believe in) . . . the principle Martin Luther espoused that is now known as 'the priesthood of all believers'."

I reminded them of the same conversation we had when talking about Priesthood and priesthood.

"The personal line is of paramount importance in personal decisions and in the governance of the family . . . the priesthood line, which operates principally to govern heavenly communications on Church matters"

We talked again, as we had in a previous lesson, about a church leader who confuses these "spheres of responsibility" (as one student phrased it) and tries to tell someone that s/he has received revelation for that person outside the realm of "church matters". I asked the students what they would say if a church leader walked up to them and said, "I have received a revelation that you should marry (a particular person)." They all agreed with one young man who said, "I wouldn't say it to the person, but I would think he was nuts." I told them that is a perfect, albeit extreme, example of what Elder Oaks said in the quote above - that each line of communication has its place and sphere and that neither should cross into the other.

"Some seek to have their priesthood leaders make personal decisions for them, decisions they should make for themselves through the personal line."

I told them about a member I know online who argues all the time with people almost solely by quoting former church leaders who agree with him. He ignores those that express different opinions and almost never includes original thoughts of his own. I like the man and try not to argue with him, but I am saddened by that type of "quote fighting" - since it says, at the core, that he wants church leaders to do his thinking for him and, therefore, has surrendered his own right to receive answers from God directly. I also mentioned that church leaders over time have disagreed about a lot of things, so it is impossible to rely on them ("mortal intermediaries", as Elder Oaks called them) to answer questions unanimously outside their callings as people who strive to use the priesthood line to "govern heavenly communications on Church matters".

Since we were starting to run out of time, I summarized the section on the priesthood line by telling them that Elder Oaks did the exact same thing in that section that he had in the section about the personal line: explain its place (the Church), its history (ancient to present) in the emphasis on "authoritative ordinances (sacraments)", the danger of underestimating its importance (at the extreme, rejection of "organized religion"), the tendency of some members to over-emphasize it and devalue the personal line, the need to not be "solely dependent on one priesthood leader or teacher for our personal testimony" to avoid being "forever vulnerable to disillusionment by the actions of that person" (and I mentioned that Prophets and apostles are included in that statement).

We read the paragraph about Joseph not being able to translate when he was upset and how he had to calm down, pray and apologize to Emma before he was able to translate again.

I asked everyone if they could draw something that represents, for them, the concept of two lines of divine communication - using a circle to represent each of them as an individual. One person drew two waves going through the circle that intersected occasionally within the circle. Another person drew a circle for God and a line between him and God, then another circle to the left of the line for the Church and lines going from God to the Church to him - ending up being a triangle. Another drawing was of multiple circles of increasing size (looking like a shooting target), the smallest being herself and each larger circle being a family, then the Church, then the community, then the world, then God - with the personal line of communication going out to family and then jumping ("tesseracting" - for those who had read "A Wrinkle in Time" or seen the new Superman movie) straight to God and skipping the other circles.

One of the students asked where the prophet fit into the drawing of multiple circles, and we ended up agreeing that he fits exactly where each one of them fits - with the only difference being how far out into the circles his line extends before jumping to God. I mentioned that the problems arise when someone confuses how far out the personal lines go and how far in the priesthood line goes.

I ended the lesson by explaining, once again, why I believe this concept of finding a balance that works individually is so important that it would come up again and again in our lessons - and I used "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" as a concrete example. One of the talks in Sacrament Meeting had included a reference to it, and the speaker had said that she believe it was for the membership more than those who are not members. I told them that I admire and respect that person greatly but that I disagreed with that statement. I said I believe it is directed primarily to "the world" - and that I have worked in my professional life in enough places that need some of the central messages badly - that some of those concepts literally would change the world if enough people really believed them. I talked about the paragraph about parental responsibilities - how there is a general statement about "primary responsibilities" that constitutes general guidelines for all (the priesthood line) but also a clear statement that puts the responsibility to figure out how to be "equal partners" based on "individual circumstances" that allow each couple to "adapt" individually (personal lines). I told them that such a balance (general outlines and personal adaptation) is what I read in Elder Oaks' talk - honoring and valuing each, but crafting a personal combination that is our own.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Joseph Smith and Paul, the Apostle: A Short Comparison

I have spoken with more than a few non-Mormon Christians about their skepticism of Joseph Smith's claim to have seen a vision, and much of their concern is rooted in their belief that such claims are absurd and/or their disagreement with some of the doctrines he subsequently taught.  My response generally centers on the example of Paul, the early Christian apostle - whom they all accept as a prophet of God. 

1) I don't see any difference in unbelievability between the accounts of the individual visions.  Both of them were "fantastic" at the time - and the VAST majority of people who heard Paul didn't believe a word of it either, even as skilled an orator as Paul was. His travels and teachings are quite well-documented; his vision is his word alone. Period. In those ways (nature and acceptance level), there is no substantive difference between Joseph's and Paul's claims. 

2) There is serious disagreement among scholars as to whether or not any of the important details in the Bible (especially the Old Testament, but even the New Testament) are accurate to any measurable degree (the details, not some of the large events) - and that's not limited to just the miraculous claims. Therefore, it is FAR more debatable that the men described in the Bible were anything like their descriptions than it is about Joseph Smith - both the apologetic and the dismissive descriptions. 

3) Paul was a hardcore fanatic. He went from an extreme, Christian-killing Jew to an extreme, Jesus-preaching Christian. In other words, his basic personality didn't change in the slightest; only his religious orientation did.  To use modern examples, he makes Pres. Benson and Elder McConkie look tame in some ways - even though he also preached charity and was instrumental in some of the biggest changes in the early church. In many ways, Elder Packer is probably the closest we have now to a modern-day Paul - since he has said some really conservative, exclusionary things but also some really progressive, compassionate things. I am pretty sure Paul would be the focus of many posts written by mainline, liberal Protestants if he were a modern apostle - and I'm pretty sure many of them would not be flattering.  (I'm also pretty sure many evangelicals would not praise James - or even John, the Beloved - if his writings were presented outside the Bible.) 

My main point in this post is that Joseph Smith's claims and words are much more similar to Paul's than most people realize - particularly in how those claims and words were perceived in each time period by those who heard them.  My secondary point is that I'm sure many of the people who complain the most vocally about Joseph Smith would be complaining just as vocally about Paul - if he had lived in Joseph's time and not so long ago.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

On Independence Day, a Searing, Beautiful Reminder of How Badly We Need a Savior

Unraveling - Lynette (Zelophehad's Daughters)

I wish every member of the Church could read this post.  It took a lot of courage to write it, and I honor Lynette today for doing so. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Who Is a Christian?

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)

You are a Christian if you try to follow what you believe Jesus asked of people - if you try to live according to your understanding of his words and the will of the Father. It isn't about what you say - or even about many of the specific, theological details of what you believe.  It's about what you do and what that says about what you really believe, in practical terms.  It's not about being a theologian or a "believer".  It's about being a disciple and a "follower". 

To me, it's that simple. 

As an aside, in our 5th Sunday lesson a couple of years ago, one of the men in the ward mentioned how much easier it is to be a good Mormon than it is to be a good Christian. He said it calmly and introspectively about himself, and nobody batted an eye. I really like the thought behind his statement - that it's harder to live the life Jesus asked of his disciples than it is to obey a checklist of do's and don'ts that gives an outward appearance of discipleship. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

We will not hear their stories, nor will we see their divinely created faces.

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra - Margaret Blair Young (By Common Consent)

My comment from the post is #3:

There are elements of Mormon theology that truly are different than other faith traditions, and those unique aspects can be important and powerful, but I believe there is so much more than we share without realizing it – simply because we describe those things differently – simply because our religious languages are different. We tend to argue so much over things that, in reality, aren’t that different – or even are identical in the end.

My Sunday School lesson this week is on the beginning war chapters of the Book of Mormon, and I was struck again as I was preparing it that we use war language in so many situations where there is no attack occurring. We create divisions and then justify our oppositional language and actions based on the unnecessary divisions we create.

We are called to seek unity, yet we divide so naturally – both inside and outside the Church. Truly, in this way, especially, the natural man is an enemy to God.

Monday, July 1, 2013

I Ususally Don't Post Political Things Here, but Shame on Us

I have registered as an Independent for a while now, and I have major problems with both of the primary political parties in the United States.  I try to vote for individuals, and I never vote based on straight party line.  I write this blog in order to record for my children and others "the things of my soul" - so nearly all of the posts deal with religious topics, particularly those that deal with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which I am a member.

Sometimes, however, something happens in the political arena that bothers me so much that I simply can't help but write about it, because it deals directly with the things of my soul and the heart of the Gospel in which I believe - a Gospel that is just as "social" (in the sense that it strives to embrace and serve people in the here and now, especially those who are marginalized and despised) as it is "theological".  Last week, such an event happened, and it appalled me.  I understand the justifications that were used, but the decision appalled me, nonetheless.

The Supreme Court decided in Shelby County v. Holder to overturn a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the most important acts in our American history.  That section required federal oversight of changes to voting procedures in areas that historically have used a “test or device” to deny the right to vote, and the Supreme Court's decision removed that requirement.

The following is a link to a sample test that was used in the 1960s, prior to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  I highlight it here in part as a result of being a history teacher by training and a social scientist by nature.  I hope everyone who reads the questions understands how impossible the test was and also recognizes the "fail safe" built into the test by making the registrar (who always was white) the official scorer of the test. 

 "Take the Impossible "Literacy" Test Louisiana Gave Black Voters in the 1960's (Slate) 

My point is nothing more than to express my sorrow that our Supreme Court would strike down federal oversight of a civil right so fundamental to our current form of democratic expression, that had been abused so egregiously for so long, after only two-three generations of the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  In terms of history, that is like parents lifting restrictions on parental oversight of a seventeen-year-old child with a history of alcoholic abuse and drunk driving, complete with multiple cases of vehicular manslaughter, after a year of sobriety.  It is stupid, and it is wrong.