Saturday, August 31, 2013

Why Our Meetings Don't Rock - and How They Appropriately Could

I wrote this post three years ago, and it came to mind this morning as I was realizing I hadn't taught Sunday School last week (Stake Conference) and didn't have a lesson summary to post.  I hope it helps someone, somehow, to re-post it today - updated in a couple of spots to reflect my current situation.  
Personally, I think the focus on hymns and little instrumentation in Sacrament Meeting is a position taken in opposition to what is perceived as over-emotionalization in worship - a substitution of emotionalism for what we perceive as spirituality - a perception of emotional manipulation compared to encouraging the still, small voice. I appreciate that concern (and share it), but I am not overjoyed (in the pure sense of that word) as much as I'd like in our meetings. 

I wish we were more open to expanding our musical experiences in church, but I also believe there is deep truth in the concern that governs what we do. That belief was reinforced every time I saw the commercials where I used to live for a "church that rocks" - commercials where 5-year-old kids were shaking wildly to the rock band's music as they were "moved by the Spirit of God". I appreciate differing expressions of worship among religious traditions very much, but that image disturbed me then, and its memory disturbs me still.  I think the brethren really do understand the concern of members for a broader range of musical expression in our worship, but I also think I understand their hesitancy to loosen the reins officially - especially when the actual Church Handbook of Instructions' guidelines allow for MUCH more than most members realize.

I believe if the CHI was understood better (especially the difference between "should", "may", "some", etc. and "shall", "must", "never", etc.) and followed more closely (especially the constant call to follow the Spirit in making real-life decisions), it actually would loosen up the Church musically.  (And not just musically, but in many other significant ways. That's a different post, however.)

Friday, August 30, 2013

What Is the Best Kind of Service?

I separate the answer to the question in the title into two categories:

What is the best kind of service for me?

As a giver, the best kind of service is that which I choose (or am inspired) to give.  There is great value in "organized service" - but the service I give proactively means more to me as I give it, speaking broadly. 

As a receiver, the best kind of service is what I need - not what others think I need and especially not what they assume I need when I really don't.  I appreciate almost all efforts to help me in some way, but there have been cases in my life when I would rather not have received what was given - simply because it wasn't needed.  

For those who receive my service, what is the best kind of service?

What they need - and, especially, that for which they ask when able to do so.   I think we miss wonderful opportunities to give what truly is needed when we fail to ask before giving what we assume is needed. 

Outside of expressed need, the best service generally has been that which I give naturally when I happen to be where and when it is needed the most and that which I am impressed to give "unnaturally" (when I have felt I needed to give what I normally would not give) - and that which requires communal effort to achieve.

With that in mind, it's interesting to me that, perhaps, we can't serve fully unless we serve individually AND as part of a community.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

We Can't Have Only Leaders Who Agree wth Us

This post is a more in-depth response to the question I posed in last Friday's post: 

On one hand, many people in the Bloggernacle would love it if church leaders stopped setting standards for lots of things – especially doctrinal and cultural standards that all must follow in order to be considered believing Mormons; on the other hand, there are lots of statements saying those same leaders should speak more forcefully about issues where problems are perceived.

At the heart of it all, I believe the real issue is whether we want leaders who dictate to us and squelch opposition by speaking out about everything or leaders who teach principles and allow people to govern themselves – or exactly where on that line we want them to be. My sense is that most people want leaders who will forcefully speak out about those issues that are important to those people – but shut up about those issues with which those people would disagree with what is said. In other words, generally speaking, we want leaders who agree with us and will change things to how we want them to be.

Some people want all apostles to be Elder McConkies or Pres. Youngs; others want all apostles to be Elder Wirthlins or Pres. Uchtdorfs.

Some people might hear only one instrument in their own ward or branch and stake – and they might get so attuned to hearing only that one instrument that they have a hard time hearing the others, but I believe there are FAR more unique instruments playing FAR more unique counter-melodies and harmonies than most people realize – largely because most of them play much more softly than the piercing piccolos.  I also think that's true to a greater degree among apostles than most people realize - and I really like that.

I want our apostles, collectively, to be diverse enough to speak to all members, collectively.  I want Elder McConkie and Elder Wirthlin - Pres. Smith(s), Pres. Young, Pres. Hinckley - Elder Tanner and Elder Maxwell, Pres. Brown and Pres. Packer - Paul, Peter, James and John.  That can be uncomfortable for members who want to live in an echo chamber and hear only what they would say, but it is the only way of which I am aware to hear inspired messages I would not speak naturally - and I believe it is only in those moments of uncomfortable or unnatural recognition of my own current limitations that the most profound growth is possible. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

When Suffering Seems Never-Ending

Suffering with those who suffer - Rebecca J (By Common Consent)

Don't skip ahead in the post, but the concluding sentence is stunning. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Time Away This Week: My Dad Is Dying

My father has reached the point in his life where he is ready to die.

He has taken care of my mom, under difficult circumstances for decades, and he knows she will be okay now - that my brother and his wife will take over her care. He is extremely tired, having lived, in practical terms, many years beyond his age. (If you want to read a tribute I wrote about him six years ago, the link is: "My Niece Died This Morning") He has stopped taking his medication and stopped eating and drinking. He might pass away this week, or it might take a little longer - depending on if he decides to eat or drink a little occasionally.

My father is one of the most Christ-like people I know in following the injunction:

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend."  

As I wrote in the post linked above, he literally laid down his own life to support my mother in her need - taking up a life he never imagined or desired when they were married.  I will honor him forever for that simple, loving action - even if it were the only reason to honor him, which it isn't.  

He is at peace with the decision, and my family is honoring his wishes. He says he wants to see my older sister, his parents and others who have passed on before him.

I am flying to Oklahoma tomorrow to be with him, my mom and my brother and sister who live near them. I will try to check in at night while I am gone, and I have written and scheduled posts for this week (and would appreciate comments on them), but I won't be able to comment much this week.

Friday, August 23, 2013

What Should the Church Give Us?

Something struck me a while ago about many of the posts I've read over the course of the time I've been commenting in the Bloggernacle. I'm going to block it off as a quote just to highlight it:

Many threads complain that the Church tells us what to do too much - except in those instances where it doesn't give us enough direction.

I really think there's a profound "something" in there - and I'd like to hear everyone's thoughts about it before I add my own commentary.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"What Alcoholics Anonymous Taught Me About Repentance"

What Alcoholics Anonymous Taught Me About Repentance - Mark Brown (By Common Consent)

The post is wonderful, and I want to highlight an excerpt from comment #7 from one of my favorite people, Thomas Parkin:

One of the great things about seeing ourselves as fundamentally broken is that it relieves us of the guilt of being fundamentally broken.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

No Family (Biological or Ward) Should Exclude Homosexual Members from Participation in Its Circle

Thank you, Rich Alger, for linking to something Elder Quentin L. Cook said in a video posted on the LDS Church's website regarding homosexuals and the Church.  I am providing the link to Rich's post - and excerpting one part of Elder Cook's comments.

Be at the Forefront in terms of Expressing Love - Rich Alger

No matter how one feels about homosexuality (from one extreme to the other and at every point between the two extremes), I hope every member of the LDS Church someday understands, accepts and internalizes Elder Cook's message below:

I think the lesson that I learned from that is that as a Church nobody should be more loving and compassionate. No family who has anybody who has a same-gender issue should exclude them from the family circle. They need to be part of the family circle. Do we teach the Proclamation on the Family, do we teach Heavenly Father’s plan, do we teach the first chapter in the second handbook, yes we do. We have a plan of salvation. And having children come into our lives is part of Heavenly Father’s plan. But let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach to those and let's not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender. 

Inasmuch as we do unto (those whom we naturally see as) the least of these, our brethren and sisters, we do unto Jesus.   If we exclude them, we exclude our Savior.  Period.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Some Things That Are Lovely in Concept Are Repugnant in Pracitce

A friend and I were talking once about another denomination's worship service he attended, and the following is the heart of our conversation:

My friend said:

I went to a special noon-hour service at a local church. At one point, the pastor had all attendants approach the front area and kneel. He then went around, placing his hands on each head, saying, "By the commandment of Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins." It was very different from what I'm used to as a lifelong Mormon, and as I watched it happen to several others I had mixed feelings. Then those words were uttered to me, and I felt God's love at that very moment. 

My response was:

That sounds like a very sincere and affirming service - but it is an example of a religious tradition I simply can't accept personally (the feeling of love which accompanied it, notwithstanding). I understand and don't question that someone with a repentant heart can feel the Spirit in that situation testifying of God's love, but the practice itself is one I instinctively question - and I don't like it after considering it. All of us have something about Mormon culture that bothers us, and this is something about that other culture that bothers me.

1) I don't like the idea that a mortal can forgive sins someone commits against someone else. Someone who has not been harmed in a real way has no business, in my opinion, saying they forgive someone. To me, that cheapens the real, often deep, pain sin can cause in the victim's life. Forgiveness, I believe, carries with it the assumption of harm in some way - and only the harmed have the right to forgive.

2) I don't like the idea that someone who often has no idea what sins someone has committed can say, "I forgive your sins." What if there was a congregant who was sexually abusing his children? What if there was someone who refused to pay child support? What if there was someone who was physically abusing his or her spouse? What if there was a habitual adulterer? What if the person simply was not repentant in any way? 
3) I really do believe in the concept and principle of repentance as one of the core aspects of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and such a practice, in theory, destroys that need. At least in Catholicism, there is a foundation of confession; in the case you described, there doesn't seem to be any "condition" on the forgiveness - and that is really, really "wrong" to me.

In summary, I get it that it can be a wonderful experience for someone who is humble and has a broken heart and contrite spirit, and I get it that it might be considered symbolic in that tradition - but it might not, and, taken literally, I really don't like a mortal forgiving sins about which he doesn't know and for which the sinner doesn't have a repentant heart.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: The Family Proclamation; Part 2

Last Sunday, we talked about the rest of "The Family: A Proclamation to the World". This is going to be long, since we went through the all but the first three paragraphs (covered last week) sentence-by-sentence and talked about what each sentence means.

I began the lesson by reminding them that I had skipped the sentence last week dealing with gender, identity and purpose, and I told them that I had thought a lot about how to address that sentence openly and honestly with them. I told them that my own view on those topics is outside the norm for most members - that it is not orthodox - and that I didn't feel comfortable sharing that view with them as their Sunday School teacher. I told them that I would be wiling to discuss it with any of them on an individual basis, as long as their parent(s) approved, but that we simply would skip it in the setting of a Sunday School lesson.

"The first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife. We declare that God's commandment to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force."

We talked about that first commandment - to multiply and replenish the earth. I mentioned that some people can't have kids and others never marry, so this isn't a universal commandment that must be followed, but rather a commandment for those who can multiply within marriage. For example, I told them explicitly that I would rather have someone die single than marry just to marry and end up being miserable and/or abused their entire lives. We also talked about the fact that the LDS Church has NO mandate relative to how many children any couple should have and that there are top leaders who don't have large families - and, in some cases, have no children or are not married.

We talked about how in the temple Adam and Eve report their partaking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden to the Lord - and how, in a very real way, Adam chose to suffer with his wife rather than remain in paradise with God.

"We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife."

We put it in direct, simple terms: No sex outside of marriage - and I pointed out that there is no prohibition in this wording on intimacy that is not procreative. I mentioned our previous lesson about the actual wording of the Law of Chastity in the temple and how the Church does not take any official stance on what can and cannot be done within marriage.

"We declare the means by which mortal life is created to be divinely appointed."

We put it in direct, simple terms, which started as, "Sex is good." I told them the sentence goes further than that by calling it divinely appointed. I told them that I hate it when I hear any member of the LDS church echo the old Catholic original sin concept and call sex bad, dirty, or in any other way that implies negative connotations.

"We affirm the sanctity of life and of its importance in God's eternal plan."

I asked them what that means and what issues are addressed in it. One of the students said, "No abortion" - so we talked about the Church's official statement about abortion. We talked about how it emphasizes that life is sacred, but it also mentions explicit cases where abortion is not forbidden - like rape, incest, the health of the mother (and I mentioned that the wording includes emotional health, not just physical health). It also says, ultimately, that the decision is up to the parent(s) involved. We talked about how the Church no longer encourages teenage mothers to marry the father in all cases or have the grandparents raise the child - that the counsel is to give birth to the child and allow it to be adopted. We talked about why that is the current counsel - all of the issues related to teenage parenthood and marriage and the effects on the parents and the baby. I told them that we do not see abortion automatically as murder, like many other people do. I told them that the best description I have heard of the statement is that it is BOTH pro-life AND pro-choice - but that, ultimately, it is based on agency and individual accountability.

The next paragraph deals with caring for children and how God will hold people accountable for how they do that. There was a very good talk in Sacrament Meeting about that basic topic given by one of the students in the class, so I endorsed what was said in that talk and we moved on to the next paragraph.

"The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan."

I simply reiterated what I said last week about being aware of and sensitive to how we teach that within a group that includes many people who are not part of traditional families.

"Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity."

I told them I believe deeply in the "general ideal" being taught in this sentence, but that I am bothered by how badly it is misused by some people. We talked about what "entitled" means (possessing a right), so this sentence is focused on what would be ideal for children - to be raised by a couple who are faithful to each other. I asked them if they would support taking children away from single parents - or putting children into abusive situations simply because the parents were married and monogamous. They all agreed they wouldn't do that, so I emphasized again, like when we talk about interpreting scriptures, that we can't pull something out of context and use it in selective, damaging, uncharitable ways.

The rest of the paragraph deals with happiness in family life and parental responsibilities, and since we have talked about that paragraph in at least two former lessons, we simply emphasized that it is up to each couple to decide how to balance the things they have to do to care for their families. As an example, I mentioned that I know some Mormon couples where the husband stays home and takes care of the kids while the wife works - and that such an arrangement is not forbidden in the actual wording of the proclamation. I told them that they have to make those decisions on their own when they get married and that they shouldn't do anything just because most other people do it. They have to take responsibility for how they structure their marriage and family life.

We also talked about what it means to have a marriage and family "founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ" - that it does NOT say successful marriages and families have to be Mormon or Christian or anything else. As long as the teachings of Jesus are the foundation, even if Jesus is not known to the people, successful, "ideal" marriages exist - and Mormon or Christian marriages are worse than other marriages if they are not founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the others are.

"We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity (adultery, particularly, since the word "covenant" is used), who abuse spouse or offspring (in any way, not just physical or sexual), or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God."

I told them about the temple recommend question about obligations for children and how someone is not supposed to receive a temple recommend if they are not taking care of their children - like failing to pay child support, for example.

"Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets."

I emphasized that this is focused on "disintegration" - NOT general issues all marriages and families face and not occasional divorce or death. I told them how much I am bothered whenever I hear this sentence used to preach against divorce in a broad, general way - again, because it hurts good people doing their best to cope with divorces that are necessary and, in many cases, better than really bad marriages. I also told them about working for years in places where the out-of-wedlock birth rate is over 90% - and how "calamity" is a good description of what life is like for those communities and many of the children, especially, who are raised in them.

"We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society."

I told them that there are controversial things we could discuss relative to this sentence, but I stressed instead practical things like parental leave policy differences between Europe and America - how much longer the leave is for parents in Europe and how fathers can take paternity leave as part of that extended leave, if the mother returns to work before it ends. I told them that there are so may "simple things" like that we need to address that it would be a shame to spend all of our effort fighting people and ignoring the things that actually can improve our own marriages and family lives.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Is Sign-Seeking an Indication of Adulterous Behavior?

This is a bit tricky, since we ask people all the time to pray and ask God about what we teach - in essence, inviting them to seek for a sign from God about what they should do.  Therefore, sign-seeking as a negative action has to mean something other than a simple, generic request for evidence.  

When you look at the way the statement is worded ("An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign."), it appears to me that when "sign seeking" (an attitude that nothing at all will be believed or accepted or followed unless visible proof is available) is so strong among an entire "generation" of covenant people that it is impossible for that "people" to have faith in anything because they actively are "seeking" miraculous signs, that "people" has rejected its "covenant marriage" to the God they say they worship and, thus, in Biblical terms, is "adulterous" in that relationship to God.

The usage of adultery as a metaphor for Israel's actions toward God is nearly omni-present in the Bible - and that's how I read the statement about an evil and adulterous generation seeking a sign.

Don't get me wrong: I do think a need for proof in all things is negative and confining / binding, since it is the antithesis of faith.  I just don't think every individual who asks for a sign - even a miraculous one, automatically can be classified as an adulterer in the literal, physical sense of the word.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Knee-Deep in Mud and Muck and Manure . . . then Contemplating the Cosmos and Communing with God

Temples are highly symbolic of what makes our theology so radically different than the rest of Christianity - frankly, the parts of our theology that are the most compelling and mind-blowing to me.

One of my favorite quotes is from a farmer I knew as a youth. It has stuck with me for decades because of its poetry and imagery. He said, to the best of my recollection:

The wonder of Mormonism is that a common farmer like me can spend the morning with my legs knee-deep in mud and muck and manure worried about crops and cows and crap then spend the evening with my head in the clouds contemplating the cosmos and communing with God.

I'm sure he heard that from someone else, since he didn't talk like that normally and since I heard Richard Bushman say something very similar in a meeting once, but that idea of sacred space where we are able to get away from the crap in our lives and open our minds to the mysteries of the eternities really resonated with me at the time - and I still love that overall perspective, regardless of any other issues.

Jan Shipps said in a lecture I attended a couple of years ago that the day the LDS Church quits building temples and teaching temple theology is the day it ceases to be unique and fascinating to her as an outsider - and I think there is a profoundness to that view coming from someone who has spent 50 years studying Mormonism as a devout Methodist.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Problem with Shaming: or, Christ "Drenched the World in Grace"

A Roundabout Response to Rosalynde Welch's "Shame, Stigma and Social Engineering" - Jacob (By Common Consent) 

Rather  than just link to a post today, I want to provide the link but excerpt one specific part of it here.  I have added paragraph breaks to make it a little more readable, and I added a little of my own opinion in parenthetical comments: 

Shame and guilt are natural consequences of the violation of eternal and social norms, and such would not be the case if they were not norms. That these must be actually communicated to community members is no doubt critical (since they will not be understood otherwise). But this communication also naturally occurs through traditional practices and institutions–class instruction, reading sacred texts, hearing testimony, observing how families and relationships function, listening to teachings and warnings of apostles and prophets. (Thus, they need not be stressed in order to be taught - and they certainly need not be preached nearly non-stop.)

(For example) There is virtually no member of any LDS religious community who does not know about the importance of marriage and therefore the undesirability of divorce. In such a family-centric community like Mormonism one can easily anticipate the natural consequences of ending a marriage, regardless and apart from social stigma–effects on children, parents, covenants, church standing, etc that are unavoidable. Applying additional social pressure and dishonor, even through trying to artificially reinforce teachings about marriage (as if the violator of the social norm simply didn’t quite understand what she was doing) is in essence taking on a mandate of re-revealing the law over and over, ensuring its lawfulness by insisting on justice outside the normative force of the law itself. This happens when we insist on some kind of punishment or judgment beyond which the law already metes out as the law.

Consequently, (in most cases) I think we should completely jettison any kind of mechanism that we might attach ourselves to that sees any good in providing additional shame and opprobrium beyond what the sin in question naturally dispenses. Shame should quite simply be not a part of our expressive vocabulary, nor seen as having any social utility that we must point to and reinforce. Kierkegaard, interestingly, combined the law and love in his phrase, “dutiful love,” that it is our lawful duty to love God and neighbor because Christ’s existence and sacrifice fulfilled the Law and drenched the world in grace. The law that concerns us then, as far as our neighbor is concerned simply (yet more demandingly than anything else) is the law of love.
 (Rosalynde's post can be found here: "Shame, Stigma and Social Engineering" - and I recommend reading it, as well.)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Understanding Sacrifices that Seem Strange to Us

All of us - every single one of us - sacrifices in some way that seems ludicrous and laughable to someone else. That is extremely important to remember. 

If I don't believe something is important, it isn't important in any practical way for me - no matter how passionately someone else believes it.

If I do believe it is important, it is important for me - no matter how passionately someone else disagrees.

If I don't believe it is important, I can choose to mock it and belittle it - or I can choose to disagree and honor the effort to live according to the dictates of the other person's own conscience.

I'm much more interested "spiritually" in how I respond to what I consider to be absurd than in the one engaged in the absurd - although I am very interested in the absurd on a purely intellectual level.

Again, I fight the urge to view others and what I see as their "weird" beliefs in a way that is inconsistent with how I want others to view me and what they see as my own "weird" beliefs. That's really, really important to me personally - actually one of my most fundamental efforts.

Motes and beams and kettles and pots and all that jazz.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: "The Family: A Proclamation to the World"; Part 1

This month's topic is "Marriage and Family". The very first resource listed in the lesson outlines is "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" - and we are going through it sentence-by-sentence and discussing it in detail. We will be going over what the words themselves mean, the history of how we and other religions have viewed what it written and the implications in our broader society and culture.

We made it through the first three paragraphs today, so this is going to take two or three weeks.

"We . . . solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator's plan for the eternal destiny of His children."

We talked about the wording of "a man and a woman" - and how that is different than in the past, when polygamy was accepted; we talked about what "ordained" means (sanctioned or set apart in some way); we talked about other family structures (one-parent families, grandparents raising grandchildren, gay marriage, etc.) and how we need to treat people in marriages and families that aren't "a man and a woman" (with children).

All of them agreed with the student who said we need to respect and love people, regardless of their family situations.

I mentioned a friend of mine whom I respect greatly. She is a convert; her husband got into addictive activities that were highly destructive; they ended up getting divorced; she is pursuing an advanced degree while trying to raise her children on her own; etc. I told them how much she loves the Church and the Gospel and that the hardest thing about attending church meetings for her is the constant tsunami of messages she and her kids hear every week about the "ideal family" - that the message she gets constantly is that her family situation sucks - that her children get told (as part of the general Primary group) to go home and talk with their parents (plural) about what they heard that week - etc. I asked what we can do to help her and others in different situations not feel so alone and, sometimes, attacked at church - and we talked about various answers. I told them that I believe the most important, fundamental things we can do is be aware of other people as we talk about marriage and family and be willing to not beat them over the head with this type of belief once we become aware of how it can affect them to hear it so frequently and stridently.

It was an excellent discussion and lasted much longer than I thought it would.

"All human beings - male and female - are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny."

We talked about how our theology says each of them, the boys and the girls, is a child of God and can become like God and gods in their own right. We talked about the historic association with God being spoken of in exclusively male terms, and I asked them what this wording says about that idea. When one of the students began by saying, "He . . .", I immediately interrupted and pointed out that always talking about God and using "he" reinforces the idea that "God" is a male figure and completely ignores our teaching about having a Heavenly Mother who also is God in every meaningful sense.

"Gender is an essential characteristic of of individual premortal, moral, and eternal identity and purpose."

I laughed and told them that I get a kick out of this sentence, since "gender" has role connotations, while the more accurate word to fit the meaning I believe is intended is "sex" (as in, biological sex). I told them that most people wouldn't read it that way, however, if the sentence said, "Sex is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal and eternal identity and purpose" - so I believe the leadership chose to use "gender" instead. They all got a chuckle out of that.

I told them that the kind of discussion we had about the first paragraph is important for this sentence, as well - but that I wanted to be able to take enough time to talk about it extensively and answer any of their questions, so we were going to skip it for now and come back to it next week or the following week.

"In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshiped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize their divine destiny as heirs of eternal life."

We talked about how each and every person who is born has chosen once to accept and follow God and, therefore, they will be blessed as a result. We talked about looking at other people, no matter how different they are, and seeing them as valued, loved brothers and sisters - seeing them as worthy of God's love and our own love.

"The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave."

We talked about what that means in practical terms. The description everyone liked the best was of great-grandparents who live together and watch their own children who live together, watching their own children who live together, who are raising their children still - NOT each couple living with and raising their children. I mentioned that I will be my children's father forever, but they will be their own children's parents simultaneously.

That was an eye-opening discussion for some of them.

"Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally."

I mentioned again, after all the lessons last month, that I love the temple ordinances as symbolic of our belief in being united with our ancestors and willingness to accept living eternally with all of the rest of God's children. We talked about the difference between predestination and fore-ordination, and I told them directly that I cannot worship a God who would created people and condemn them to a life of eternal torment and separation regardless of their choices.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Very Short Tribute to Emma Smith

Joseph Smith was a complicated man, but, if I had to summarize him as concisely as possible, without using any religious words and without considering his prophetic role, I probably would say:

Joseph was an explorer who embraced experimentation and was open to trying almost anything that came to him.  

If I had to summarize Emma Smith as concisely as possible, I would say:

Emma was an amazing woman who was very different in personality than the husband she loved and supported with all her heart - and I believe she is guaranteed a place in Heaven, because she already has gone through Hell. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Religions Lost the Homosexuality Debate the Minute They Adopted the "Unnatural" Justification

 I read something recently, and I think it's important to understand the answer to the question it asked.  I'm not saying the following question is right or wrong in this post; I'm just saying it's important to answer the question adequately. 

So say we agree that sexual orientation is primarily a function of nature. What then? Does it change anything about the debate?

Absolutely - as long as one side keeps insisting that it's universally unnatural - that all gay people choose to be gay. (especially if the claim is that they choose to FEEL homosexual attractions)

Does it change the "right" vs. "wrong" debate? Not really, especially for those (like Mormons) who don't have a "natural is always right" philosophy in the first place. However, it absolutely makes those who condemn it find a  "valid" reason to condemn it, since calling it unnatural simply isn't valid. It's an ignorant, incorrect argument, and it really shouldn't be made.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying all homosexual activity is biological and unavoidable and inevitable. I'm not saying there is no choice in the matter of one's sexual activity. I'm not saying anything like that. I'm not even arguing in this thread that homosexuality is good, bad, okay or reprehensible. There's no moral judgment in this thread at all. I'm just saying the discussion ought to be grounded in reality and solid arguments, and saying homosexuality (the feeling) and homosexual activity (the actions) are unnatural simply isn't reality or a solid argument.

That's why I say religions lost the debate the minute they latched onto the "unnatural" justification. That argument simply is wrong. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tithing is Not a Financial Insurance Policy

I don't tie financial reward to the payment of tithing, like paying tithing is some kind of financial insurance policy. I would be a hypocrite if I did. I've lived the extremes - paying tithing and losing a house, paying tithing and getting help from the Church to stay in a house, and paying tithing and keeping a nice house.

I don't doubt some people's experiences with really cool things that helped them pay their bills, but I don't believe it is the default for all tithe payers. The rain falls on the just AND the unjust, and financial hardship hits the tithe-payers AND the non-tithe-payers.  Also, I do believe that those who contribute a significant part of their income to some cause tend to live more within their means - probably because they have to be more conscious of a budget.

I'm not saying there are no significant benefits to paying tithing.  I believe there are great blessings, and I believe in the windows of heaven promise of Malachi.  I just don't pay expecting to receive financial benefits; I pay to help fund the operation of the LDS Church and build the kingdom. 

That's enough for me.  Any other blessings are an unexpected gift. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Masonry and Changes in the Endowment

We were going to combine the youth classes last Sunday and have the missionaries show the students how they teach investigators about ordinances and covenants, but we had a transfer in our ward last week, and the missionaries apparently didn't get the message about the lesson plans - so I ended up giving a lesson that was a continuation of our discussion last week about temple ordinances and, in particular, the endowment.  I was able to talk with them in more detail about some of the things we simply didn't have time to discuss last week - primarily the Masonic connection and the changes that have occurred over time.

I started by mentioning again how I see the endowment as an interactive play and a series of ordinances (Laws) that represent the covenants we make in this life.  We talked about baptism and the administration of the sacrament and how the exact way we perform them (the physical actions involved) isn't set in stone.  I gave the example of very large people being baptized and how it might not be possible to get them immersed in the traditional way we envision the ordinance.  We talked about different ways the physical actions could be performed - like finding a way to have deeper water available so the people only had to duck their heads to be fully immersed - or having extra people in the font to help lift them from the water - or having the people sit in the water, having someone sit above their legs, having them lie down in the water until they are fully immersed, then having them sit up, move to kneeling, then stand to leave the font - whatever it takes in individual situations to accomplish full immersion.  We had the same discussion about the sacrament and how the physical administration can be done in just about any way that makes sense for the congregation / family / person involved. 

I then explained Joseph Smith's statement that Mormonism embraces and encompasses all truth and goodness in the world.  I had them recite the 13th Article of Faith, focusing on "the admonition of Paul".  I asked someone to summarize that part as if they were teaching it to a five-year old in Primary.  The summary they liked the best was: "We accept and believe anything that is good and true."  I told them that Joseph had an amazing ability to see things that others taught and did and adapt those things into our own practices - like the Masonic aspects of how we perform the ordinances within the endowment.  (this also gave me a chance to dispel a couple of misconception about Masons that a student had.) 

We talked about the changes in the endowment since it was instituted back in the day.  We talked about the length, fabric and styles of the garment - and how things have gotten a lot better for women, especially, than they used to be, even though there still are issues that need to be addressed in that area.  We talked about what to do when garments get old and need to be replaced - and most of them understood the basics already, although it was new to some of them.  We talked about the length of the endowment ceremony.  We talked again (like last week) about the cultural change that led to the changes in the initiatory - that led the current version to resemble a standard Priesthood blessing in form.  We discussed the cultural change from a time when members literally had to worry about being killed if they wouldn't talk about the endowment to our day now when they probably won't face that threat - and, in very general terms, about the change in the endowment as a result.  We talked about the dropping of the minister from the play and the former reference to specific Christian leaders, especially since we now are a world-wide church in which many members would not understand the former presentation in any meaningful way and where we are trying more openly to work with other denominations in many ways we simply didn't do in the past. 

I ended by telling them that more changes wouldn't shock me in the slightest - and that I believe some of the next changes probably will deal with concerns many women have with the current version. 

The students won't understand everything when they go to the temple for the first time, but I believe none of them will be shocked or surprised - and I believe that is important.

Two Deeply Profound Quotes by Sister Chieko Okazaki on the Atonement and Diversity in the Church

Sister Okazaki passed away two years ago today.  She was one of my favorite speakers of all time.  The following two quotes are great examples of why.  I highly recommend her books and public talks to every member of the LDS Church - and everyone else, for that matter:

1) On the universality of the Atonement and Jesus' understanding of our pain and suffering

“Well, my dear sisters, the gospel is the good news that can free us from guilt. We know that Jesus experienced the totality of mortal existence in Gethsemane. It’s our faith that he experienced everything- absolutely everything. Sometimes we don’t think through the implications of that belief. We talk in great generalities about the sins of all humankind, about the suffering of the entire human family. But we don’t experience pain in generalities. We experience it individually. That means he knows what it felt like when your mother died of cancer- how it was for your mother, how it still is for you. He knows what it felt like to lose the student body election. He knows that moment when the brakes locked and the car started to skid. He experienced the slave ship sailing from Ghana toward Virginia. He experienced the gas chambers at Dachau. He experienced Napalm in Vietnam. He knows about drug addiction and alcoholism.
Let me go further. There is nothing you have experienced as a woman that he does not also know and recognize. On a profound level, he understands the hunger to hold your baby that sustains you through pregnancy. He understands both the physical pain of giving birth and the immense joy. He knows about PMS and cramps and menopause. He understands about rape and infertility and abortion. His last recorded words to his disciples were, “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20) He understands your mother-pain when your five-year-old leaves for kindergarten, when a bully picks on your fifth-grader, when your daughter calls to say that the new baby has Down syndrome. He knows your mother-rage when a trusted babysitter sexually abuses your two-year-old, when someone gives your thirteen-year-old drugs, when someone seduces your seventeen-year-old. He knows the pain you live with when you come home to a quiet apartment where the only children are visitors, when you hear that your former husband and his new wife were sealed in the temple last week, when your fiftieth wedding anniversary rolls around and your husband has been dead for two years. He knows all that. He’s been there. He’s been lower than all that. He’s not waiting for us to be perfect. Perfect people don’t need a Savior. He came to save his people in their imperfections. He is the Lord of the living, and the living make mistakes. He’s not embarrassed by us, angry at us, or shocked. He wants us in our brokenness, in our unhappiness, in our guilt and our grief.  (from her book, Lighten Up

2) On the many ways to be a faithful Mormon woman and, by extension, a faithful Mormon man

All of us women have an image of the ideal family—a marriage in the temple to an active priesthood holder, and children who are obedient and faithful. But President Ezra Taft Benson has pointed out that only 14 percent of American households in 1980 match the traditional image of a family—working husband, full-time mother with children still in the home. 2 Reliable statistics indicate that only one out of five LDS families in the United States have a husband and wife married in the temple with children in their home. As Elder M. Russell Ballard has already reminded us, there is great diversity in LDS homes. But all of these homes can be righteous homes where individuals love each other, love the Lord, and strengthen each other.
Let me give you an example. Here are two quilts. Both are handmade, beautiful, and delightful to snuggle down in or wrap around a grandchild. Now look at this quilt. It’s a Hawaiian quilt with a strong, predictable pattern. We can look at half of the quilt and predict what the other half looks like. Sometimes our lives seem patterned, predictable in happy ways, in order. Now look at this second quilt. This style is called a crazy quilt. Some pieces are the same color, but no two pieces are the same size. They’re odd shapes. They come together at odd angles. This is an unpredictable quilt. Sometimes our lives are unpredictable, unpatterned, not neat or well-ordered. Well, there’s not one right way to be a quilt as long as the pieces are stitched together firmly. Both of these quilts will keep us warm and cozy. Both are beautiful and made with love. There’s not just one right way to be a Mormon woman, either, as long as we are firmly grounded in faith in the Savior, make and keep covenants, live the commandments, and work together in charity. (“Strength in the Savior”, General Conference, October 1993)

Friday, August 2, 2013

What Kind of God Is a Being from Whom We Need to Be Rescued?

I have a Protestant friend who sees Jesus (God, the Son) as the great rescuer of mankind from God, the Father.  He takes this view from the contrast between the Old and New Testaments.  My question to that perspective is:

"What kind of God is a being from whom we need to be rescued?"

I can't stand that type of depiction of God, the Father. I don't believe that Jesus' mission was to rescue us from his Father's desired punishment, but even too many Mormons have bought into that apostate philosophy. Rather, in my opinion, it was to "make us free" to grow and become and fulfill the measure of our creation. I really love that particular concept - fulfilling the measure of our creation, not escaping God's intent.

To me, the difference is between a focus on "salvation" from death as the ultimate goal vs. exaltation and becoming like God.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Trying to Feel God's Love While Dealing with Mental Illness

A friend of mine shared the following personal viewpoint about trying to feel God's love while dealing with mental illness.  I thought it was profound at the time and decided to share it now.  I hope it helps someone, somehow: 
Part of the recurring problem is not being able to believe good about yourself. Hearing that someone has gained something positive from something you have done or had influence on can be a real pleasant surprise - if you are in a position to accept it. Some times, no matter how kind the words or how straight from the heart they come, they can't penetrate the lead shield that may be a temporary/long-term emotional state for someone with a mental illness. Still, I am grateful for your kind words.

One of the issues that I think can stand some scrutiny is the issue of what happens to worldview with a mental illness. All my life I was taught:

"The light of Christ is given to all men so they can know good from evil. If you do what's right, you will be blessed (always with the caveat that it may be in the next life that you are blessed)." 

This is a great principle. It sounds like a law of physics or a mathematical equation - when you do x, y will happen. You pray, you get a feeling someone is listening. You serve others, you get a warm fuzzy feeling inside.  

So what happens when it doesn't work for me? Did I just fall out of the human race / all men category?

We like rules to be comprehensive and without exception so we can count on them. Without rules that follow accepted patterns, the apple cart is upended and the whole world around you can go into flux. You think, "I don't know what I can count on anymore when life itself seems to change on a daily basis." This way of thinking could end tomorrow, or it could go on for decades or until the end of my life.

It is a shame that we mentally ill folk are so complicated. ("Doc, what do I do?" "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning." "Bishop, I don't feel things anymore. How do I feel the spirit?" "Just pray, and it will come to you.") The 2 + 2 equation breaks down like light around the event horizon of a black hole. (perhaps a more apt analogy than I intended!) Thus, it is not unreasonable to conclude that for some people, just doing the "prescribed" church standard answers will not necessarily result in an invariably positive result. Ergo: a faith crisis that may or may not have a resolution subject to missionary discussion-level prescriptions for "finding the truth."

By the way, I am not looking for anyone to diagnose or try to treat me or my issues. I have shared what I have in order to put forth the idea that there are people in the faith community of the LDS Church for whom the normal rules do not appear (I choose that word carefully) to work the same as they do for many others, or even themselves earlier in their lives. This is not a necessary consequence resulting from sin, lack of faith, apostasy, or not "doing the right things." In these cases, it simply "is" - as a result of who I "am".

If I could speak for others who may feel like me, I would want to say:

"We just want to know that we are not excluded (by biology, by genetics, by disease, by spiritual state, by nature) from what other faith-holding saints are able to feel and recall on a daily basis that guides them on their walk through life." However, I have to admit, I do feel like God has made an exception for us, and I struggle to believe that what happens in my life and my heart is "evidence" of a "loving" Father in Heaven. Thus, I am left to hope for things I can't see or feel. 

It is possible to feel alone standing in a room crowded with people - depending on if you feel excluded, not even necessarily by them but simply from them. It's also possible to feel the same way about God, even when you are doing everything "right". 

I don't need to be told to be more faithful; I just need to be loved and accepted for who I actually am.