Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Monday, December 29, 2014

Pres. Kimball: "I Made What I Thought Was the Loving Decision"

John L. Lund's Audio CD titled "Love One Another" includes the following, which I absolutely love (bolding is mine): 

There were some kinds of challenges that President Kimball had that were very, very difficult and it came to a point of sometimes weighing church membership in the balance and he had to make the decision. And it was on the basis of his decision that the first presidency of the Church would act at the time, because this was when he was an apostle.

President Kimball under those circumstances would say that sometimes lives are so complex, conditions are so incredibly confused, guilt and responsibility are so diffused in so many ways that it is very, very difficult and it is not a clear cut issue of right and of wrong. And he said that frequently with some of these more difficult problems he would pray mightily unto the Lord and ask for His guidance and direction and sometimes would not receive a clear cut answer as to the direction that he should proceed and that when that would happen, he would stop and ask himself the question:

“What is the loving thing to do?”

And he said, "Some day I know that I will stand before the judgment bar of God, and some of the decisions I made will have been wrong. I will have erred. I will have made a mistake that maybe the decision should have been another way."

And the Savior will ask me: 

“Why did you make that decision? That was not the correct decision.’"

And I will say with the integrity of my heart: 

"Lord, I did that because at the time I wasn’t sure what was the direction that I should go and so I made what I thought was the loving decision.”

I am confident that God will look down upon me on those occasions and forgive me of my error."  

Friday, December 26, 2014

Real, True, Living Love

When You Think Your Love Story Is Boring - Lisa-Jo Baker (Huff Post: Parents)

This generally won't be seen as a Christmas post, but it certainly can be. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

We Need to Stop Treating Adults in the Church Like Children or Youth

I really like most of what's in the For Strength of Youth pamphlet - and the points where I have any concerns at all tend to be minor points that aren't worth nit-picking.  Each of my kids has a pamphlet, and I would love it if they followed the spirit of almost everything in it.

My primary concern is the idea that what's right for youth is automatically right for adults - the idea that the For Strength of Youth pamphlet is appropriate for adults and ought to be viewed in the same way by those adults.  My concern is addressed perhaps most beautifully in the following words of Paul, the apostle, in his wonderful treatise on charity in 1 Corinthians 13:

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."  (verse 11)

One of the central parts of Mormon theology is the idea of eternal progression - of growing from grace to grace and learning line upon line, precept upon precept.  This vision depends on individual and communal evolution, on putting away childish things (things that are completely appropriate for children) and picking up adult things instead.  It requires our willingness to be children and youth, with standards applicable to those stages, and then move into adulthood, with a lessening of external constraints, a strengthening of internal control and a recognition of the need for "opposition in ALL things" - including the appearance of nuance and ambiguity that breaks down the former black-and-white boundaries of childish and youthful absolutism.  It requires a broader view of what is "virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy" than what sustained us in our youth. 

For example, as a child, I might have insisted that God does not recognize or honor the religious efforts of those who lack "The Priesthood" as we accept it in the LDS Church - but adulthood has brought me the ability to recognize and honor another religion's baptisms, for example, and still hold to the need to perform temple baptisms for the people who were baptized.  I am able to believe in both the symbolic and literal power of such ordinances (or either the symbolic or literal power) without devaluing or dismissing in any way the faith of the people outside the LDS Church who don't understand or accept temple ordinances.  That is an evolution of understanding that can occur with age and maturity, and I can believe in teaching the principle in different ways to children, youth and adults. 

"Standards" are the same.  I can have no problem with other people living "according to the dictates of their own conscience" - and even grant that some of our modern Mormon standards are not universal and better than other standards for other people.  I can have no problem with the general outlines of our dress standards (and I chose that phrasing carefully), but I also can have no problem with another culture that chooses to wear no clothing at all, as long as their sexual practices also value chastity, fidelity, loyalty and the rejection of sexual objectification. 

"Standards" are not the same thing as "the Gospel" - and whenever we tend toward treating adults as children, I believe we move away from treating them as developing gods.  (Some of the practices of our Young Adult and Single Adult programs are the best/worst examples of this, in my opinion.)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Turning the Verbal Cheek: Avoiding Forceful Defense When Not Required

We are wired biologically to attack and defend whenever we perceive threat. Therefore, it's easy ("natural") to fight about things; it's much harder to prove that you have no desire to attack - or defend forcefully. Often, perceived threats are not meant to be threats and only become such because of our reactions to them.  In other words, we often start arguments when none need occur simply by defending what isn't being attacked.  (and this occurs online much more often, because there is no way to see someone as they type and judge the intent of their words based on their body language - and because anonymity breeds aggression that often would not occur in person)

In situations where someone says something with which I disagree (even strongly, but not enough to feel I have to refute what they say), I usually just grin broadly, let my eyes twinkle a bit and say, "I like you WAY too much to fight about this" (sometimes with a hand on the other person's arm or shoulder, depending on the person) - then turn and walk away or start another, safer conversation.

It either calms the person down or makes him even madder - but, in a group setting where everyone hears what I say, it's impossible for the other person to keep arguing without coming across as a total jerk. I hope for the calming response, but if the madder response is unavoidable, so be it. At least the argument ends - or doesn't occur at all.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Jesus' Private, Intimate, Romantic and/or Sexual Life - and a Tribute to the Woman I Love

My 28th anniversary is today, so I have been thinking a lot the last few days about my marriage and how grateful I am that I met my wife 32 1/2 years ago - and the life we have shared since then.

I linked previously to a post by Jacob on By Common Consent entitled "Men, Sex and Modesty".  I came across an exchange I had in that thread with another commenter and felt like I should copy it as a separate post.  

The other person said:

“To the best of our knowledge, Christ loved women in a non-romantic way. He wasn’t dating them, trying to get their attention, wooing them, courting them, much less marrying and eventually having sex with them.”

I responded: 

We have nothing (absolutely nothing) to tell us one way or the other whether the assumption above is correct or not. Given our actual historical record, “to the best of our knowledge” can mean that Jesus did every single one of those things – and every argument I have heard that claims he did none of them is based on prior assumptions and not grounded in historical reality. Sure, he might have been celibate and lacked natural attractions – but that would deny an important part of how we view and talk about the Atonement, in my opinion.

Thus, I reject it and the argument flowing from it. 

The other person then accused me of being snarky, to which I replied (edited to combine three comments into one comprehensive comment): 

My response contains no snark whatsoever. None.

I reject the statement I quoted simply because it is based on an assumption that is not supported in the scriptural accounts we have. There literally is no way to say one way or the other, or anywhere in between, what Jesus thought, felt and did in regard to those things (how he loved women [romantically and/or non-romantically] and how he felt about “dating women, trying to get their attention, wooing them, courting them, much less marrying and eventually having sex with them"), since there is no context given of his life prior to his ministry. In fact, without the reference to Peter’s mother-in-law being sick, we would have nothing whatsoever about the intimate, private, romantic and sexual lives of any of Jesus’ closest disciples. We simply don’t know, and we ought to admit that rather than claiming we do to some degree.

In other words, there is no “to the best of our knowledge,” since there is no knowledge at all about those specific things. Lack of knowledge does not equal knowledge of anything except its lack – so there is nothing that can be extrapolated knowledgeably about things for which we have no detail.

Thus, “to the best of our knowledge” is useless when talking about how Jesus approached women romantically or sexually. The best of our knowledge in that field is the same as the worst of our knowledge – non-existent.

I personally believe Jesus was married and that he had a romantic, intimate and sexual life that he "laid down for his friends" when he became a minister and went on a mission, so to speak.  I might be wrong about that, since there simply is no way to know for certain, but I believe he experienced all we experience, in some way, and I believe that means he experienced our greatest joys as well as our greatest sorrows and sins.

Looking back on the last 32 years of my life, since I met my wife, and the last 28 years, since we were married, I choose to believe he experienced my greatest joy - that of being married to a woman whom I love with all my heart and soul.  I don't believe his life could be "perfect" (complete, whole, fully developed) without that experience. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

28 Years Ago Tomorrow

Tomorrow is my 28th anniversary.  The following is not original but rather an adaptation of something I heard a long time ago: 

When my wife and I got married, we agreed that I would make all the important decisions and she would make all the unimportant ones - since she already had made the most important decision in my life by agreeing to marry me.

28 years later, can you believe there hasn't been a single important decision since then? 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The LDS Church Is Anti-Intellectualism but Not Anti-Intelligence: The Importance of Light and Truth

I have read numerous charges that the LDS Church is opposed to "too much education" - which is demonstrably false when real data is studied.  Unlike most other religious denominations, within the LDS Church the higher one's educational attainment, the more likely one is to remain religiously active.  Also, there are clear and nearly innumerable statements about the importance of education and getting as much education as is possible.  There even is the oft-referenced verse in Doctrine & Covenants 93:36 that says:

The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth. 

One blogger summed up the LDS Church's view by saying that the glory of God is (not-too-much) intelligence, and the following was my response:

Yes, the title is correct – and it should be, if “not too much” means “an intellectualism which brings the person to obsessiveness or extreme pride and inflexibility”. There is a huge difference between “intelligence” (especially as our canon defines it) and “intellectualism”.

I like the D&C clarification of “or in other words, light and truth”. That gets missed in many conversations about what it means to be intelligent within the framework of the Restoration – and it defines the heart of the tension between being intelligent and being an intellectual, as those terms are used most often by the top-level leaders of the LDS Church. Intelligence becomes about clarity and real understanding, not the accumulation of information alone. Thus, my father who hated formal education and rejoiced when he escaped high school can be more intelligent than many of the students with whom I studied at Harvard who could recite all of the information they had read in classes and debate with anyone but who had no clue what it all meant and had no clarity and real understanding of the subjects they had studied and the people around them.

I think the Church, as an entity, encourages the type of intelligence described in the D&C – but, since it is comprised of individuals, that ideal gets emphasized, watered down or even rejected at each level moving throughout the organization. Thus, it’s difficult to make a generalized statement about “The Church” as a whole that is intelligent in nature without including a level of ambiguity that recognizes the tension of competing extremes and the widely varying mid-points most of us actually live.

The distinction I make is the extremes of intellectualism and emotionalism.  We are taught to study things out in our hearts AND in our minds.  When we rely on either, alone, without a balance of the two, we are prone to error.  Again, it's not intelligence to which the Church is opposed but rather the sort of focus on the mind alone that denies the heart and, eventually, all things spiritual.  It is when intelligence becomes an "ism" of its own that problems occur - and I say that as someone who greatly values study, intelligence, insight, science and the intellect. 

My only concerns when intellectualism is mentioned or discussed in the Church are when the impression is given that academic learning is bad in any way and when emotionalism is not discussed as the opposite extreme.   The ideal is a balance of heart and mind - intellect and emotion, not either one alone. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Feeding Individuals and a Community Isn't Easy

My family has a history of physical issues that make it hard for us to eat meat without choking - unless we are very careful to chew it extremely well before swallowing. I haven't had that exact issue, but one of my little brothers almost died of choking on a relatively small piece of meat, and I have an aunt who choked to death at the dinner table. Thus, discussions of teaching meat vs. milk at church mean something different to me than to many members. 

I share that only to emphasize that every person has unique dietary needs and issues of some sort - some that are critical to health and continued life and some that deal only with taste and preference. For that reason, I am wary of describing anything as universally "milk" or "meat" - or insisting that "The Church" teach or not teach something specifically because it constitutes milk or meat to me or to someone else.

I believe strongly that we should be engaged in "meatier" conversations and classes as adults of God, but I also realize that there are many physical adults who still are children of God spiritually - and that, to some degree, that is true of all of us. Thus, I throw out really small portions of "meat" in most group settings carefully to see if it is digestible before putting a larger chunk on the communal platter - and I often "chew on" the meat I put out there by taking a moment to frame it honestly but carefully as something a friend once said - or something I've thought about over the years - or something an apostle once said - or some other phrasing that makes it less likely to cause someone to choke.

Finally, I stopped expecting or requiring "The Church" to feed me a long time ago and shouldered that responsibility myself. Seriously, I wasn't getting "fed" at church with what I needed for my own growth before I left Primary - so I've been feeding myself for a long, long time. I still get a really good meal quite frequently at church, in one form or another, but it usually is dessert to me - not the main course.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recaps: Serving Effectively in the Church; or, Focusing on Building Zion

The topic this month is "Building the Kingdom of God on Earth", and we focused last week on "Serving Effectively in the Church". We did so by talking about five things:

1) We talked about the meaning of "effectively".

Effective can mean efficient - meaning doing something with as little wasted energy as possible, but it also can mean "causing an effect" - meaning achieving a desired result. Both are important in the context of serving effectively in the Church, but I pointed out that all actions have effects. One of the critical aspects of leadership is to identify the desired effect and act in such a way that the desired effect occurs. I simply said that the ultimate effect from service in the Church should be a closer relationship with God and each other - or, in other words, the establishment of Zion. Anything that takes people away from that effect is not in harmony with the stated goal of service in the Church.

2) We talked about the importance of callings in the operation of the Church.

I asked the students to rank church callings in order of importance. After a brief discussion about the "natural (wo)man" view of callings, we talked about how the most important calling is the one that they are doing at the time. We talked about living in the present and valuing the contributions and efforts of all members - and I mentioned how much I like the fact that a Bishop can get released and serve next in the Nursery, for example.

3) We talked about the difference between being a leader and being a worker - not relative to importance but merely to emphasize the necessity of each type of calling.

Concerning leaders, we talked openly, with the Bishop in the room, about how some callings are through inspiration, some are through perspiration and some are through desperation. We talked about how callings are important no matter which category applies in each case - and how, as a leader, it is important not to present a calling as being in one category when it really belongs in another one. I told them they should never tell someone a calling was inspired, for example, if there wasn't clear, undeniable inspiration in the selection process.

Concerning workers, we talked openly about how their honest input is important - and how it's okay to say no to callings and/or give qualified acceptance, meaning doing the best they can even if it isn't ideal. One of the students mentioned living in a small ward where his mother had three callings (two of which were leadership callings) while being pregnant. When she was asked to do one more thing, she had to say no for her own health and the well-being of her family. I mentioned a couple of instances where I had said I would accept a calling, but I shared some things about my situation at the time that would not allow me to perform the calling the way they probably wanted.

4) We talked about councils and their centrality to the serving effectively.

We talked about the importance of input from council members - and I stressed that the best councils are those where the participants have differing perspectives and views, since that allows the leader to hear ideas and suggestions (and concerns and objections) that s/he wouldn't consider naturally.

5) We finished by talking about the need to respect others who are doing their best, even if that best isn't what the leader would like.

I told them bluntly that people are more important than numbers and that if they ever lost sight of that and started focusing on numbers over people they would lose effectiveness and, more important, hurt people and lose their support and respect.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Evolution of Perspective: Homosexuality as an Example

I have thought a lot over the years about how perspectives evolve over time.  If I were to try to simplify the process as much as possible, I might frame it as follows: 

1) We see things one way because it's the only way that makes sense for us - the only way we can see things "naturally". Thus, we begin with "the natural (wo)man". 

2) We are exposed to something that makes us realize how "personal" that natural perspective is - that it's not as obvious and natural for someone else.

3) If we are fortunate, we know and love people who see things differently than we do - which forces us to see that "normal", "good" people see things differently than we do. It's harder to marginalize and dismiss people if we know them and realize they are good people doing the best they can according to the dictates of their own consciences.

4) In the end, we still hold to what makes sense to us, personally, but we begin to understand the difference between personal perspectives and societal rules - those things that we choose to let govern us, those things we choose to let govern those who choose to be part of our various-sized circles and those things we choose to let govern the largest, non-voluntary associations of which we are a part. Hopefully, we realize and accept the idea that the rules get looser and looser as the circles get larger and larger and less "self-selected".

To use a practical example from my own life's experiences that is controversial enough to illustrate a definite change in perspective:

1) I used to oppose all forms of official gay unions.  I believed that giving official status and rights would confer a sense of legitimacy and encourage homosexual activity.

2) I went to college at Harvard and was exposed, for the first time, to people who didn't see the issue the same way I did and, importantly, who could articulate sound, logical reasons for their different views.

3) Throughout those years in college (and as I grew older), I became friends with gay people and realized that my view was built on a faulty foundation - that it was based on ignorance of homosexuality.  I had formed my view without ever talking with gay people directly - without any input from people I loved, respected and admired who were gay.

4) Currently, I do not have the same view that I did in my adolescence and earliest adulthood - but I also don't have the same view as many of my gay friends.  I have developed my own view of homosexuality and how I view various options for gay unions - and it truly is my own now and not something borrowed from anyone else.

This is not the proper post in which to discuss all the details of my current views, but, as a rule, if I'm going to err on either side of anything, I'd rather err on the side of understanding and love. I'd rather be a little too "liberal and upbraid not" than a little too uncharitable.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Perhaps the Best Post about Joseph Smith I've Ever Read

Playing the Ball as It Lies - David Niclay (Rational Faiths) 

As someone who loves golf but is a lousy golfer, this analogy really works for me. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"I am that I AM." -- "It is what it is."

I know quite a few people who have struggled at some point in their lives with feelings of pressure and guilt from situations that were not within their control.  This pressure and guilt were the result of unrealistic expectations about how their lives "should be" - feeling like they should be able to handle things differently and have lives that were closer to "ideal" in some way.  

I understand such feelings, but, in cases where the cause of the struggle is not chosen or intentional, those feelings must be addressed and understood positively and proactively in order for those people to be healed in a meaningful way. 

If that description fits you to any degree, I hope the following helps somehow:

The first thing I would emphasize is that our 2nd Article of Faith says, in my own translation, that we will not be punished for struggling with things we do not choose - that come to us simply as a result of the Fall of Adam, so to speak.  This means that there is no "guilt" attached by God to the existence of those things in our lives - that they are covered automatically and freely by his grace and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.  That recognition alone can be powerful and emotionally healing.  

I would reframe that concept as a clear recognition that there is absolutely nothing "wrong" with struggling with lots of things - simply because you can't avoid them. Just as the best name for God is "I AM", often the best answer to something is simply, "It is". That recognition won't eliminate anything automatically, even the guilt felt right away, but it is important to recognize unrealistic expectations and learn to know when they are hitting "in the moment".

On a very practical note, my wife started writing a weekly blessing list on her personal blog a few years ago. Despite the struggles in her life, which aren't few for her, that has forced her to look back and "count her blessings" regularly. What she has discovered over the past few years is that knowing she would be writing such a post has made her more aware of the blessings as they happen - which has given her the ability to recall them in the moments of hardest struggle - which has given a degree of perspective she didn't have before she started compiling her blessing lists. She still struggles with some things that are her own "thorns of the flesh", but she is able to break out of those struggles more quickly and even avoid them at times.

However you can do it, counting your many blessings and naming them one-by-one is a good idea.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Hilarious GIF Summary of the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon, as told by K (Just Say Amen Already)

Seriously, I laughed so hard it might have been a sin.  My teenage daughters walked over to see what was so funny, and they couldn't stop laughing, either. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Philosophies of Men, Mingled with Scripture: We All Do It to Some Degree

"The philosophies of men, mingled with scripture" is a phrase that has different meaning depending on the context of its use, and I believe it is important to realize what it means for different people and how pervasive it is throughout religious history.  

When I think of that phrase in the context of how it is used in the temple, it is important to remember that it is used to describe people trying to gain a following - and that it originally was focused specifically on "preachers".  In its purest form, the primary focus is teaching the philosophies of men - meaning, to me, that someone is teaching what they see as man's ideas void of any reference to God. In other words, at its base it's a structure that denies God. That fits its use by Lucifer as something he taught and of which he approved.  That, however, would not appeal to religious people, so the secondary focus is scripture - and I see "mingling" as "adding just enough to get people to buy into the philosophies of men". At its most manipulative, it is using just enough religion intentionally to make religiously oriented people think they are focusing on God when they actually aren't.

In other words, the combination of the two, worded in that way in the temple context, means that someone is crafting something intentionally that contains just enough "God-speak" to deceive people who otherwise would not believe them - and it focuses on what is taught (the philosophies of men), not what is left out (a comprehensive scriptural foundation) in an attempt to convince the religious.  Again, it is just enough religious justification to make it sound religiously valid.  That is critical, in my opinion, when trying to understand some people who are trying to convince religious people to follow them.  

There are lots and lots of people who fit that description - both in religion and outside of it. It's rampant in politics, for example, where religious terminology is used to appeal to religious people.  There are problems with the other extreme (teaching scripture exclusively, believing it is the inerrant word of God and not realizing it also represents, in some cases, the philosophies of the men who wrote or compiled it - or, in some cases, was understood originally to be figurative, allegorical, mythological, etc.) or teaching exclusively the scriptures and condemning entirely the non-canonical philosophies of men (with advances in scientific understanding being the best example), but, for those who are "preachers of religion", focusing on human, non-God-centered wisdom first and supplementing only as much as necessary with God-focused,"faithful" teachings is one of the purest forms of heresy.

People can argue constantly about the exact nature of specific teachings, but I believe it is the orientation and focus that is the point of the temple phrasing. 

Finally, I think that phrase is used as a hammer in many situations where a hammer isn't necessary or appropriate at all - generally to mean: 

"That's not how I interpret that scriptural passage, so you must be relying on the philosophies of men." 

Having said that, I also believe the tendency to teach the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture, is natural to all who are religious - and I think the Priesthood ban is probably the best example in Mormon history of using scripture to justify the philosophies of men.  Members of the LDS Church absolutely aren't immune to the principle involved, since all of us tend to see what we believe in the scriptures. Just as "nearly all" who have a little authority, as they suppose, tend toward unrighteous dominion, nearly all tend toward mingling scripture with human philosophies (using scriptures to explain our natural beliefs). That is very much part of our natural selves, and I believe it's important to understand that tendency.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Natural / Primary" Gender Responsibilities in Marriage: Each Couple Must Structure Their Own Marriage for It to Be Ideal

I think it is safe to say that men's and women's "natural / primary" roles throughout history in most societies can be described as "provider" and "nurturer" quite accurately - even though the vast majority of women throughout history also have worked "outside the home". (The idea that women traditionally have stayed home and raised the kids while the men worked outside the home simply isn't supportable.  Not working for compensation of some kind is a luxury, and most women throughout history have not had the luxury of even considering not working.)  Defining "primary" or "natural" roles is not a comment on anything other than the historical result of differing biology, since men generally have been bigger, stronger, faster, etc. than women - and women always have been vulnerable due to the effects of pregnancy and childbirth.

Given that reality, it is understandable to frame the "natural / primary" responsibilities assigned to or assumed by men and women in that light. The interesting thing about the Proclamation to the World, in my opinion, is that it appears to lay out this "natural" distinction and then say, in effect,

"Regardless of these natural responsibilities we inherit due strictly to biology and culture, the ideal marriage is one where such distinctions are erased - where each partner shares the other's responsibilities to some degree and acts as an equal partner with the other overall."

I understand completely how hard it is to accept that reading based on all the previous statements by leaders over the years, and the fact that "presiding over" still is used in various quotes, but the actual wording of the Proclamation says just that.  Further, it says that each couple is obligated to make whatever adaptations are necessary for their marriage to work as well as possible.  In essence, it says that the "ideal" is whatever works best for the individual couple - understanding that the "primary roles" are to provide and nurture.   In other words, as long as a couple are united in providing for and nourishing their children, they are fulfilling their responsibilities as parents. 

I view this as similar to the statement, "All men are created equal." First, it is the best they could do in their time (not including women in it); second, it articulated an ideal the society itself wasn't living (slavery) and couldn't live (and still doesn't live). Just as it was important to have the ideal written into a foundational government document, I think it's important to try to live and accept the ideal of the Proclamation with regard to raising one's children, even though our society (inside and outside the Church) isn't living and can't live it yet - and even though I believe the document itself is not perfect. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

I Do Not Have a Spiritual Feeling Orientation

I have never "felt" anyone in spirit in my life. The closest I have come is while doing baptisms for the dead in the temple and feeling choked up while saying someone's name (but it wasn't really feeling a presence) - or when words or thoughts come into my mind that I classify as revelation (and that has happened too many times for me to remember - to varying degrees of strength).

At the most fundamental level, I do not have a "spiritual feeling" orientation - although I do have emotional experiences regularly; rather, I have a "thinking" orientation. Since I was raised LDS in a culture that values "spiritual experiences" highly, I had to come to grips with that different orientation at a very young age. 

There is an obvious theme of balance between feeling and thinking in our religion (or completion including both thinking and feeling), but individuals tend to emphasize what is natural to them - which is ironic, given what we say about the "natural man". I think a huge part of giving up the natural man is seeking and finding balance (ideally, by acquiring a characteristic and/or ability not naturally possessed) - and balance between experiencing God in one's heart and mind is a great example of that. However, I don't think that kind of balance needs to be a 50/50 mathematical split - or a combination of classic, common experiences in either category. I believe it can be different in practical terms for different people, even as nothing more than an openness to experiencing something in the future never experienced previously.

To bring this full circle, that means that I need to recognize my own thinking orientation and my own lack of feeling a spiritual presence but maintain the belief that it could happen to me, if necessary.  It also means I need to accept and value the experiences of people that I can't understand fully because they have not occurred in my own life - and I have to accept and value those experiences for others as much as I do my own for myself. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Church and the Gospel as a Jigsaw Puzzle

I believe that the Church and the Gospel can be described as the process of putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The border pieces are the "principles of the Gospel", while the internal pieces are unique "doctrines/teachings/current understanding" - which makes the outline malleable enough to be a 9-piece children's puzzle or a 5000-piece, double-sided mountain snow scene that is almost impossible to complete - all dependent on the need and vision of the individual believer. I believe this perspective of establishing understanding within a principle-controlled frame allows us to create whatever puzzles work for us (whatever constitutes our best understanding and perception at any given time), while allowing for further expansion as new principles are identified and assimilated.  

Furthermore, I believe puzzles can be right or correct or even "true" without being "perfect" (whole, complete, fully developed). If I am working on the river, and you are working on the mountainside, and someone else is working on the sky - each of our work can be right and correct and true, without any of them being perfect (fully developed). Each might be "perfect in its sphere" (which is a fascinating concept, in and of itself, and deserving of attention separately), but if one's vision can expand to recognize a vaster sphere . . . (kind of like the closing scene in Men in Black, where the world is seen as a marble in the hands of unknown aliens)  

In order to be totally clear, this is not religious relativism. I believe what makes The LDS Church unique is the sheer breadth and depth of its outline - the unending potential within a nearly limitless puzzle - the real and practical atoning power it unmasks. I believe the difference between that fundamental framework and its counterparts among other denominations is the heart of the statement, "their creeds were an abomination in his sight" - since those creeds serve to limit the potential scope of the outline and replace an ever-expanding framework with clearly defined boundaries. The creeds make the infinite finite - and that is a real shame.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Conflict between and Importance of Communal and Individual Morality

Believe it or not, the following is my attempt to provide a very short post about the nature of morality:

I think morality as a general concept (determining what is "right" and "wrong") is part and parcel of group interaction - even, in a very real way, among animals of widely varying degrees of intelligence. It is, at its most basic level, part of survival instinct. It is focused on what "is" - at the most basic level. It is focused on "how" interaction needs to occur in order to perpetuate the species and, although instinctual rather than conscious, really is "morality" at heart.

I think morality among humans, specifically, has the exact same foundation - but our ability to think outside ourselves allows us to move from the most practical, biological, survival aspect of morality to a philosophical foundation that expands from a purely group-based paradigm to include a focus on the person even, sometimes, at the expense of the group. It is focused on what "should be" - and, frankly, that transition, although important to us, is what complicates morality exponentially and makes things get really messy at times.

Finally, I see the existence of agency (the ability to think about and choose one's actions consciously, even when they conflict with the morality of one's community) as the monkey wrench in the ease with which morality can be evaluated and determined, since it is the only thing that posits the need for competing moralities - one communal and one personal that can and do conflict.

Morality is an incredibly subjective thing, but most people want it to be objective - since objective morality is SO much easier to implement and "obey". Frankly, the most extreme version of objective, communal morality we have within Mormon theology is Lucifer's plan - and I think it is important to understand that simple fact. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Hilarious: Out of the Mouths of Babes, Indeed

An acquaintance once told the following story.  I thought at the time it was one of the funniest things I had ever heard, and I have not changed my mind since:

I remember when my youngest turned 8, and we began to talk about baptism. We asked him when he would like to be baptized (his birthday is in May), and he said: 
“I think . . . . . . November.”
We were a little curious as to what significance that had, but when asked he replied with a cheery smile:

“I want to live a little first.”

Sometimes, children really do understand much better than we realize.  

Monday, December 1, 2014

More Often than We Admit, "They" Aren't the Problem: "We" Are

It's always easier to blame someone else for problems than to face the fact that they aren't someone else's fault.

Marriage is falling apart? Blame the gays.

Morality seems to be declining? Blame the infidels.

Job productivity is decreasing? Blame Facebook.

Promiscuity is rising? Blame the media. 

I don't see it that way. 

If those things are happening (and I"m not convinced they are happening, since, as a history teacher, I am well aware of how weak marriage and morality and job productivity have been and how rampant promiscuity has been for thousands of years), they are happening because "WE" are dropping the ball - not because "THEY" are corrupting our wonderful society.

I believe we should try to fix our own house before complaining about the conditions of other houses. If America is being killed, the current descendants of immigrants who came here earlier are doing the killing - not the immigrants who come here now.

If marriage is failing, it's heterosexuals who are causing the failure - not homosexuals.

If morality is failing, it's Christians who are causing the failure - not Muslims and atheists.

If promiscuity is rising, it's the religious who are fueling that rise - not the non-religious.

etc., etc., etc.

If this country (and others) fall, it will be "we" who make it happen, not "them".

Accountability and charity are powerful principles, and we cut the heart out of both of them when we insist on blaming others for our own problems. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

The LDS Church Was a Cult but Isn't Now, Just Like Every Other Major Religion

The most historically-based definition of "cult" is a movement where a charismatic leader draws followers away from "the established religion(s)" of the time. In other words, those who lose members define what is a cult, based often on the amount of success of the charismatic founder. Thus, Jesus was seen as a cultist who was drawing away followers from the synagogues - and, even worse, gaining the attention of the Romans who didn't appreciate rabble-rousing, apocalyptic, Messianic preachers who might lead a political revolt.

Mormonism absolutely started as a cult by the first, traditional, broad definition; pretty much every successful religion and denomination started as a cult, based on the standard definition. Even the word "culture" gives a nod to that simple fact.  Frankly, we collectively overuse the term "cult" so much in our modern society that many people have lost the ability to distinguish between the definition above and the more sinister definition that includes explicit mind-control, brainwashing and coercion.

Having said all of that, it is possible for individuals within any organization to lean toward the more sinister definition of culthood.  Thus, my favorite introspective response ever to the question of whether the LDS Church is a cult is:

"Lord, is it I?"

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The LDS Church Does Not Teach "Fake It 'til You Make It" or "Lying for the Lord"

I have heard over and over again in my life the charge that the LDS Church believes in the concept of "Fake it 'til you make it" and also that "lying for the Lord" is okay.

That is not true, and members of the Church, especially, should not perpetuate that false charge. 

I have searched long and hard, and there has never been any official statement from any leader I have ever found that uses the term "fake it 'til you make it" or encourages, in any way, "lying for the Lord" - or even implies that message. The first is a phrase that an anti-Mormon group coined to describe the idea that expressing a testimony helps build a testimony - and those two concepts are radically different from each other. Seriously, they are radically different concepts. The second actually is a phrase I have heard justified by Protestants when I lived in the Deep South - and from a man who was distributing pamphlets outside a Seminary building that included blatantly doctored "quotes" from the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith's translation of the Bible and other Mormon scriptures.  He was called on it and said, as a justification for such obvious dishonesty, that we was lying for the Lord - that the ends (tricking people to lead them away from the LDS Church) justified the means.

Both of those charges are false with regard to the LDS Church, and, at the very least, members of the LDS Church should recognize that simple fact.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I Believe in the Principle of Modesty, but Not in the Way It Is Interpreted By Some

I have some communal responsibility for the messages I send through the actions I choose.

I have no argument whatsoever with that principle.

I alone am responsible, ultimately, for what I think and how I act - no matter what messages are being sent by others.

I have no argument whatsoever with that principle.

"Modesty" is a concept that embraces both of the principles above - an attempt to create a reasonable "middle ground" that doesn't emphasize the communal OR the individual above the other. Modesty is not about being "true" or "right"; it's about being "moderate", "reasonable" and "charitable".

Once moderation, reason and charity leave the equation, modesty no longer exists - and modesty can be very different things in very different cultures. It's not the exact line that is drawn that is important; it's if that middle ground line works for reasonable men and women within their community.

Overall, I have little passionate argument with the general idea of how modesty of dress is approached within the official standards of the LDS Church - meaning that I accept as a reasonable balance attire that covers garments for general, non-specific, public appearance by church members as the standard for adults. That leaves exceptions for differing activities where deviations from that norm make sense, while it also allows for those who want more restrictive guidelines for themselves to be able to dress as conservatively as they want.

Where my passionate argument exists is when the general, non-specific, church member, public appearance norm is applied to non-adults, non-LDS members and to situations outside that norm - and when the more strict norm becomes a de facto norm by dint of majority insistence. I also object to how it is almost exclusively women who bear the brunt of the responsibility - when male communal input outweighs communal female input, and women become walking pornography but men never hear about their effect on and responsibility toward women. I also object when women who actually are dressed "modestly" are seen as walking pornography, since that situation is a problem with the men who see them in ways they need not be seen.

For example, "more modest" really is being "immodest" - being out-of-balance. That's a great example of what I mean when I say that we collectively don't understand what modesty really means.

We are so steeped in a Victorian view of sex that we collectively see lots of things as wrong and pornographic that are only wrong and pornographic because we make them so. Nudity is not the same as pornography - but we are close to the point where we are collectively equating the two. That, to me, is the heart of the issue - and decoupling the two is the most important, effective "first step" I know.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Temple Garment Is Sacred - but So Are We

I was involved in a long conversation online quite a while ago focused on how the temple garment affects some people with severe psychological issues relative to body image and self-acceptance.  It was a fascinating conversation, and I am grateful I was able to participate in it and learn from so many different people.

Near the end of the conversation, one person referenced Jesus' statement about the Sabbath being made for man and not man for the Sabbath.  He said that he views the temple garment in the same way - that, while it is sacred in his eyes and important symbolically, it should not become more important than the person wearing it and that person's spiritual connection with God.

Someone else responded with the most concise, profound summary I have ever heard, and I want to pass it on to everyone who reads my blog.  She said:

I don't object (when people say) that the garment is sacred and should be treated with respect, but so are we. 

I wear the temple garment day and night, since I have no issues with it and am completely comfortable by now in doing so.  However, I believe, deeply, that anyone for whom wearing the garment all day and all night, every day and every night, with the only exceptions being as outlined in the general guidelines of the Church Handbook of Instructions, constitutes a true hardship and is damaging in some real way (and I believe there are more people, especially women, in that situation than most members realize) - that anyone in that situation should be given the respect to make reasonable adaptations to their practice of wearing the garment in an effort to lessen or eliminate the harm maximum wear creates.  If that means they wear the garment for a certain amount of time each day and night - or remove it for more activities than generally is accepted - or wear sizes outside the standard norm - or any other adaptation that doesn't violate the symbolism, then so be it.

Interestingly, the Church Handbook of Instructions validates this stance, as it states clearly, after all the general guidelines are listed, that each individual has the right and responsibility to make the final decisions as to how to wear the garment.  

After all, the garment was made for wo/man, not wo/man for the garment - and the person wearing it really is just as sacred (more so, I believe) as the garment being worn. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

In Some Ways, I Prefer Our Modern Prophets to Joseph Smith - Even As I Love Joseph

I really do believe that Joseph was a prophet who received revelation from God - and I really do believe he was sincere in believing he was a prophet who received revelation from God. However, I also believe he would be diagnosed and medicated if he lived now - that he wouldn't be accepted in our own day and age as a prophet specifically because we categorize what allowed him to see visions and hear voices as disabilities.

I know that view puts me on the precipice of a very high cliff, since there is a fine line between being able to tap into something extraordinary and wonderful and being off-one's-rocker, certifiably nuts. I understand that, but we strive so hard to eliminate the extremes now that we end up with widespread mediocrity. Yes, we're eliminating the negative extremes, but we also are eliminating the positive extremes - often within the same person.

In saying that, I'm not saying we shouldn't be trying to eliminate the negative extremes. I don't want my mom (and everyone around her) to have to deal with the negative extremes of her schizophrenia. I don't want her to have horrible, vicious hallucinations. I want her to be able to have the benefits of her medication in order to be the spiritual person I knew growing up, even if those medications blunt some of the natural spiritual insights that are the flip-side of her "disability".

I don't see Joseph Smith as schizophrenic - but I do believe he probably had some condition we would diagnose clinically and try to eliminate now. In many ways, that's too bad on an individual basis - but, in other ways, it's good on a group, communal basis. It creates mich more communal, institutional stability - as it stifles the type of individual, personal "out-there-ness" that is the root cause of almost all radical revolution. Make no mistake about it: Joseph Smith was a radical revolutionary in the truest sense of that term. Radical revolutionaries simply must be borderline nuts to have the visions they have, and, given our rejection of radical revolution, we now have stable, inspired guides instead.

All in all, I'll take that - since I don't know how I personally would deal with the incredible chaos, messiness and suffering inherent in radical revolution.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recaps: There Is No Reward in Thoughtless Obedience

This month, the topic is "Temporal and Spiritual Self-Reliance". Thus far, we have talked about the following:

D&C 58: 26-28 - "For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.

We talked about needing to make our own decisions and choose what we believe about lots of things - that being told everything to think, believe and do is, essentially, Lucifer's plan, which is why those who do only what they are told to do receive "no reward". They don't grow; rather, they stagnate and never develop any degree of godliness.

We talked about "anxiously" meaning "with fervor and excitement - and how being "engaged" means being "committed and in a close relationship", not just casually doing something occasionally. We talked about how "good cause" is singular, while "many things" is plural - that we should do lots of good things, but that it's better to choose a good cause into which we can pour ourselves than to do multiple things only shallowly.

We talked about how "(wo)men do good" isn't confined to any one area (not even church), so anyone who does good, no matter what that is, will be rewarded.

Alma 37:37 - "Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good."

We discussed how "counsel" means "discuss among equals - that it doesn't mean to do only what you're told or commanded to do. That ties in really well with doing much good of one's own free will. We also discussed how "direct thee for good" does not mean "tell you what to do" - that it's much more like pointing in a general direction and away from the opposite direction. Another way to say it is that God will point us toward a good outcome, but he won't tell us exactly how to get there.

D&C 9: 7-8 - "Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind;"

We talked about the background for this passage and then focused on the need to "study" things prior to asking for answers - and how it is important to do so "in your (own) mind" and not just rely on or accept what others think, no matter who those others are.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Varying Valiance in the Pre-Mortal Life: An Abominable Remnant of Apostasy

I started thinking about it because the premise that this life is a continuation of the pre-mortal life and that the state we are born into is a result of our valiance and effort in the last life.

I believe in a pre-mortal existence, but I think the idea that the state into which we are born into mortality is a result of valiance and effort in that existence stems from a faulty foundation and is a mutation that stemmed from the earlier attempts to justify the Priesthood ban and on-going attempts to claim that we in the LDS Church are special. I see both of those justification motivations as the result of pride, even as I understand how deeply attractive they are to the natural (wo)man.

I believe more in the concept of, "There but for the grace of God go I," than in the idea of, "There but for my superior diligence and righteousness go I.

Those are two very different premises, and they address belief in a pre-mortal existence and rewards for varying levels of righteousness. The first one (a continuation of life from a previous existence) in no way depends on the second one (some kind of valiance determinant), and the second one is only stated directly in our scriptures about "the noble and great ones" (in Abraham). It can be read as implied about others in places like Jeremiah 1, Alma 13 and D&C 138, but it is not an automatic and obvious implication unless that belief is held prior to reading those passages.

There is no indication whatsoever anywhere in our scriptures to support the idea that someone born into poverty or with a disability of some kind was less valiant in the pre-existence than someone born into wealth or full health - or, just as importantly, vice-versa. In fact, in the one case where disability is mentioned in the same passage as a pre-mortal life, Jesus said the blind man was born that way to manifest the power and glory of God. (and that passage is crystal clear in its portrayal of Jesus' followers believing in a pre-mortal existence and Jesus not contradicting that belief)

So, even if we take the scriptural accounts literally, which I generally don't do, the idea of varying degrees of valiance in a pre-mortal life affecting birth into mortality for the vast majority of people who have lived and now live just isn't there. I believe that we, as a people, needed a justification to deny black people access to the temple (not just a Priesthood ban), so our former leaders bought into the whole curse of Cain nonsense that was being preached in the Protestant congregations of their upbringings (since they all were converts originally) and used that to develop a uniquely Mormon version that expanded the apostate belief to include valiance in the pre-mortal life. We also wanted a reason to claim special status as individuals (as pretty much all religionists have done since the beginning of time), so we took the Protestant idea of pre-destination and the general idea of the noble and great ones being fore-ordained and morphed that into the idea that every person who is born or baptized into the LDS Church was fore-ordained because of pre-mortal valiance.

In short, I believe in a pre-mortal life, but I don't believe in varying degrees of valiance in that life that are exhibited in this life. I don't believe there were fence-sitters in the War in Heaven.  I think our temple theology annihilates the idea of varying valiance (or, at the very least, that, if it did exist, it matters in any way whatsoever after this life), and I also like Bruce R. McConkie's statement after the Priesthood ban was lifted that said we need to forget every justification that was uttered by anyone, no matter who they were, to explain the ban - that "we" spoke from "limited light and knowledge". For me, that includes the idea that pre-mortal valiance played / plays any part in the objectively quantifiable circumstances of our mortal birth.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Teaching Our Children When We Disagree with Something that is Said at Church

I try to be honest with my kids about my own views whenever there's a conflict with what's taught or said by someone at school or church. They know I don't agree with everything that's said, but they also know I genuinely love the people who say the things with which I disagree.

We just disagree; no big deal.

I'm going to disagree with lots of things lots of people say in my life, in every organization of which I'm a part. I know it's really hard to take the emotional reaction out of the picture, especially when it deals with a dad or mom or sibling or other loved one, but it is a skill my children are going to have to learn at some point, no matter what, if they are to be happy.

That's the central message I try to convey to my kids - that's it's fine to disagree, but it's not fine to reject or disparage.  It's fine to disagree, but it's not fine to let disagreement void love.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Simply Put, I Just Don't Like Protestantism's View of Eternity

For the record, the traditional Protestant view of immortality just doesn't do it for me. I really do think I'd rather stop existing than to sit around forever telling someone how great they are, while stagnating eternally, just to avoid roasting in a lake of fire and brimstone (which, for what it's worth, is how we describe Lucifer's plan, in a nutshell).

For me, the difference in how Mormonism envisions eternity and how eternity is described in so many other denominations is the single, biggest difference imaginable. I want to believe in the Mormon vision; I have no desire whatsoever to believe the other view. To me, Protestant Heaven is a perfect description of damnation - and, frankly, the view held by too many Mormons that the Celestial Kingdom will be a place for people who, essentially, are copies of each other is one more way I would describe Hell.

I like the laboratory view - even though I don't like studying science all that much, comparatively. I'll be one of the gods reading jokes to everyone and playing a musical instrument to lessen the stress as they work out the physical creation stuff - one of the ones who breaks up potential fights when things get tense and someone is tempted to blow up someone else's experiment.

That's who I am now, and that's who I want to be then. I like who I have become over the decades learning how to be authentically me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sometimes We Just Need to Shut Up and Stop Asking for Answers

For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.  (Doctrine & Covenants 58:26) 

I am positive that many of the "rules" that have developed over the years in the LDS Church have been given because someone insisted on getting instructions about something that should have been left up to that person's agency to decide.  I think many are cases where the leadership threw their hands in the air and said:

"Fine, we will give you an answer, since you won't shut up and stop asking - even though you shouldn't need to get instructions from us about this." 

It's like the flight attendant who shows everyone how to use the seat belt before the plane takes off.


If you don't know how to use a seat belt, you shouldn't be flying.

As a close friend said once, at some point we need to grow up and become adults of God.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I Want to Be a Mormon Christian, Not a Christian Mormon

If you look closely at multiple General Conference talks and statements over the years, I think it's obvious that the top leadership of the Church believes there is a difference between church membership and Christian discipleship. In fact, at least twice in my memory during General Conference, it was said in crystal clear terms that activity in church doesn't guarantee Christian discipleship. The issue is that many talks appear to illustrate a belief that it's hard for most people to live a Christ-centered life without also having a church-centered life - and, frankly, they probably are correct in most cases.

Christianity and church affiliation are so intertwined now, as much outside the LDS Church as inside it, that it's really hard for people of pretty much any denomination (or even "non-denominational" congregations) to separate the two - and, given the communal nature of the New Testament focus, I'm not sure the two actually can be separated properly. In a very practical way, it really is difficult to divorce being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth from being part of a religious community - a group "following", if you will. In Jesus' ministry, it wasn't a formal "church", per se - but people absolutely left family and friends to follow him around as he preached. They formed a religious community, even if they didn't build and gather in meetinghouses of their own.

Furthermore, as I have said in other posts here, the Mormon conception of the next life is not focused on individual salvation but rather communal exaltation. 

The difficulty here, in my opinion, is not that we need to separate the two affiliations totally and make it Christian discipleship vs. church membership; rather, we need to balance the two and prioritize them so that we live Christ-centered lives within the LDS Church - not that we live church-centered lives that include Christ.

In other words, we should be Mormon Christians - not Christian Mormons.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Church Activity Rates: Not Great, but Not As Bad As Often Portrayed

I've done some research in the past about activity rates, and two things surprised me - although they probably shouldn't have:

1) Our activity rate in the LDS Church generally is at least as high as and often higher than that of most other Christian denominations. Seriously, we are ahead of most denominations in that area in measurable, important ways - and that should be acknowledged, even while understanding the issues we still face to increase the activity rate.

2) Our activity rate is higher right now than it has been at pretty much any time earlier in our history - even as it's not as high as I want it to be, is WAY too low with certain sub-groups and all certainly is not well in Zion. Furthermore, if you remove the effects of the baseball baptisms and other shoddy missionary practices of especially the late 70's and early-mid 80's, the activity rate is much closer to the top end of the standard estimates than the bottom end. We lost close to a generation of new converts in some countries and are battling the consequences of those inappropriate baptisms into the next generation now - but the activity rate without those obvious, serious cases is higher than most members realize, especially in comparison to other religions.

Again, I'm not claiming all is well in Zion by writing this post, but, especially for those who are struggling with some kind of faith crisis, it's important not to ignore stuff that actually can be "testimony building" or just help balance the force.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Girls as "Guardians of Virtue": We Need to Eliminate That Phrase and Mentality from Our Vocabulary and Culture

I have heard the following concept expressed multiple times over the decades I have been involved in the Church, and I can't express forcefully enough how much I loathe it - and how badly I wish we could remove it completely from our discourse:

Girls should be guardians of virtue for boys.  

This is something about which I feel passionately, largely because I have two sons and four daughters - and I believe deeply that such a concept is insidious and dangerous, both for girls and for boys.  It is wrong on multiple levels, but I want to highlight in this post three reasons I abhor it so strongly:

1) It completely misrepresents virtue and what it is meant to and can be. 

Virtue is not another word for chastity.  Virtue, in its archaic form, meant " an effective, active, or inherent power or force; the quality or practice of moral excellence or righteousness" (from dictionary.com) It actually derives from the Old French word for "maleness" and is found in words that begin with "vir" - like "virility".  Thus, "a virtuous woman" is not always a virgin; she is a strong, effective, active, powerful, moral, righteous woman.  A virgin simply is one manifestation of a virtuous woman, and not being a virgin does not negate virtue.  For example, rape does not diminish or rob a woman of her virtue, and equating virginity with virtue distorts virtue and causes emotional damage to further complicate an already traumatic event. 

Proverbs 31:10 ("Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.") is quoted often with regard to the worth of a virtuous woman, but the next 20 verses generally are ignored - and those verses explain what verse 10 means. I highly recommend reading them.  Due solely to length concerns, I will not include the entire passage, but I will summarize them and what they say about a virtuous woman - bolding the things that might surprise some people and setting the description in quotes to stress the highlighting.  (I also want to stress that I believe a virtuous woman doesn't have to do everything in the following list - that these things are examples of what a virtuous woman does.

A virtuous woman is trustworthy, treats her husband (if married) well, works with her hands, rises early, feeds her household, purchases land, plants food, becomes physically strong, serves the poor, makes clothing and other materials, sells merchandise, is strong (again) and honorable, speaks wisely and kindly, is active, is praised, fears the Lord, is blessed.  

A virtuous woman is a strong, active, independent, honored person - not a virgin who simply must guard her virginity for the benefit of men.  Women no longer are considered the property of men, and we need to eliminate any hint of that former structure from our vocabulary, even if we generally are unaware of the connotations.  We need to educate our girls and boys about this ancient foundation and teach them to let go of the "guardian of virtue for men" idea once and for all. 

2) Virtue is not "guarded"; it is "exercised"and "developed" and "strengthened".  

That is important, and being merely a guardian of virginity robs girls of developing into the strong, active, independent, honored women they are meant to be.  

3) Both virtue and chastity should be the responsibility of the individuals who possess them.  

Boys and girls together, mutually, should protect their own chastity and exercise / develop / strengthen their own virtue (and help others do the same) - so that, ultimately, virtuous women can marry virtuous men and raise virtuous children to become virtuous adults, in a never-ending cycle of eternal virtue and progression.  Telling girls to guard virtue for boys does more than rob those girls; it also robs those boys in a very real and powerful way. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Objective of Our Religious Ordinances

I believe we bind ourselves to each other, that we separate ourselves from each other and that the concept of eternal sealing as embodied in the temple is a wonderful, profound, necessary thing. I love the concept, even if I don't put any power into the ordinance in, of and by itself.

I am confident every apostle in the LDS Church agrees with that last sentence, since every one of them will say that people who are sealed in the temple won't stay sealed automatically just because of that ceremonial sealing. An abusive jerk won't be able to abuse his wife and kids eternally just because he lied to get into the temple and participate in a sealing ordinance - but a righteous, loving spouse who truly becomes bound to his or her spouse in this life will gratefully accept the continuation of that sealed relationship in the next life, regardless of whether they were part of a ceremonial sealing in this life.

The object of our ordinances isn't to go through them; it is to have their symbolic meaning spread throughout us.  The object of our ordinances is to be changed by them - to become what they are intended to convey to us it is possible to become.  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Are We Meant to Outgrow the Need for God?

A good friend of mine once wrote the following and asked for my input.  I am including below the original message and my response: 

This is something I've been pondering as I'm making the transition from viewing myself as someone's son to someone's father. The greatest success of a parent is that their children go out and be successful on their own. That they become functional, independent, well-adjusted human beings. I think God wants us to be functional, independent, well-adjusted eternal beings.

I really like the concept that this life is a time for us to learn to choose right from wrong without constant intervention from God. And I like the idea that we are trying to become like God. What I'm going to say next probably would sound like heresy to many but I'll just say it. God is God because he chooses right because it is right. He doesn't act because of fear of punishment or duty or any other such human motivation. He just does right. I think that's why it is important we are here and cut off. We need to learn to do right without constant direct influence from God...and here's the possible heresy: I feel that ironically our goal is to learn to act entirely independent from God. The more we progress, the less we need him. We simply begin to choose right because it is right and not out of duty or fear or any other such motivation. We just do right. We just are. Just as God said "I AM".

So something I've been pondering is that ultimately is it our destiny to outgrow the need for God? Not outgrow him in the sense that we are more powerful or never want to see him again but that we become completely independent of him. This idea actually makes me love my God more. The gift of eternal self-determination seems much greater than the gift of eternal subservience. I would be grateful to my parents for my life if I was expected to serve them my whole life. But I'm infinitely more grateful that they raised me and sent me out in the world to experience it and now to raise my own family.

I have trouble putting these thoughts in words. But this makes sense that just as I have left my father's house and gone into the world as an independent adult, I hope my new son will someday leave and lead a happy life. For me it follows that my eternal father would want this same thing. Not want me to come back to his house and sing praises to him forever. I don't want my son to worship me, I want him to be grateful for the way I will raise him and then to go on and raise his own family.

That's why the idea of eternal progression is so amazing to me and so much better than any other concept of heaven I've ever read about.  

I agree that we are meant to outgrow our need for God - in the sense my friend describes.

I don't need my parents for much of anything at this point in my life - but I still want them. I think that is a better, more mature relationship.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Peace without Understanding

An online friend shared the following experience with me a couple of years ago, and I came across it as I was trying to decide what to post tonight.  I hope it touches someone else somehow, as it touched me when I first read it.  

Many years ago as I was entering my crisis stage, I decided I needed to go to the temple to help sort things out. Though I was living in Salt Lake City, I went to the Manti temple, because I wanted a much lower key place than Salt Lake could provide. As I was going through an endowment session, I was particularly troubled with the signs and tokens. In the midst of this, I felt a very specific voice telling me:

"Don't knock it. I don't understand it, either. But someday you will be glad you didn't reject it". 

I was fully aware of the illogic, the paradox, and implausibility of that message. Nevertheless, the anxiety and frustration I was feeling about it simply went away.

Some several months later I went inactive, and didn't attend Church for 17 years, but when I did, I was glad that I could without carrying any negative feelings about the signs and tokens. I still don't pretend to understand them, but it's no big deal. And it has allowed me to have some very warm, comfortable feelings about my temple experiences. The biggest message I have gotten from the temple is a sense of peace, purity and power that I have felt there.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Differences and Dignity" - One of the Best LDS Newsroom Statements I Have Ever Read

Differences and Dignity - LDS Newsroom (October 24, 2014)

My favorite paragraph:

Since no particular group has a monopoly on all that is wise, beautiful and just, everyone can learn from everyone else. Our experiences have gaps that need to be bridged, and our perspectives have blind spots that need to be filled. We find meaning in human connection when we climb out of ourselves and discover the dignity of others, even if we disagree. And no one should have to give up their identities.  

The entire statement is phenomenal. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Exercising Faith When Church Attendance Hurts in Some Way

I was asked to speak once in a ward I was visiting - last minute, since the assigned speaker was sick. The topic was faith and how to exercise it.

As I sat on the stand thinking and praying about what to say, I felt a very strong impression to share with the congregation the examples of two people - my mother (who is schizophrenic) and a good friend from a previous ward (who suffers from depression and is bi-polar). I did so at the very beginning of my talk, with the explicit statement that I agreed with the previous speaker with regard to most members, but that I wanted to talk to anyone in the congregation who felt overwhelmed and guilty every time someone spoke about faith and how life is so much better if we only exercise more faith. I then went ahead and talked about how faith really is enduring to the end in the face of not knowing or experiencing confirmation - that, for some people, simply getting out of bed and attending church knowing they would hear messages that worked for others but would hurt them was the supreme act of faith.

I won't share the rest of this story in this post, but I will never forget the rest of that day and the confirmation I received that my impression really was pure revelation (the uncovering of something I had no way of knowing on my own). I will thank God for that revelation for the rest of my life.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Catholicism and Mormonism: Past Mistakes Should Not Be Held Against Current Leaders

The LDS Church's historical issues absolutely pale in comparison to the Catholic Church's.

That's not a slam on Catholicism (even though I have no problem with labeling much of what was done in its name throughout history as greatly abominable); it just points out that things aren't as bad in Mormon history as members often think in the difficulty of an emotional faith crisis. Pope Francis has said some things that deserve sincere praise, as I highlighted last week. Given his church's history and the actions of so many of his predecessors, there should be plenty of hope and praise for our current LDS Church leadership, even from our critics.

It's also interesting that we recognize that we shouldn't hold the historical words and actions of previous Popes against Pope Francis and what is happening now in his denomination. There is a lesson in that for us.  

Historically, we still are where the Catholic Church was before it was the Catholic Church of the Holy Roman Empire - when it was a whipping post of that empire. I'm encouraged that we've come as far as we have as quickly as we have, when I look at history and make comparisons.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

God, Judgment Day and the Temple Recommend Questions

If I die tomorrow and am asked by God himself the exact same questions that are asked currently in the temple recommend interview, I believe I would look him in the eye and answer exactly the same way I answer now.

If God looked at me and said, "Tell me more about how you interpret the questions" - and if I explained - and if God said, "That's not what I meant by those questions," I believe and hope I would grin and say,

"Then you should have made sure I knew that before now." 

I believe God would smile back at me and say,

"You answered according to the dictates of your conscience all your life. No harm; no foul. That's what I kept saying the Atonement is all about, right?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Checklist Approach to Gaining Eternal Life: Losing in an Effort to Find

A friend of mine once wrote the following, which I believe is profound and empowering:

It came like a flood over me the other day, and I don't have adequate words to express it. The idea is centered around Matthew 10:39:

He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.

Think about our efforts to complete our "checklist" and gain for ourselves eternal life as our efforts to find our life.

Ponder the question, "What is Christ's sake?" How could we "lose" our life (or desire for our personal reward) for this purpose that Jesus was promoting?

My major concept around this idea is that when we get caught up in the idea of a literal, physical (not exclusively mortal) reward we become largely self-centered and lose the "greater than ourselves" focus. It's like finally staking our claim on a cottage in the ideal community where our efforts to obtain our prize came at the expense of that ideal community as a whole. What we are effectively left with is a nice little cottage in the middle of a ghost town. It is only when we honestly don't care about earning a reward that we can focus with effectiveness on the important task at hand of Christ's purpose.
Is our desire to "earn" an eternal life in effect putting our reward or "life" ahead of Christ's purpose?

I don't believe there is any simple answer that can encompass the whole purpose of Christ; it is about our opportunity to continually gain ground in becoming more Godly, more loving, more selfless -- yet "selfless" is a complex topic in itself. Sometimes an action that looks self-serving can in fact be for the greater good of others. Self-sufficiency for example reduces the burden on others to provide for the poor. However, I do believe that when we focus on charity (the great commandment) and becoming more selfless in general, we find our way toward righteousness and becoming more Godly.

Where it all comes together for me is in the thought that the essence of selflessness has nothing to do with physical/material stuff. Selflessness is a spiritual ideal. Physical paths lead to physical rewards; spiritual paths lead to spiritual rewards. Of course, as mortals we exist in a physical world, so physical actions will play a part in everything we do. The key question is what are we seeking. If we are looking for some tangible reward at the end of our path we may be "finding" our life in the way where it is ultimately lost. If we can rise above the primary desire for personal gain (even eternal life), maybe we can make some progress toward divine love. 
After all isn't love the ultimate reward? Love isn't something that we can gain by seeking it, divorced from everything else. The only way to gain more love is first to share it.

I gave up years ago trying to build a life I wanted for myself as an individual. I have sacrificed a lot over the years for my wife and kids - and other pursuits that are not rewarding to me in any way other than my belief that I am a better person when I forget about myself a bit and focus on helping others.

The people I respect the most aren't the ones who accomplished some great individual achievement, even though I respect many of those achievements greatly. My heroes are the people who spend their lives helping others. To me, that is Gospel greatness.

For example, I love Mother Teresa - and my favorite modern prophet might be Thomas Monson. There are some things I wouldn't emulate about either of them, honestly, but I love both of their constant, untiring, unyielding focus on the poor, the lonely, the neglected. President Monson has been criticized by some members for his stories that can appear to be the same old, same old conference after conference after conference. Some people want the poetry of Neal A. Maxwell (which I loved and miss) or the theological proclamations of Bruce R. McConkie (which I liked or disliked, depending on the sermon), but I love President Monson's willingness to preach constantly the one thing that I believe is the absolute heart of the Gospel and not worry about being a mighty orator or theologian.

Monday, November 3, 2014

It's OK to Be a Caretaker in a Church Calling

More than once I've expressed concerns about a possible calling and asked the person asking me about a calling they want me to accept to go back and pray about it. I've told the person that I will accept it if they need me, but that I probably wouldn't be very good at it or would be nothing more than a caretaker in practical terms. Once I was asked to accept it anyway; once I was not approached afterward; once it was put on hold while other things in my life at that time got resolved (my employment).

If I honestly thought I wouldn't do a very good job but was willing to do what I could, and if they knew upfront that I would be doing a mediocre job, I was willing to do it without unrealistic expectations. That way, if anyone complained in any way or tried to guilt me into doing more, I could look them in the eye and say, honestly,

"I told you if you asked me you'd be getting me - and that I probably couldn't do what you thought would be ideal. I'm a caretaker doing the best I can given my circumstances; if that's not enough, release me. There won't be any hard feelings on my part."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: Modeling the Titles of Jesus in Our Own Lives

Last Sunday, we talked about the titles we attribute to Jesus and how we can model many of those titles in our own lives. We used the Topical Guide from the Bible to identify titles, since that was the most handy, traditional source to use. The list included the following, with a brief example of the conversations we had about each title:

Bread of Life - We can nourish people in need (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, etc.) by understanding them well enough to give them the nourishment they actually need - and by not drowning them if they are suffering extreme thirst.

Creator - We can develop our creative talents, whatever they are, and use them to help others.

Advocate - We can look for people who need support of some kind, especially those who are being hurt in some way by others.

Exemplar - We can be examples, focusing especially on loving charity.

Good Shepherd - We can help gather, protect and feed people in dangerous situations - and we can avoid driving people away who would gather with us if not driven away.

Mediator - We can defend the defenseless and speak for those who can't speak for themselves.

Second Comforter - We can comfort those who need comfort.

Son of Man - We can honor parents - even with bad ones for whom honoring means nothing more than passing on a better life to our own children and "redeeming" our family name.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Problem with Universal Shoulds

Some people benefit greatly from being asked (even pressured in some way) to do things, while others aren't benefited by such an approach and actually can be harmed by it. In terms of church callings, there is an inherent contradiction in both extremes - always accepting assignments and never accepting assignments that aren't appreciated or wanted. Many people benefit from each approach in different situations and different times of their lives.

The real conflict occurs when the word "should" enters the discussion - since we really should accept callings, except when we shouldn't. We really shouldn't put limitations on service, except when we should. We really shouldn't dictate the terms of our service, except when we should. Sacrifice really is a great principle, except when it isn't. We really should give until it hurts, except when it hurts too much.

We really should submit to the will of God (and, to a degree, to our mortal leaders) - but we should never stop being agents unto ourselves.

"Should" is a two-edged sword that is incredibly difficult to wield properly and helpfully, and most of our deepest disappointments are centered on expectations more than actual actions in and of themselves.  (If you don't understand what I mean by that, think about it a bit - and ask in a comment, if necessary.)  Thus, I generally try to avoid "should" and expectations.  Rather, I try to deal strictly with trying to choose desired consequences.