Friday, February 28, 2014

My Testimony of the Book of Mormon: Spiritual and Intellectual Manifestations

My foundational testimony of the Book of Mormon is not about exact content, so much as how it "speaks to me". ("crying from the dust" - I really like that image.)  I really like it and it seems to be the inspired word of God - certainly every bit as much as the Bible. There are lots of passages I really like, content-wise, but that's never been what it's about for me.

Having said that, I really do see some things as almost impossible to "fake" within the text itself.

The dichotomy between the Book of Ether and the rest of it is just one example of this. It is amazingly compelling, if you have studied much of the cultural differences between the Middle East and Northeast Asia - and, if I am right, it basically solves the DNA issue on a theoretical level. Therefore, even without my spiritual testimony, relying only on my intellect, I just can't see it as an intentional fraud. 

One really important thing to understand, imo, is that there really isn't any more physical proof of most of the important claims in the Bible (especially the Old Testament) than there are for those in the Book of Mormon. Most people don't realize how shaky the non-religious / non-spiritual "proof" for the Bible is, particularly when it comes to the accuracy of the New Testament teachings and just about everything in the Old Testament. Even most ardent Christian historians agree that the accounts in the New Testament were written after the fact (sometimes long after the fact) and by people other than the purported authors - and were taken from multiple, conflicting source materials; hence, all the hoopla in the early centuries about which writings to include and which to exclude in the formal compilation we know now as the Bible.

For example, from a purely "historical" perspective (taking away all claims of source and method of discovery and translation), the Book of Mormon is MUCH easier to accept as scientifically plausible than the Bible - since there is FAR less of the miraculous chronicled in it than in the Bible (and those things that are presented as miraculous generally are much easier to explain as non-miraculous).

Furthermore, it's interesting to realize that most of the truly unique "doctrines" in Mormonism are not found in the Book of Mormon. In fact, there are almost none in it. Nearly all of them are in the Bible and the D&C - and nearly all of the ones in the D&C are presented as revelations received as a result of contemplating Biblical passages or specific issues of the time.

Finally, the Book of Mormon itself doesn't claim to be something that should be read instead of the Bible - or even contrasted with it. Rather, it says explicitly, more than once, that one of its central purposes is to convince people to believe the Bible. That wording is interesting in its implications, since, in one case, it explicitly says it is intended to help those who "believe in the Bible" actually believe the Bible (what it teaches).  Based on what it actually says, it's supposed to be a supporting companion to the Bible, not a superior work. Thus, Joseph's "most correct" words notwithstanding, pitting it against the Bible simply isn't consistent with its stated purpose - and I regularly go back and forth between it and the Bible in my own study.

(I've said more than once that I think Joseph didn't really understand the Book of Mormon very well - at least not what it actually says in its pages. I think he simply didn't care about it as a proof text, so he didn't "study" it to understand doctrine. Ironically, that's one reason I have a hard time accepting it as conscious fiction. Every author I've known understood their works much better than Joseph appears to have understood the Book of Mormon.)

None of the above proves anything regarding the nature of the Book of Mormon, but it's important to keep in mind when comparing it with the Bible - and it's an important part of my own testimony regarding it. We've inherited a lens through which we "naturally" see the Book of Mormon, and that lens, imo, is one of the "incorrect traditions of (our) fathers". As a result, I think relatively few members understand the Book of Mormon really well - at least when focused on what it can teach us as not just as a canon of scripture but also as the spiritual-history-journal abridgment it claims to be. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Such Obedience Is Worse than Folly"

“We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who preside over them even if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God would despise the idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves." (Millennial Star, Volume 14, No. 38, Pages 593-595).

“President Joseph Smith read the 14th chapter of Ezekiel - said the Lord had declared by the Prophet, that the people should each one stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish church - that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls - applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall – that they were depending on the prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves, envious towards the innocent, while they afflict the virtuous with their shafts of envy" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Five 1842-43, p. 237-38).

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I Am Accountable to Come to a Personal Understanding of What I Believe - and Then to Follow It

In the end, when all is said and done and I stand before God, I believe I will be held accountable for how I lived what I personally believed - and I also believe I am responsible to come to a personal understanding of what I believe. I've stopped caring if I believe exactly what others believe (even the majority of the membership of the Church with regard to some things); I care much more about figuring out what I actually do believe and refining it continually, based on "studying it out in (my) own heart and mind" and on "receiving on-going revelation" (both from God directly and from others whom He has inspired). Revelation to me through someone else ultimately is revelation to me from God. 

The principle of "on-going revelation" is important to me - since "revelation", at is core, simply means the uncovering of things that previously were hidden from view. I sustain and support prophets and apostles, and I value their insights and beliefs and perspectives HIGHLY - but, in the end, I believe I'm not going to be judged at the most basic level by how I "obeyed" them. I believe I will be judged by how I obey God - and that is determined almost exclusively by how well I follow my conscience and do my best to understand and internalize what I believe to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a result of who I am and who I become. 

I compromise all the time on lots of practical things as a member of a society (including of the LDS Church and as half of an equal couple), but we are told that the ideal is for all people, as individuals, to be prophets in the purest sense of the word (those to whom God speaks, in whatever way that occurs for each individual) - so that's my primary goal.

Learning to be at peace with that individual journey within my partner-marriage relationship and the collective, communal Church is the key - and most of that peace has come from nothing more than learning to accept my best effort to do and be my best.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

We Fail if Baptism Is Our Goal

"Another topic I would like to discuss is the difference between growth and real growth. We have heard some about this today. In Church terms, growth could be defined as new members. New members come through children baptized at age eight as well as convert baptisms. Real growth, however, is defined as growth in the number of active members.

In some areas of the Church we have dramatic growth in new members, yet active membership remains stagnant or grows only a little. We have some measurable ways to indicate activity in the Church, such as sacrament meeting attendance, ordination to the priesthood at the right age, missionary service, and possession of a current temple recommend. Perhaps the more accurate indicators of real growth in the gospel of Jesus Christ are those that we can’t measure as easily, such as daily prayer, scripture study, family home evening, love at home and for our neighbor, and personal experiences with Christ’s Atonement. These are recorded not by a clerk in Church records but in our hearts and in heaven.

Our missionary efforts are compromised if we baptize God’s children but do not maintain love and friendship with these precious new members who are excited to find fellowship with the Saints and a place of belonging in the household of God." (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, World-Wide Training Session)

Monday, February 24, 2014

My Favorite View of Abraham Sacrificing Isaac - Definitely NOT the Traditional View

Currently, my favorite interpretation of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac is that God was testing Abraham - and that Abraham FAILED the test.

How could this be, given the traditional interpretation of that story?  

According to this view, Abraham had been raised in a culture that included human / child sacrifice, so God tested him to see if he had abandoned totally that culture. He hadn't. Therefore, God stopped him from continuing that abominable tradition and then taught him that ONLY God would be required to sacrifice a "mortal" - and ONLY in a situation where that child actually was a God and was fully aware, understanding and approving of the sacrifice in advance. (just like Issac had to have been, given the details of the account) In other words, the lesson to Abraham was to eliminate entirely from his teachings to his children the mistaken idea that it was OK to sacrifice people to their God and, instead, to await the time when GOD, the Father, and God, the Son, would take care of it once and for all - for all people throughout all time. 

It also is interesting to note that, according to Mormon theology, the God who commanded and stopped Abraham (the God of this world) was Jehovah, the pre-mortal Jesus - which means that "God" wasn't sacrificing anyone else in the future.  He actually was sacrificing himself - much more like someone running into a burning building to save someone than one person killing another person.  I know we talk about the Father sacrificing the Son, but it's more powerful to me when looked upon in the Book of Mormon terms of God sacrificing himself, not someone else.  

I have no idea if that interpretation is accurate - or even if the entire story is nothing but a grand figurative myth. Given the existence of the story, I choose to interpret it in the way that makes the most sense to me - and the interpretation above currently is my favorite.

[NOTE: As I've said many times here, I absolutely love the symbolism that can be understood through stories like this, but I am open totally to the possibility that the account in the Bible is historically accurate and the traditional interpretation is correct - that it actually occurred as an intentional Christ-type and that Abraham passed the supreme test. I have NO problem whatsoever with people reading this story as foreshadowing and a Christ-type - or with those who teach it that way in Sacrament Meeting or General Conference. There is great power in that interpretation - and I even have no problem teaching it myself in that manner in a setting where I believe it is appropriate. In fact, as I said, it very well might be the "accurate" interpretation. There really isn't any way to know objectively. It's just not the version I personally like the most right now.]

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: We All Have Been Saved Already

Today, we talked about the traditional, Primary / Sunday School answer to the question:

"Why do we come to earth, and what are the consequences that need to be overcome?"

I asked the questions and asked for "the standard, Primary answers". They came up with: to be tried, to gain a physical body, to learn to repent, to progress, etc. - and, for the second part of the question, physical and spiritual death. We then focused on the concepts of physical and spiritual death - what they mean in practical terms and how the scriptures talk about them.

To discuss physical death (and to get to the heart of it within Mormon theology), we read 1 Corinthians 15:1-29, verse-by-verse. I started by explaining Paul's background (when he was Saul, the high-ranking agent of the Sanhedrin), in order to make sure they understood that Paul had been highly-educated in the law - that he was, in practical terms, like Elder Oaks now. Thus, like Elder Oaks, he often spoke in legalistic terms - since that was how he was trained and how he thought. I wanted them to understand the structure of the chapter we were going to read - how Paul's treatise about the resurrection basically was like a courtroom "defense" of the concept and precisely what he said about "salvation from physical death".

I'm going to quote almost the entire passage, with snippets of the conversation, just to present the general flow of the discussion:

(1-3) Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

Paul starts his discourse on the resurrection by reminding the members of the Church that he preached and scripture recorded, and they accepted, the idea that Jesus died for our sins. Thus, he started with the concept of redemption from spiritual death - but then he quickly shifted to the resurrection.

(4-8) And that he was buried, and that he arose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

He then cites witnesses to the resurrection - six appearances in all. He does this, again, in order to cover the classic legal requirement of having witnesses to a claim. (I didn't mention this in the class, simply because I didn't think of it at the time, but, for this forum, it is interesting that Paul included his own "vision" in the list that otherwise would be interpreted as visitations. He didn't distinguish in the epistle between those different types of "appearances".)

(9-11) For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.

Paul then re-established that the people who were receiving his epistle had believed what he and the others had preached about the resurrection. It was, again, a legal argument saying, essentially, "This is not new to you. At one point, every one of you accepted and believed this."

(12) Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?

This verse says quite clearly that Paul was writing this chapter as a direct response to member of the early Christian Church who had started to reject the resurrection (as "physical" in nature), re-igniting the previous division that had existed within Judaism between the Sadducees and Pharisees regarding resurrection. That is important to understand, since there are two capstone verses that only can be understood properly if the intended audience is understood properly.

(13-15) But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.

Here, Paul places his own character and that of the other witnesses at the center of the question of whether or not a resurrection occurred - and he says, flat-out, that Christianity is useless / ineffectual ("vain") without the foundation of a resurrection that had been witnessed by lots of people.

(16-18) For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.

This is a repeat or extension of the previous verses, but it sets the stage for his first capstone statement:

(19) If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

I asked the students what this verse means - how they would rephrase it in their own terminology. One of the students said, "If we stop believing in Christ, we will be miserable." I told him that I have heard that translation a lot, but that it wasn't quite what Paul was saying. (He's a great kid, so he didn't take offense at being told he was wrong - and I have done that in more than one lesson in the past, so they are used to it.) They read it again, and someone phrased it correctly as, "If our hope in Christ is confined to this life and has no real effect in the next life, we are more miserable than anyone else."

We then talked about why that would be - and they quickly understood that it is because of all the requirements involved in accepting Jesus and living as he told his disciples to live. We talked a little about what that entailed back then (which, in many ways, was a lot more than now, as much as we tend to feel restricted now), then we talked about what that entails now. After about ten things were listed as examples of things they do that they wouldn't do if they were believing Christian-Mormons, we all grinned and agreed that we could keep adding to the list for a long time. I repeated something the High Councilor had said in Sacrament Meeting - that we need to use common sense in how we dedicate time to our callings, since "the Church can take all of our time if we let it" - and that we can't neglect our family in performing our callings, since "the family is #1 in our lives, not the Church".

Verse 19 is the first "summation statement" in chapter 15. It is the end of Paul's first point - that the resurrection is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and warrants the sacrifices required of the early members at that time.

He then moved to the scope of the resurrection - the extent of salvation from physical death.

(20-22) But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

I asked the students who, according to these verses, is resurrected. They saw immediately that every person who has been born is said to be resurrected. One of them asked an interesting question: "How do other denominations interpret verse 22? I don't see how they can read it any differently than that." I told him that most people tend to interpret scriptures based on what they believe, not based on what the scriptures actually say - especially when what they say is different than what they have been taught. I told them that trying to understand scriptures as they are, not as we want them to be, is an important effort - and I told them again that making that effort has led me to interpret some passages and verses differently even than many other members of the LDS Church.

I then rephrased the answer to: "Everyone who is born already has been saved - from physical death." Based on that idea, I told them that I hope they never argue with anyone who claims to have been saved. Based on what most of them believe about the next life, they are right; they have been saved, just like all of them and I already have been saved. I told them that it's important to understand where others are correct and not accuse them of being incorrect in those instances. I told them that if anyone ever asks them if they have been saved to answer confidently, "Yes, I have been saved, just like you have been saved - at the moment we chose to follow Jesus." If they want to hear more (if the answer shocks them enough to ask), more can be shared; if not, the potential confrontation has been avoided.

Verses 23-28 are simply more "detail" about the resurrection and don't add anything unique to the discussion that I wanted to address, so I said it that way and we moved to verse 29.

(29) Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

This is Paul's second capstone argument - focusing on the "proof" that the early Christian leaders and members really did believe what they taught about the resurrection. If reworded to make it easier to understand, it might read:

Why are people being baptized for the dead if they aren't going to be resurrected? (If there is no post-mortal life, of if the next life is nothing more than a spiritual continuation, why would we be baptized for them?

This rhetorical question is worded in such a way, in context of the entire chapter, as the clinching argument that ALL who are born will be resurrected - since it places them ALL under the requirement of the law to be baptized. Again, performing baptisms for the dead proved that the people involved really believed what the leaders taught - that salvation from physical death really is universal.

I looked at the person who asked the question about how others view verse 22 and told him that I have heard verse 29 explained away as Paul condemning a practice of the time by an apostate group - but I told them that such an interpretation simply makes no sense as worded or in the context of the entire chapter. Conversely, as a summation of a legal argument about the centrality and universality of the resurrection, it makes perfect sense.

Since this already is a long summary, I will hit only two things about the rest of the lesson:

1) We talked about agency as the central aspect of salvation from spiritual death - and how, in traditional Mormon theology, all but very few people who are resurrected will inherit a degree of glory and live forever in the presence of "God" (or, to be more precise, to be able to exist in the presence of a member of the Godhead).

2) We talked again about how important it is for each of them to act according to the dictates of their own consciences and become unique individuals - not carbon copies of someone else. I told them about Steven Peck's book, "A Short Stay in Hell", in which a man goes to a place where everyone is exactly like him and thinks, for a short time, that he is in Heaven - only to realize exact sameness is Hell. (Steven is a Biology professor at BYU and a phenomenal writer. I recommend this book highly to everyone here.) I recommended that book to them, and told them that lack of progress, lack of action, lack of purpose other than praising God constantly, and never-ending sameness would be Hell for me.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Anger Can Be a Gift - for a Short Time

Anger can be a gift - for a short time.  In the freshness of real, justified anger, motivation and strength can be found to address wrongs that need to be addressed.   

After that initial time of empowerment, however, anger inevitably becomes a cancer.

Continuing anger (anger to which we cling past the constructive time period has passed) is FAR different than real, lasting power - and cancer sucks.

Just something to consider.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

After All that Manuals and Handbooks Can Do

True orthodoxy consists of keeping the doctrines, ordinances, covenants, and programs of the Church and Christian service in proper balance. In this daily balancing process, we are not excused from exercising good judgment - after all that manuals and handbooks can do. (Neal A. Maxwell, October 1988, "Answer Me")

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Central Genius of Joseph Smith that Many Don't Understand

Have you ever considered that perhaps a central genius of Joseph Smith was that he was able to transplant the great figurative mythology of history into the literalness of his own time and location - to see the symbolism of an ancient world and turn it into a moving literalism in his own day?  Have you ever considered that some of the things he preached might have been more a case of geographic transplantation of mythology than of literal, historical truth? 

Seriously, what more grand endeavor is there than the idea of entering the presence of God on a regular basis - of taking Heaven (a symbolic location, I believe - "Home can be a heaven on earth." and "The kingdom of heaven is within you.") and locate it at the end of a symbolic journey here on earth that can be traveled over and over again in our own literal time and space? 

We have temples that do that, at least symbolically.

What more grand vision is there than the idea that Zion is where we build it - and the accompanying effort to take the City of Enoch (a symbolic story, I believe) and locate it literally in our own land(s)?

We have stakes that do that, at least in theory.

What more grand concept is there than the idea that paradise is in our own backyard - and the accompanying relocation of the Garden of Eden (a symbolic story, I believe) and locate it literally where you want your people to live?

We have Independence and the surrounding area that does that, at least in theory.

What more grand hope is there than the idea that Christ will return to where his saints gather - to take Adam-Ondi-Ahman and the New Jerusalem (symbolic stories, I believe) and locate them literally at the "beginning" and "desired end" of your own community?

We have a valley and a designated location that do that, at least in theory.

Joseph was a "restorer" in his own mind - and, if you look at that role as comprehensively as possible, the "Restoration" becomes much more than just a theology or a group of ideas. It becomes the re-establishment of an entire symbolic world, moving backward AND forward in time until we literally are walking and talking with God.

"One eternal round" is a powerful concept - if it can be seen figuratively and not literally. Seen literally, it has power enough for most people; taken figuratively, it has immense power for me. I don't begrudge those who take it literally, if it works for them. It is when the literal loses significance that it has to transition to figurative or lose its power completely.

After all, the endowment ceremony itself said for a long time that the creation of Adam and Eve, as depicted, was figurative. I think that line was removed in order to benefit those who had a hard time accepting and understanding it - but that removal doesn't make it any less of a fact that Mormon leaders have spoken symbolically and figuratively a lot throughout our history, including to this very day. They just speak literally more often than figuratively, since a FAR higher percentage of people are literalists than figurativists, so to speak. Literalism is general and works fine for a community of settlers; figurativism is individualized and must be pursued and constructed outside of communal constraints by those who are explorers. Leaders can speak figuratively, but they can't lead figuratively - and that's an incredibly important distinction, imo.

The issue for subsequent leaders (those who followed and follow Joseph) is taking the "transfigured symbolic become literal" and not forgetting that it really is symbolic at its root - and that is not an easy recognition, at all, especially for those who naturally see things literally. There's no failure in continuing the literal iteration, but the real power is in recognizing the symbolic and figurative foundation for what it is - sheer visionary brilliance, imo.

I don't know if that makes any sense at all to you who will read this, since some of you surely will be literalists more naturally than I, but it's absolutely mind-blowing to me.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Eternal principles can get lost within the labyrinth of good ideas."

There are so many “shoulds” and “should nots” that merely keeping track of them can be a challenge. Sometimes, well-meaning amplifications of divine principles - many coming from uninspired sources - complicate matters further, diluting the purity of divine truth with man-made addenda. One person’s good idea - something that may work for him or her - takes root and becomes an expectation. And gradually, eternal principles can get lost within the labyrinth of “good ideas.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, October 2009, "The Love of God")

Monday, February 17, 2014

I Sustain and Support Leaders IN Their Humanity, Not By Ignoring It

I was having a conversation with a friend a while ago, and he said the following about sustaining and supporting church leaders: 

I suppose the real trick is accepting their humanity while still following them as though their counsel and directives were somehow immune to being influenced by that same humanity.

I disagree with his wording - fundamentally - and told him so. I think the key is to support and sustain leaders (with the exception of when there is real abuse happening) while understanding fully that their counsel and directives often are flawed by their humanity (just as mine often is) - and sustaining and supporting them even when what they say or do is not what I would say or do (again, with the same disclaimer as above).

As I've said multiple times here, I have loved my former Stake Presidents and Bishops. They were good men, doing the best they could to serve the Lord and the people for whom they had stewardship. I didn't see eye-to-eye with them on a number of things, but they were doing the best they could to do the best they could - and that's pretty much all I can ask.  

I sustained and supported them specifically because of their humanity (because they needed sustenance and support IN their humanity) - and if they asked me to do something that I simply couldn't do in good conscience, I would tell them so. I  have expressed concern over some suggestions in various callings over the years, and I have offered only qualified support in some cases - basically saying, "I don't agree with what you are proposing, but I will support you if you move forward." That's the best I can do - and all of them have appreciated my honesty and integrity in those cases.

I believe that anything less is not truly sustaining and supporting real people, which is the principle underlying what we are asked to do. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: The Plan of Salvation vs. The Plan of Happiness

This month's topic is "The Plan of Salvation". I focused today on the trend recently to talk about "The Plan of Happiness" and how that term compares to the traditional "Plan of Salvation". I wrote "Heavenly Father's Plan" at the top of the chalkboard - and then "The Plan of Salvation" on the left side and "The Plan of Happiness" on the right side. Under each term, I had the students tell me how they interpreted each term - "salvation" and "happiness".

"Salvation" means "being saved from something" - with an obvious reference to something bad in some way. The students mentioned anything that is unacceptable, uncleanliness, sadness, pain, suffering, loneliness, etc. They defined "happiness" as joy, contentment, peace, satisfaction, lack of misery, etc.

We talked about how "The Plan of Salvation" is focused mostly on one's condition prior to being blessed - taking someone "from" one condition to another condition. The emphasis is on the condition "from which" the person is saved. It is on the "savior" who does the saving.

We talked about how "The Plan of Happiness" is focused mostly on one's promised condition of blessedness - taking someone "to" one condition from another condition. The emphasis is on the condition "to which" the person is taken. It is on the "blessed" who is being rewarded.

I then asked each of them to think about the two phrasings and which one resonates the most for them personally - and why. I told them that I wasn't looking for any particular, unanimous answer; rather, I really was interested in their personal responses. Five of the eight liked "Plan of Salvation" better, while the other three liked "Plan of Happiness". I used that to start a fuller discussion about why it's important to understand how things can be phrased differently to help people understand the same overall concept, since the overall message of both phrasings really is the same.

We talked about missionaries teaching investigators (or even inactive members) about Heavenly Father's Plan. I asked them how they could know which phrase we had discussed would be the most powerful for each person. One of the students immediately answered "the Spirit". I agreed with that but added that the missionaries could use both terms and ask the other people directly which was the most meaningful for them and why. With that understanding, other teachings could be tailored to the natural "orientation" of each investigator / member. All possible legitimate phrasings could be used, but understanding multiple phrasings could help increase understanding among differing people - and it's much more important to teach people than to teach specific wordings. ("Preach My Gospel" emphasizes that, explicitly.)

We then talked about people who sometimes struggle with either wording. The students came up with some really good examples, then I mentioned two broad categories.

First, people who are already happy, even generally, might not feel the type of uncleanliness, sadness, pain, suffering, loneliness, etc. that would help them feel a strong need to "be saved". For them, continued or enhanced happiness might resonate more deeply.

Second, people who struggle with depression, bi-polar disorder or any other condition that makes them feel like happiness is not possible in this life might really like a promise of future happiness, while others might feel much more strongly about being saved from their current condition.

Finally, we talked about how people who can't envision happiness in this life might feel like they are being beaten with a hammer if they hear happiness in this life preached regularly as the goal. Thus, even if they might like "The Plan of Happiness" that is focused on the next stage in life, that same phrase might be discouraging or even painful if it is focused on this life. Again, the end result is the same, but the unique focus of each phrasing might mean more to each person in question - and it's really important to teach people "in their own language, according to their own understanding".

As an example of what I meant, we read from 2 Nephi 4 and talked about what it says about Nephi. We summarized "the things I have seen and heard" (v. 16 - his visions and what he was told in them) and then looked more closely at vs. 17-19, in which he describes how he feels about his "natural man" tendencies and actions. The wording is quite extreme, and it is worth pasting here (with the words we discussed in more detail bolded):

O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins.

This paints a picture of serious internal turmoil - and, taken literally without the help of the visionary background, it even could be seen as describing a bad man. That is interesting, since we Mormons tend to describe Nephi in such glowing terms that he comes across as almost perfect - an ancient superhero of sorts. I mentioned how we have the "good parts version" of prophets in our scriptures (and I explained the Princess Bride reference to them) and how we might buy into Nephi as superhero without weakness if we didn't have 2 Nephi 4. (I told them that if Nephi was alive today and talking with a therapist, he might be diagnosed with depression or bi-polar disorder or something like that - and he might be given medication to control his condition.) At that point, our Bishop, who was sitting in on the class, made a really profound comment that led perfectly to the conclusion I wanted to make. He said:

I see that man every day when I look in the mirror. I know what he meant in these verses and in the following verses about knowing in whom he trusted.

I then told the students that we tend to treat our modern prophets and apostles in the same way - overlooking or ignoring their weaknesses and mistakes and talking about them as if they were flawless. I reminded them once again that Joseph Smith was the most chastised person in the D&C, and we talked about his reference to himself as a "rough stone rolling" and what that means. I mentioned how much we tend to talk about Joseph the same way we tend to talk about Nephi - and how hard it can be for some people when they finally realize that Joseph wasn't a nearly perfect superhero.

I told them that if any of them ever was in a situation in their life, at any point, where they felt wretched and were grieving and groaning because of temptation, iniquity, sin or simply feeling like they didn't measure up to what they felt they should be, I hoped they would remember these verses and this lesson and not let themselves lose hope.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Tribute to an Amazing Man on His "Birthday"

BHodges wrote a moving tribute to Frederick Douglass at BCC a couple of years ago.  I am a former History teacher, but I had forgotten that Mr. Douglas chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14th - not knowing when his actual date of birth had been.  He was an amazing man, and his personal memoirs are astounding.  As BHodges says in his post, surely his autobiographies, especially, constitute some of the "best books" out of which we should "seek learning".

I hope we can take a few minutes today and honor a man on his "birthday" who should be an inspiration and motivation to all:

Frederick Douglass's dark night of slavery, dark night of the soul - BHodges (By Common Consent)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Intolerance is always a sign of weakness."

Latter-day Saints believe that all human beings are God’s children and that He loves all of us. He has inspired not only people of the Bible and the Book of Mormon but other people as well to carry out His purposes through all cultures and parts of the world. God inspires not only Latter-day Saints but also founders, teachers, philosophers, and reformers of other Christian and non-Christian religions. The restored gospel holds a positive relationship with other religions. Intolerance is always a sign of weakness. The Latter-day Saint perspective is that of the eleventh article of faith: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may” (Articles of Faith 1:11). (President Dieter F. Uchtdorf in a talk presented at “The Gospel, Professional Ethics, and Cross-Cultural Experience,” the International Society’s fourteenth annual conference, August 2003, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It's OK for Different People to See Things Literally and/or Figuratively

Some people simply are wired to take things literally - and there can be great power in doing so. The danger is when some things taken literally are proven not to be accurate - or, often, not meant to be taken literally originally. (Fwiw, that's my position relative to many of the Old Testament stories - that they were intended originally to be grand hyperbole / parables that teach lessons but are taken literally by those who are inclined to do so.)

Other people simply are wired to take things figuratively - and there is great power in doing so. The danger is that some things taken figuratively actually might be accurate - and some of the power can disappear if literal things aren't understood literally.

I read an interesting post last year that is thought-provoking in this regard. It is called, "Seeing Jesus in Action".

It opens with the following:

As most people who know me realize, I'm a very literal person. I don't get symbolism and hidden meanings easily. I tend to take things as they are and as they appear to be. This has sometimes made it hard for me to really grasp the deeper meanings of many things I read.

The thing is, this woman is our former Relief Society President and one of the most humble, Christlike people I know.  I think her post illustrates the danger of judging anyone based on how they see things (literally or figuratively).  I think it illustrates that people can see things very differently - even major, central, "important" things - and still be enlightened and inspired in their differing views and exceptional, wonderful, blessed disciples of Christ.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"All the great teachers are servants of God."

“While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is established for the instruction of men; and it is one of God’s instrumentalities for making known the truth yet he is not limited to that institution for such purposes, neither in time nor place. God raises up wise men and prophets here and there among all the children of men, of their own tongue and nationality, speaking to them through means that they can comprehend. … All the great teachers are servants of God; among all nations and in all ages. They are inspired men, appointed to instruct God’s children according to the conditions in the midst of which he finds them.” (Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vols. (1907), 1:512–13.)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Some People's Mountains are Other People's Molehills (or even Plains)

Sometimes, mountains for some people really are molehills (or even plains) for others.

For those who struggle with any particular aspect of church culture or doctrine, it does nobody any good to take what is a natural molehill for someone else and turn it into an artificial mountain. 

Likewise, different people have allergic reactions to all kinds of different things, and the same is true of reactions to various types of food.

For those who don't struggle with any particular aspect of church culture or doctrine, we might love something very much (and it might even be our favorite), but it would be silly to try to make someone else try it if they were allergic to it or would have some other type of negative reaction.

Learning to celebrate differences, even ones that we don't really understand or think are not ideal (as long as they are not highly destructive of community), is very liberating - and it's the type of Zion I envision.

Friday, February 7, 2014

I See How I Need to See, and Others See How They Need to See

I have known I was heterodox since I was very young.  I read the Book of Mormon for the first time completely on my own when I was seven - and I remember clearly thinking:

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

I knew I loved and admired and respected those people (that, by and large, they were really good people), but I also knew that, in my mind, according to how I interpreted what I read, they were wrong about many things they believed regarding what the Book of Mormon actually said.  Ironically, perhaps, it was the very things about which I disagreed with others that were (and still are) some of the strongest aspects of my testimony - why I absolutely LOVE that book. 

Fast forward 40 years:

I've had similar experiences on a regular basis about various other things in the Church.  I am about as orthoprax as it gets (meaning I live an absolutely stereotypical Mormon life), but I still am heterodox in many ways.  I love the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as I understand it; I love "pure Mormonism", as I understand it, and still am blown away regularly by its cosmic grandeur; I love the LDS Church, even as I disagree with various things here and there; I am frustrated by some aspects of the culture, but I love the people who create those frustrating aspects. 

In a very important way, I'm still that seven-year-old boy who realized that I just see things differently than almost everyone around me.  The difference is that I now accept that the relative darkness of the glass through which I see is different than the relative darkness of the glass(es) through which others see.  I no longer think I'm right and they are wrong; rather, I understand that I see how I need to see and they see how they need to see.  I have peace; they have peace.  I now am able to be happy for their peace, even as I am not happy always about what gives them peace. 

That has been a true liberation for me.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Latter-day Saints Cannot Do It All

God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people. (Elder Orson F. Whitney, April 1928, General Conference)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Some Suggestions I Would Make to Church Leaders if I Was Asked

A friend of mine asked me once what I would suggest to church leaders who want to make changes to our culture that will attract more converts and retain more members.  The following was my response - and I believe all of them could be accomplished without sacrificing important doctrine in any way:
1) Openly respect and acknowledge differences - that people can look and believe differently and still be considered faithful. Preach that from the General Conference pulpit fairly regularly until it's ingrained into the general membership, and use specific examples explicitly. (political affiliation, doctrinal understanding, facial hair, etc.)

2) Focus on making our meetings "revelatory opportunities", especially making Sacrament Meeting a spiritual worship service.

3) Emphasize "sharing the Gospel" by just talking naturally about our lives and inviting people to attend meetings and activities with us with no expectation of immediate conversion. Quit talking about "member missionary work" completely by substituting "sharing the Gospel". Encourage community service as the central aspect of ward and auxiliary activities - and stress service toward those whom we don't serve naturally.

4) Make it crystal clear that single adults can serve in ANY local calling in any ward or branch, except perhaps Bishop and Relief Society President. Encourage meaningful callings for Young Single Adults, including presidency positions - even if that means expanding to three counselors where possible.

5) Apply that same standard for celibate gay members, and make it clear to all members that homosexual attraction is not a sin or transgression in any way that would limit a person's ability to serve faithfully in the kingdom.  That is the least we can do with regard to our gay brothers and sisters, even though there is more that could be done without sacrificing anything within our theology or core doctrinal framework. 

6) Be much more open about soliciting input without any fear of negative consequence. Provide an online forum for anonymous input, if necessary - understanding the crap that will be said by many people but enduring it to get to the pearls of wisdom. Lacking that, mention explicitly profound things said in some of the largest Mormon group blogs. 

As "secondary" but important policy changes:

7) Change the marriage policy to allow ALL members world-wide to marry civilly and publicly first and then be sealed in the temple privately. If it can be allowed in countries where it must be done that way, it can be allowed world-wide - and the serious issues associated with the current exclusion of family and friends who are not temple recommend holders would disappear if civil marriages were allowed prior to temple sealings.

I understand and have no problem with the concept of waiting to be sealed IF a couple is getting married as a result of pregnancy (the need to repent) or a couple simply chooses to get sealed whenever they feel like it (the existence of apathy), but those cases now constitute a much lower percentage of situations in our modern church.  Again, if it can be allowed in some countries where it is required by law, without sacrificing anything that is doctrinally important, it can be allowed world-wide. 

8) Revamp the temple recommend interview to reword some of the questions currently asked - especially the one about affiliation.  That one simply is too ambiguous and can't be answered adequately as worded currently. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Pres. Uchtdorf Channels Elder Wirthlin: In the Great Composer's Symphony

In the great Composer’s symphony, you have your own particular part to play - your own notes to sing.  (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, "Four Titles", April 2013 General Conference)

Monday, February 3, 2014

Learning from the Innocents: Or, the Beauty of Youth Baptisms for the Dead

I was performing baptisms in the temple a while ago for youth and new converts, and it hit me DEEPLY and profoundly how beautiful the concept of such work is to those who still are fully (or close to fully) "innocent" and "pure". In particular, as two new converts, one young man and one young woman, entered the font (each for the first time in their lives), there was almost a glow of anticipation that was awe-inspiring. (There also was an adult convert doctor who had been a member for a few years but never done temple baptisms, whose wife's face simply glowed as she stood on the steps and watched him be baptized.) One of the women had been baptized into the Church just the past weekend, and another woman was the still-recent convert who had introduced her to the Church. The young man's family recently had returned to activity, and the young woman's family still wasn't fully active (and, technically, neither was she).

It's moments like that when it hits me how much I really don't care, fundamentally, about nuance and intellectual distinction. Of course, I do care about the ability to understand nuance and to make intellectual distinctions, especially as a coping mechanism and as a way to understand and accept myself and others. However, at the most fundamental level, there is a beauty and grandeur and mind-blowing simplicity about "pure Mormonism" that still reaches up and grabs me by the throat and brings tears to my eyes in moments like that - when you see people whose lives have changed SO much or are so hard in very real ways dressed in white trying to do something for those they love in such an innocent, simple way.

The young woman I mentioned lost her father to cancer six years ago, and it literally tore apart her family in many ways. She was 12 years old when it happened (with siblings ranging from 4-18), and she hasn't been active in the church since then - due mostly to the extra pressure exerted on her mother to deal with the death of her husband and her children's father (including the need to work long hours to support the family) and being the only members in a town 25 miles from the church and in a different state. Work for the dead means something powerful and wonderful to this young woman, since her father was not a member of the Church but was a very good man who supported his wife in her attendance and beliefs. She doesn't care about fine detail; she just wants to show how much she loves other people and how much she wants to help them in some way - any way she feels she can. Temple work is truly cosmic for her. She was visibly excited and nervous and in awe the whole time we were traveling to the temple, and she said to us afterward that when she finally got dressed and went into the font room:

"A sense of peace hit me, and I knew God is aware of me and loves me".

I love baptisms for the dead. I love the symbolism and the over-arching theological meaning. I love how I feel like I've been standing in holy water when I leave the font. I love how clean and pure and simple the whole thing is - when I let go of my need to think and simply allow myself to experience and just BE - when all that matters is that I AM.

I can parse the wording of verses and statements and talks and try to understand concepts as well as possible on an intellectual level, but, for me, it all pales in comparison to seeing the faces of the innocents as they enter a baptismal font and as they leave.