Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: When Does Revelation (Personal and Prophetic) Normally Come

Last Sunday, we wrapped up the monthly theme of "Prophets and Revelation" by focusing on two scriptural stories that describe very different situations but the same action: killing someone else. I used these stories (Abraham & Isaac and Nephi & Laban) to explore what revelation really means and when people generally receive revelation, specifically to address personal revelation in the future of each of the students.

We started by revisiting the story of Abraham being tempted to kill Isaac. (See last week's lesson for a discussion of the word "tempt" in the scriptural account.)  I asked everyone to pinpoint the "revelation" in this story - to tell me what the revelation was. One of the students immediately answered: "Obedience brings blessings." I pointed out that the story can lead to a lesson about obedience, but obedience wasn't the revelation - since obedience had been taught for a long time prior to that moment. At that point, they were stumped, so I altered the question a bit to be: "What was revealed to Abraham that had been hidden / unknown previously?" After some discussion, they understood that the revelation was that human / child sacrifice was to be discarded as a form of worship - and that animal sacrifice was to take its place.

So, in a very real way, the revelation in the story was a clear statement of what would be worded in Moses' time as:

"Thou shalt not murder (your children)" - with an additional understanding of the Atonement that Abraham hadn't possessed previously.

We then turned to the account of Nephi and Laban, and I asked again what the revelation was in this story. Since nobody could answer that immediately, we read the main verses in 1 Nephi 4 that talk about it. We talked about what it means to be "constrained" ("confined; restrained; compelled; etc."). We talked about Nephi's reaction to the idea that he needed to kill Laban ("No way! I've never killed anyone and can't do it.") - and then we talked about the difference between that reaction and Abraham's reaction first thing the next morning. ("Okay, let's get going so I can do this.")

We discussed the concept that Abraham had to be "constrained" NOT to kill Isaac (since he was inclined naturally by his upbringing to kill his son), while Nephi had to be constrained TO kill Laban (since he lived with a long-time practice of animal sacrifice, not human sacrifice) - and how the Isaac story might have been different if Abraham had reacted like Nephi did. (Since the change in sacrificial ordinance was the intended outcome, God might have gone ahead and revealed that to Abraham right away, without all the drama.)

We read the verses that explain Nephi's justifications of his actions, ending with the "revelation" (the new understanding) in verse 13:

It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.

I pointed out that, up until the time when Nephi was faced with doing something he would not have done naturally, he simply was "honoring his father" and "being a good son". His dad told him they needed to get the plates, so he tried to do that. They asked for the plates, and they tried to buy the plates. Finally, he went into the city on his own and discovered Laban passed out drunk. It only was when he was faced with killing Laban (something that went beyond being a good son) that he was able to see WHY he had to get the plates - beyond the generic, "God commanded it." The revelation wasn't the command to get the plates; rather, it was gaining an understanding of the reason for the command.

In Abraham's situation, likewise, the revelation came ONLY when he was ready to do something that he didn't understand naturally - NOT killing his son. He had "gone through the motions" of blind obedience and, unlike Nephi, had to be stopped from killing because he followed his natural instincts rather than thinking and questioning first.

(Note: I think there is a very reasonable justification for Nephi killing Laban, especially for that time period and the overall story.  I wrote that post this past Wednesday.)

Finally, to follow the concept of really studying scriptures to understand the people, their stories and the actions of prophets (not just what they taught), I briefly summarized (since we were almost out of time) the story of King Mosiah changing the government structure at the end of his life.

1) Mosiah had taken leadership of a people more numerous than the Nephites. That simple fact opens all kinds of issues relative to his government-altering actions before he died.

2) If one of his sons wasn't going to take his place, there was a good chance that one of the people of Mulek who already was influential and popular would do so - especially if the kingship was determined by popular vote. Again, it is stated clearly in the text that the people of Mulek greatly outnumbered the descendants of Nephi in that area. In fact, the moment Mosiah's sons rejected the throne (and Alma the Younger also did), those other influential Mulekite contenders might have started agitating for the position very quickly.

3) Nehor is described as being another King Noah, in philosophy and intent. Amalici was one of his disciples. They are said to have gained a following FAR too quickly to have started a grass-roots campaign from scratch at the end of Mosiah's life.

4) If Mosiah knew either of them was likely to become the king, it would have provided the best possible motivation to change the system.

5) If you think about it, the best possible reason for Nehor, and then Amlici, to be extremely upset and demand what they had assumed they would attain would have been what they would have seen as an attempt to perpetuate the minority rule of the Nephites over them. Consider the situation in some Islamic countries even today; there are striking parallels.

6) It's easy to condemn Nehor and Amlici, given the descriptions we have of them, and I'm not trying to endorse them in any way - but it's harder to realize that they might have had a very compelling legal argument and an incredibly strong emotional appeal to a majority people ruled by those of the minority.

Many things are more complex than we tend to assume - and many things in the Book of Mormon are pretty amazing when looked upon a bit more comprehensively than we tend to do.

I emphasized that prophets often do things not from revelation (though Mosiah wasn't a prophet, he might have seen his decision as revelatory) but rather from a perceived need at the time. [Another example I didn't share in the class would be Moses' interaction with the daughters of Zelophehad - where he first allowed them to keep the lands of their inheritance when they married (since their father had died without having sons) and then restricted them to marrying only someone in their own tribe (so their tribe would not lose the lands of their father's inheritance when they married).] There is nothing wrong with leaders making non-revelatory decisions, since leaders often have to make decisions for organizations on their own, based on their best understanding - but we need to be careful not to confuse those decisions and personal views as "revelation" and accept everything they do and say, by default, as the pure word of God.

I ended the lesson by mentioning that I believe all of the students will be faced in the future with something(s) that requires them to gain new understanding (to have something "revealed" to them) and that I believe most of those revelations will come to them only when they have thought, pondered, questioned, considered, discussed, studied, prayed, etc. diligently - when they are at the point where they simply can't understand something better through their own efforts. At those times, through patiently "enduring to the end", a new insight will hit them and they will understand FAR better than if they simply had followed conventional wisdom and relied on the testimonies / understanding of others. Those times hopefully won't involve an impression to kill someone, but the deepest insights generally will come in the times of deepest struggle and trial. I told them I hope they don't give up before the revelation they need comes to them, no matter how it comes to them - even if it seems to be only an idea that makes sense as a solution to what they face at the time.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Importance of Asking, "What Do They Mean by That?"

There was a quote in an NPR article some time ago that I liked and recorded.  I want to share it today and explain why I like it so much: 

I met a Kabbalist in Israel named Avraham, and he explained it like this. For years, he read religious texts but always wondered: "How do they know that?" One day, he shifted the question to: "What do they mean by that?" A subtle shift, but a crucial one, he told me.

We have become obsessed with knowing - and I don't mean just in our Mormon culture. Our entire modern society is based on the pursuit of knowledge - and, while the pursuit of knowledge is important, it often obscures the underlying meaning of our view of things and can (and does) attack the foundation of faith that is necessary to continue to seek new knowledge as openly as possible.

Let me try to be plainer with regard to making the internal paradigm shift mentioned above.

"How do they know that?" is a skeptical, doubting, negative-side-of-the-coin perspective / launching pad - strictly because, when it comes right down to it, the only "right" answer in many cases, especially in the realm of religion, is, "They don't." 
End of inquiry - beginning of cynicism.

"What do they mean by that?" is a very different question. It is focused on understanding, empathy, connection, unity, etc. It addresses the potential to learn from what can't be "known" - and, thus, is not the self-defeating exercise of the other question. It allows for growth and change of perspective and "additional light and knowledge" - or, in other words, "continuing revelation". It opens the person who makes that shift up to new possibilities and forces that person to dissect statements and search for understanding - not spiral to the crashing impact of, "They don't."

That shift really is crucial to peace and charity, in my opinion - since it allows me to strive to make every interaction I have as valuable and educational and growth-producing as possible, even if, sometimes, the new question ("What do they mean by that?") leads me to the conclusion, "I get it - and I disagree with that meaning." However, more often than not (and far more often than most people would think), it leads me to the conclusion,  

"I'd never thought of it quite like that. COOL!!"

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Long, Frank Post about Porn and How We Often Mishandle It in the LDS Church

From my own experience in various responsibilities dealing with the issue of pornography over the years, the following are some important points I think need to be understood when talking about pornography:

1) There are many Victorian attitudes that mess up people's understanding of what healthy sex can include. I can't stress that enough at the beginning of this post, since it's a huge problem in our current religious culture.

2) I believe there are lots of things that are perfectly fine and healthy that are repressed generally in our modern Mormon culture (far more than was the case in the early days of the LDS Church).

3) Talking about pornography constantly from the pulpit often stimulates those who are struggling with it in some way.  It's like talking with an alcoholic about alcohol every day. 

4) Having said that, there are many elements of pornography (hard-core porn, especially) that are not examples of "healthy" sex - and, in many cases, marital issues arise when a spouse (a husband or wife) begins to want and expect the other spouse to act like the people in the porn - or, knowing there is no way the other spouse is going to act like the people in the porn, uses porn as an outlet for fantasies revolving around those unhealthy practices.

5) Mainstream porn (as opposed to specific sub-categories) tends to portray extremes in sex - and I don't just mean "extreme activities" when I say that. There is never "average sex" - sex that isn't "perfect"; there is never sex that is a compromise when one person really isn't feeling it; there is never a statement of "No, I'm not comfortable with that" and an acknowledgment and acceptance by the person who is wants what the other person is unwilling to do; there never is anything that involves real discussion and "middle ground" of any kind. At the most extreme, there are lots of things that are "extreme", in and of themselves, by any reasonable definition - including things that are cruel, controlling, sadistic and, literally, based on the elimination of agency and love. Lots of porn is "dehumanizing" in the sense that it removes individuality and focuses solely on the animalistic nature of the physical activity to the exclusion of everything else that involves intimacy and being human.

6) This restates #4 and builds on #5, but the extremes that are the norm often lead to unrealistic expectations, and that can put enormous pressure on spouses to accept things they naturally wouldn't accept - and enormous pressure on the one with those expectations to find an avenue for those expectations to be met. That combination can be very destructive in a relationship.

7) Finally, porn as an industry is brutal for many of those who are involved. I won't go into details here, but it is as repulsive as anything I've ever researched.

It is very similar to prostitution in some ways - the disease rate, the lack of decent health insurance, the lack of long-term employment (for lots of reasons), the preying on people who get into it out of desperation or to make money while pursuing other dreams that never materialize as they get "used up" by the industry; the huge underground reliance on runaways and youth, in general, especially in other countries but even in the USA. The celebrities in the industry get all the attention and make it look glamorous, but those who constitute the "fodder" pay a huge price - and, again, that's even here in America. The porn industry in other countries is nearly unspeakable and truly vile and evil.

Seriously, the research is horrific.

Again, using prostitution as an example, I live in Nevada - where prostitution is legal and "ladies ranches" are common. There is one just outside Carson City, where I live, that is the focus of an HBO show. Apparently, the show makes prostitution at that ranch look somewhat glamorous - but I know a woman who wrote a book about the industry in Nevada who visited lots of ladies ranches, interviewed owners and the women who work there and talked about what life actually is like for them. They often are forbidden to leave without supervision (since the owners don't want them to leave or to get paid for anything that can be hidden from them, thus cutting into their profits); the managerial take is comparable to what pimps get through illegal prostitution; women are discarded immediately, with no financial security, if they get AIDS or any other "serious" sexual disease; "minor" sexual infections are overlooked and not disclosed to the "customers"; etc. One owner, portrayed as a benevolent father figure publicly, referred to the women who work there as "my stock" - literally, in the exact same way a rancher speaks of his cattle. In many cases, pimps from California transport their "stable" to Nevada and employ them at the ranches - taking their own cut on top of the owner's cut - leaving the women with next to nothing except a roof over their heads until they go back to their home turf.

Finally, pornography can be highly addictive - and it's created specifically by its producers to be as addictive as possible. There are ranges of porn (soft-core vs. hard-core and lots of degrees all along a scale), but, just like any other commodity in our society, it has been researched extensively to be marketable. I view pornography as perhaps the best example we have of addiction peddling and the result of "evil which does and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the latter days" - and I've done enough research and known enough people over the years to feel strongly about that, even as I also recognize how screwed up our view of sex is and how much that contributes to the problem with pornography that exists in our culture.

The biggest reasons we have a difficult time addressing pornography correctly, in my opinion, are the conflation of nudity with porn and the Puritanical attitudes about and obsession with sex in general. There is nothing wrong with sexual urges and thoughts, in and of themselves, but we have created a culture in which almost anything that is sexual in nature is being repressed. Repression doesn't work; it only leads to explosion - and explosion is seen as gross iniquity - which leads to depression and extreme guilt - which perpetuates a cycle. 

Finally, we tend to view issues with viewing pornography much more harshly than other issues with addiction or varying levels of consumption.  We feel badly for an alcoholic and generally don't "punish" him; rather, we feel sorry for the person and do everything in our power to love her - including referrals to Alcoholics Anonymous or other professional help.  In the LDS Church, we do not excommunicate someone for struggling with alcoholic consumption - or even disfellowship him or require probation.  On the other hand, official discipline and punishment often is the track taken in dealing with viewing pornography - even if there is no abuse or other actionable issue involved (and, as a commenter pointed out, even though the Church Handbook of Instructions says clearly that discipline is NOT appropriate for those struggling with pornography, masturbation or the Word of Wisdom).  Thus, many members who struggle to any degree with pornography face the very real possibility that their struggles will not be met with love and compassion and professional referral but, instead, formal punishment and, in some cases, threat of divorce and the destruction of their lives - even in situations that would not be classified as clinical addiction.

How we treat these people (with direct punishment [both organizational and individual] and social shaming) contributes directly to most of them never confessing their problem and seeking help, which contributes to a vicious cycle of attempted repression as the only viable solution, which rarely succeeds over the long haul. 

So, what is my advice?

Preach against pornography, but don't hammer away constantly.  Understand the similarity for many people to those who struggle with alcohol consumption, and treat each person with the same foundation of love and compassion.  Provide opportunities for confession and therapy (whether with a counselor or through an addiction recovery program) without automatic, official punishment.  Encourage spouses not to threaten or consider divorce automatically, except in cases of severe addiction or when it causes other serious issues in marriage.

There is more, but what is outlined above would be a wonderful starting point. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why Did Nephi Kill Laban - and What Lesson Should We Take from It?

I see the story of Nephi killing Laban as Nephi's justification for his action. By that, I don't mean at all that I see the action as wrong, and I don't mean at all that I see it as uninspired.  I just see it as a man far removed from the actual event trying to explain to others who weren't there why he did something so out of the ordinary and, to most people, including himself, repugnant. 

Frankly, if Nephi was committed to getting the plates and not getting his family killed in the process, chopping off Laban's head as he lay defenseless in the street might have been his only option. He'd tried everything else, and he'd been robbed and threatened with death or imprisonment. Now, here he was, following his instincts and promptings, and there was Laban - so drunk he was passed out.

Nephi had two choices if he felt he had to get the plates of brass:

1) Do what he did without killing Laban.

That might have been possible, but it would have been very risky. When Laban woke up naked, returned to his home and discovered the plates gone, he would know exactly what had happened - no doubts whatsoever. He would have raised a force to pursue Nephi and his family, almost surely found them, and wiped them out. With Nephi's family having only a day or less lead time, that is the only logical outcome.

I think that is vital to understand, especially when trying to understand why he killed Laban.

2) Kill Laban - and do it by chopping off his head.

Laban was a drunk. This probably wasn't a rare occurrence, meaning when his body was discovered and identified most people would probably say, "It finally happened. I told him he'd be sorry at some point." There is a good chance nobody would associate this death with Nephi and his family, since a man like that had to have had enemies - and taking Zoram with them easily could have shifted the focus of the investigation onto him. Even if Nephi and his brothers were considered, it wouldn't be the immediate assumption - and I really think it probably didn't cross anyone's minds, given all the other possibilities.

Also, by chopping off Laban's head (and, presumably, by hiding it away from the body), the identification process would take longer - perhaps much longer. That would give Nephi's family more time to make their escape, thus greatly increasing the likelihood that they actually would escape - even if they were pursued eventually.

3) In other words, I see Nephi's actions as the result of his logical conclusions in the moment - his intellectual rationalization for doing something he would never have considered doing previously. 

Assuming he was the type of visionary person he describes in his record, I also see him justifying his actions in religious terms - and attributing his thought process to inspiration. (I'm not saying it wasn't. I'm sticking purely to a logical analysis right now.) I have a bit of a problem justifying murder to get the plates, but so did Nephi, based on his own words. Therefore, in order to follow through with his plan to obtain the plates, he had to construct an argument that was legal (verse 11 says it really wasn't murder), philosophical (verse 13 makes it a "humane" decision to sacrifice one person for the good of a larger group) and religious (verses 14-17 solidify it as keeping the commandment of God). It's also important, I think, to remember that the account probably was written LONG after the fact, after Nephi had decades to hone his reasoning. I'm not saying it would have been intentional, but we all know that such memories get shaped over time.

I can't reject the legal argument, if I remove myself from our modern outlook and put myself in his shoes in that culture; the philosophical argument was solidly part of his culture, and we even use it now in times of warfare (or, for example, in the case of an abortion to save the life of the mother, who, by living, can "save" her family in very practical terms - or when we excommunicate someone who truly is stirring up active and virulent apostasy within the Church, like someone who is trying to recruit for a polygamous sect among a congregation); the command aspect is the most "iffy", in my opinion - especially since he personally didn't receive the command but was trusting that his father had received it from God. That final aspect is what I think fits the Abraham and Isaac situation the most closely - a son trusting his father to the extreme.

When I read 1 Nephi 4, I see someone who had an objective in mind and had to figure out how to justify accomplishing that objective in a way that he had never considered previously. In other words, he didn't go into the excursion to get the plates thinking he might have to kill someone. The thought probably never crossed his mind. Faced suddenly with the realization that, if he REALLY was serious about getting the plates, the best course of action was going to be killing Laban, he took the time to construct a legal, philosophical and religious argument for doing so.

In that sense, if God really did want them to have the plates, Nephi did what he thought he had to do to get them - and he only had a minute or two to decide. I might not like what he did in theory, but I can't condemn or even judge him for a quick decision in a time of great stress - especially from the luxury of almost forty years of reading his account.

Finally, in reading the rest of his account, I think that decision haunted him all his life, despite his justification for it - and I think that might be the greatest lesson we can take from it.  

[Postcript]: A good friend whom I admire greatly (kevinf) made a comment in a thread on By Common Consent discussing this story that I think is profound - and something I had not considered in all my years of exposure to the story.  I am adding it to this post, since it hit me so hard when I read it.

One interesting point is that ultimately, Nephi’s descendants did ” dwindle in unbelief.” In Nephi’s psalm, while not specifically identifying the sins that have caused him such anguish, I do believe that Nephi can see the direction his divided family is headed, and the role he played, both for good and bad. Perhaps, in his role as prophet, Nephi has seen the ultimate end of his people,and is questioning why he had to kill Laban, if in the end it results in what he was trying to prevent? How many more violent deaths are to occur, and sins be committed, he seems to be saying, despite his efforts to prevent them? 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

We Determine How God Speaks to Us

When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities. He spoke to the children of Jacob through Moses, as a blind, stiff-necked people, and when Jesus and his Apostles came they talked with the Jews as a benighted, wicked, selfish people. They would not receive the Gospel, though presented to them by the Son of God in all its righteousness, beauty and glory. Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings. If the people are stiff-necked, the Lord can tell them but little. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:311.)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Modesty: Extremism Is Not a Good Thing

I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with modesty as a standard.

 None. Zilch. Nada. Zero.

 I really like the general definition of modesty as, "Moderation in all things" - although there are times when extreme measures are warranted on either side of the continuum. It's when modesty becomes an obsessive focus on one aspect (in this case, how people dress), as well as a hedge about the law (moving the lines to avoid coming anywhere near the edge of the law), and the hedge obscures the path itself (so people lose sight of what modesty in dress really means), and the ideal disappears from sight (when extremity in dress is seen as modesty) that I am concerned - and we have too many members who have lost sight of the ideal, in my opinion.

For example, more clothing that covers more of one's body is not modesty when it moves past moderation; rather, it becomes extremism (like a full-scale burkha), which is the opposite of modesty.  Complete, shapeless coverage when in public is simply the opposite extreme of full nudity in public - and both are equally "immodest". 

The BYU-Idaho example that occurred a few years ago is a classic one.

The Church and BYU-Idaho didn't ban anything the young woman was wearing, but an administrator and an employee stretched the definition of modesty so badly that it made both organizations look stupid - and necessitated a general statement reaffirming that, in deed, nothing she was wearing was forbidden. Furthermore, the young woman in question was the RELIEF SOCIETY PRESIDENT in her ward and had gone straight from a meeting with her Bishop to the testing center. She was covered from neck to toe in clothes that weren't even tight (not skinny jeans, but standard boot-cut jeans), but one guy apparently was distracted by her curves and exercised "a little authority, as (he) suppose(d)," to define modesty in a ridiculous way.  *sigh*

Sometimes, we really are our own worst enemies - and sometimes it's because we restrict meaning and build such high hedges about the law.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Varying Kinds of Testimonies and Gaining Them Individually

We focused last Sunday on the lesson outline entitled, "What does it mean to bear testimony?"

After the traditional scriptural discussion, I took them through a comparison to court proceedings and what different types of witnesses testify in that setting. (eye-witness, character - both good and bad, expert - like psychiatrists or forensic scientists, etc.) We talked about which ones are least reliable (only one eye-witness) and which ones are most reliable (often experts who analyze data without perceptual biases). One of the students explained about a car accident in which his friend was involved and how the expert was able to reconstruct many details of the accident that were unbiased and based only on what the visible evidence showed.  We talked about why more than one eye-witness is important - primarily to counter confirmation bias and our tendency to see what we believe, rather than believing what we see.

We then applied each of those types to spiritual testimonies and talked about the importance of gaining a testimony from each category - to have a well-rounded, balanced, multi-faceted testimony.

I asked each of them to take a minute and think about one aspect of the Gospel that they feel is the strongest part of their testimony - and why it is. We talked about some of those aspects, very briefly. I am not going to share any of those details, since it was a very personal discussion.

I then asked them to identify one thing about which they didn't have a strong testimony but want to gain such a testimony. One student said tithing, since she hasn't earned much money in her life to this point and doesn't feel like she has a personal testimony of it. Another student hesitated and then said, "Everything." He explained that, due to some pretty serious ward issues where he used to live, he had withdrawn emotionally and become mostly inactive. When he moved here, everyone accepted him - and one friend in particular made a huge difference in his life and helped him look at the Church differently. He said he wants to understand everything better, which wasn't the case a couple of years ago. (On a personal note, it was one of the highlights of my time as a teacher of that class - and I told him afterward that I was grateful he had had the courage to comment.)

We read John 7:16-17, which says:

Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.

I asked them what is the best way to figure out how they feel about something (to "gain a testimony" that is unique to each of them individually, no matter what it ended up being), and they all understood that it was to do it.  I mentioned the idea of an "experiment upon the word", as Alma said - and I stressed the need to try it over an extended period of time, both when it was easy and when it was hard. If they do that, they might come to differing conclusions among themselves, but those conclusions would be uniquely their own.

Friday, May 23, 2014

We Shouldn't Pound a Principle So Hard We End Up Burying and Distorting It

I was talking with a friend a while ago about the concept of teaching correct principles and letting people govern themselves, and she shared a very instructive, poignant story with me.  I want to pass it on here and add my own commentary at the end.

My friend explained to me that when her daughter attended Young Women meetings and activities, it seemed like the central lesson always was related somehow to marriage (dating [with specific reference to preparing for marriage], chastity [with specific reference to being clean for marriage], virtue [with specific and exclusive reference to remaining pure for marriage], modesty [with specific reference to attracting a worthy mate], traditional homemaking skills [with specific reference to life after marriage], etc.)  My friend told me two things that really resonated with me about how this affected her daughter:

1) It made each of the things listed above appear to be about marriage, exclusively.  Each of them has a much more broad, important, even critical role than just in relation to marriage, but all of the other aspects of each of them were hidden (literally "buried") under the avalanche of marriage-related rhetoric.  That distorted everything taught in the lessons in a real and practical way for her daughter.

2) Her daughter understood how important marriage is, but, because of the unrelenting application of everything exclusively to marriage that daughter finally stopped attending Young Women classes and activities completely.  Why?  She was 15-years-old and had no desire to "stress about marriage all the time".  She wanted to focus on other things, get a good education, learn a marketable skill, etc. - all the things that would be important whether or not she got married.  She wanted to be taught like an important, full individual in and of herself - not just as a potential wife of someone else.

My commentary: 

There is a HUGE difference between "teaching and emphasizing" (even something that needs to be taught and emphasized) and "driving a tent stake so far into the ground that it's impossible to see the stake being driven and being left only with an image of a sledgehammer hitting the ground".  For example, how do you think it feels to a single mother (divorced, widowed from a non-member spouse, never married, etc.) or a single adult in the Church to hear every single week - even in our "worship meeting" - that the ideal is a married couple, sealed in the temple?  In that light, and please picture this image as you read, when you keep driving a tent stake into the ground further than it needs to be driven in order to secure the stake, it actually ends up restricting the tent and "shrinking" and "distorting" the tent in a real, practical way. Stakes have to be driven into the ground to secure the tent, but they don't have to be driven two feet or five miles under the ground.

We do a lot of driving already buried stakes so far into the ground that the stake itself gets buried and lost - and ignoring other tent stakes that ought to be driven in the ground, as well, to make the tent more secure. That can result in a lop-sided, distorted tent - one in which many faithful members can't find comfort and rest.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

We Are All Liable to Error - Even Prophets

“We are all liable to error; are subject, more or less, to the errors incident to the human family. We would be pleased to get along without these errors, and many may think that a man in my standing ought to be perfect; no such thing.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 10:212)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Charity Suffereth (Allows) Long and Is Kind: How "God Is Love"

I see "eternity" as, literally, extending for time and ALL eternity - and I believe that we won't be "placed into a kingdom with boundaries" until we're done becoming - or, more precisely, reached a point of becoming where any new development is a result of creating things outside ourselves. When we're done with the internal becoming and are ready to move on to external creating, that's when we will become like God. We'll be ready to step fully into an eternal round.

With that in mind, I'm not hung up at all on a timeline.

On the other hand, the LDS Church simply MUST preach a timeline. It simply must talk in terms of the importance of this life - since it's all we have right now, and since it's important to be moving forward and "becoming" more complete, whole and fully developed. Anything except that is stagnation and regression, and, while those things can be reversed, we can't preach it in such a way that we encourage it. We can make theological and doctrinal allowance for both stagnation and regression, and we do exactly that with grace / forgiveness, but we also must stress the importance of progressive change, and we do that with repentance. Either one is "dead, being alone" - but when you combine the two (and mix in patience and humility), you get the mindset that says:

I will do what I can to live according to the dictates of my conscience and best understanding, and I will hope in the Lord to provide what I can't see on my own - according to His timetable and not my own.

So, as long as someone really is doing the best she can to live what she believes to be truth and right, I believe she will become exalted - and the key to me is "become" instead of "be made". I believe God exalts his children more through his patience and long-suffering (his charity / pure love) than by any direct action on his part.

Read 1 Corinthians 13 with that in mind - looking at it as a description of God and his interaction with us. It might be an interesting experience.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Exceptions Are between Individuals and the Lord

“There are exceptions to some rules. For example, we believe the commandment is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict. But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord.” (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign, June 2006, p. 16)

I would add that so is the necessity to understand the nature of general rules, strive to determine their origin and proper context, and pretty much everything else related to individual faith.  Ultimately, our faith is between us, as individuals, and the Lord.  

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why Don't We Hear about Visions of God and Heavenly Visitations Much Anymore?

I've said this before, both here and elsewhere, but I think it's important to be precise when we talk about visions and visitations.

Visions of God appearing to people are mentioned in our scriptures, but they aren't "commonplace". Seriously, if you want to have an eye-opening experience, read our entire cannon and see how many people record visions of that kind. I think most people would be surprised - and that's in records covering thousands of years and in cultures that didn't have problems accepting visions.

Then there are visitations: Um, there are almost none in our scriptures that aren't phrased in such a way that they absolutely had to be physical visitations and not visions. The brother of Jared?  Sounds like a visitation, but not 100% clear.  Could have been a vision. Moses on Mount Sinai? Worded pretty clearly as a visitation.  Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (the only instance in his mortal life, interestingly)? Yes, definitely worded as a visitation.  Jesus appearing to the Biblical disciples and the Nephites? Absolutely visitations.   and . . . who else? Even Joseph Smith's initial encounter with God is called the "First Vision" - notwithstanding how many member have morphed it into a physical visitation. 

I'd like to have more visions and visitations reported in our day, but I'm realistic enough to believe that such events just don't happen much - when viewed through the lens of our recorded scriptures.

I probably should clarify that last statement:

If we are talking about "visions" only and defining them as broadly as possible, they happen quite regularly still. I know of people who have had visions of some kind or another, and I don't question most of them. I've even had one moment where I might say I had a vision.

There are all kinds of visions, if we are talking about prophecy, "seeing into the future" and/or "pure strokes of intelligence". My own experience was like that - getting a flashing glimpse of what would happen in the Deep South if the people ever could let go of their racist viewpoints - both some members and lots of non-members. It was an amazing experience, and it was "visionary" in a way - but that's not what I meant.

I think those types of visions happen all the time still - but when I say visions and visitations are relatively uncommon in our scriptures, I mean God appearing to someone and/or seeming to visit that person. Those are rare - and if they are rare in our scriptures, in times and cultures where they were accepted relatively easily, I understand why they are even rarer now in our modern, industrial, technological society and culture. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Studying Scriptures for Revelation about the Bad as Well as the Good

The lesson yesterday was based on the outline entitled, "How can I use scripture study skills to help me learn more about the Priesthood?" - but I changed the focus to learning more about revelation instead of the Priesthood.

We started by reading a bunch of the scriptures listed in the outline, focusing on the key words and phrases I have bolded below:

1 Nephi 10:19 - For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round.

I emphasized that it's not enough just to read - that we need to SEEK and do so "diligently". I also pointed out that being "unfolded" implies multiple steps and more time that just one or two times.

D&C 88:118 - And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.

I asked the students what they think of when they read "the best books" - that we would be focusing on the scriptures today but what other books would fit that category. They mentioned textbooks, books about science, math, history, etc. One person mentioned historical fiction and how it can be easier to read and ponder than the more "dry" textbooks. I mentioned scriptural commentaries, even by people outside our religion, and the scriptural texts of other people. I told them that they need to find their own "best books" - the things that will give them the "learning" they want to obtain.

1 Nephi 19:23 - And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.

I mentioned that we usually talk about likening things from the scriptures by focusing on the positive messages and how we can get a "moral to the story" from them. I told them that such an approach is important, but it is more important to read each story and passage carefully to see what we can learn from it, no matter what that is, good or bad. I mentioned that, later in the lesson, we were going to look at two specific stories in the Old Testament with that in mind.

2 Nephi 4:16 - Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.


D&C 138:1 - On the third of October, in the year nineteen hundred and eighteen, I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures;

I simply emphasized with these verses that it is important to think about what we read at times other than while we are reading them - that often the deepest insights occur after we have had time to "digest" what we've read and mull over it a bit.


2 Nephi 32:3 - Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ;

Using that as the foundation (really digging into the words as if we were participating in an old fashioned feast), we turned to two stories in the Old Testament: Abraham and the attempted sacrifice of Isaac (which we have discussed at least twice previously in class) and Moses and the annihilation of the Midianites.

We read Genesis 22:1, and I told them that I had missed a word and its implications for nearly 50 years as I read and talked about this story. That verse says:

And it came to pass after these things, that God did TEMPT Abraham.

We looked at the notes at the bottom of the page and saw that two possible alternative readings for that word are "test" and "prove". I asked the students why we always use "test" when talking about this passage and never "tempt" - the word that actually is in the translation we use. They said that "tempt" has a negative connotation and is used to talk about trying to get someone to do something that is bad - that we don't see God as someone who tempts people and tries to get them to do bad things.

I then asked them, since it was Mother's Day, how they would react if the thought hit them that they should kill their mothers - or if a friend told them he had had a dream in which he was told to kill his mother. They all looked shocked and said they would never have that thought (and certainly not act on it) - and that they probably would recommend professional counseling if a friend seemed serious at all about it.

I summarized by saying that such a thought / impression / whatever would not be a temptation for them - and asked them why it would have been a temptation for Abraham if he thought God had asked him to kill his son. We talked about the story of the destruction of Sodom and how Abraham had argued / bargained with the Lord about saving the city. I asked them why Abraham hadn't argued / bargained with the Lord about killing Isaac - and, again, why the word "tempt" might be a great word to use for what happened.

That stumped them completely, so I took them through an abbreviated version of the story in the PofGP about Abraham's background - how he had been raised in a culture and religion that practiced human and child sacrifice - how nobody in that area would have questioned the idea of him sacrificing Issac (that nobody at that time and place would have suggested professional counseling). They would have understood and supported him, so, given his own personal history, it really would have been a temptation - and, given how he reacted, a temptation to which he succumbed. Ultimately, God had to stop him from actually doing it - so, even if we use "test" instead of "tempt", the use of "tempt" can help us see that Abraham might have failed the test by succumbing to the temptation of his upbringing and not questioning or arguing with the Lord about it.

I emphasized that what we had just discussed was completely consistent with the actual account in the scriptures and only hit me as I talked with others about the story and pondered / feasted on it.

We then turned to the story in Numbers 31 about the Israelite war with the Midianites and how similar it was to the current situation in Nigeria with the girls who were kidnapped and given as "brides" to the soldiers. We read verses 1-2, which say:

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, "Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people."

I pointed out that the only thing the Lord commanded was that the Israelites fight the Midianites and win. There are NO specifics in the account.

In verse 14, it says Moses was "wroth" (extremely angry) and that Moses commanded what happened next - not just the death of all the men capable of fighting (which already had been done) but the killing of all the women and male children and the giving of all the virgins to the Israelite soldiers as wives.

I told them that it is easy to skim over the story and assume that God commanded everything that was done - but that simply isn't what the account says. I then shared with them the idea articulated by a friend that we can get so passionate about doing what we believe to be what God wants that we end up being over-zealous and going beyond what was commanded. We can believe that tithing is important - and figure that if 10% is good, 11% or 60% has to be better; we can believe that the scriptures are important - and eliminate all other books from our lives; we can believe that the Sabbath is a day of rest - and sleep all day each Sunday; we can believe that missionary work is important - and harangue people until they avoid us like the plague; etc., etc., etc.

We discussed the concept of using scriptures not just to teach us "the good parts version" (anybody recognize that reference?) but also to help us avoid making the mistakes other people have made (even prophets) throughout history.

We finished by going back to the title of the lesson, and I told them that I view the new insight I had gained from studying those two stories over a long period of time and with "real intent" to be a good example of one type of important revelation - the uncovering of something that previously had been hidden from me.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Is Tithing Necessary to Inherit the Celestial Kingdom?

Someone once asked me the question in the title of this post, and my answer was what would have been the other half of the title: "Only if You Are An Active Mormon."  Let me explain what I meant, realizing my wording was a bit tongue-in-cheek but also meant to be a bit of a "Zen slap" - something that smacks you upside the head and makes you think a little harder about something than you had previously.  

1) The LDS Church teaches that tithing is required to enter the temple, which, in a very real and practical way, can mean that tithing is required for exaltation.

2) The LDS Church teaches that any-freaking-body who ever has lived in the entire history of the planet earth may end up in the Celestial Kingdom and, therefore, be exalted - regardless of whether or not they have paid tithing (or even one penny in religious or charitable donations) in their entire lives.

3) Thus, tithing is taught as necessary ONLY if someone is a member of the LDS Church in this lifetime - and not for those who weren't (and there even is the underlying teaching that each of us will be judged according to how well we live what we understand individually, which provides a HUGE disclaimer even for those who have been baptized into the LDS Church).

There is an inherent conflict / opposition in that construct, if you really think about it. It is a paradoxical teaching - and, therefore, it would be easy to dismiss tithing completely as unnecessary in any cosmic way. I don't do that - for multiple reasons, one of which is that I have received adequate benefit from my own payment of tithes over the years (including the acknowledgment of the covenant relationship in providing for my needs more than once while I was unemployed and needed assistance) - and one more, which is that I have an adequate (for me, personally) intellectual understanding of the need for tithing.

So, what do I make of the conflict between the two polar opposite stances - neither of which I reject / both of which I understand and accept?

I take it to mean that God doesn't require tithing to be exalted - unless someone understands tithing and has committed to pay tithing, in whatever form that person understands. Likewise, God doesn't require chastity to be exalted - unless someone understands chastity and has committed to live a chaste life, in whatever form that person understands. God doesn't require abstinence from theft to be exalted - unless someone understands abstinence from theft and has committed not to steal, in whatever form that person understands. etc, etc, etc.

The LDS Church, however, as an organization, believes in tithing (and chastity and no stealing) and requires those things in order to state that it believes its members will be exalted - even as it does NOT require those things of those who are not members and do not understand them well enough to be accountable to live them.  Likewise, and importantly, it does not require those things of young children or the obviously mentally handicapped - again, since they may not understand them well enough to be accountable to live them.  The key is living up to what I understand. 

Hence, my Reader's Digest answer - which I believe is the fullest, most comprehensive yet concise definition:

No, tithing is not required for exaltation - unless you're an active member of the Church (but even then with theological disclaimers) who understands the reasons for tithing.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Our Leaders Don't Claim to Be Infallible

“I make no claim of infallibility.” (Spencer W. Kimball, Improvement Era, June 1970, p. 93)

“We make no claim of infallibility or perfection in the prophets, seers, and revelators.” (James E. Faust, Ensign, November 1989, p. 11)

“The First Presidency cannot claim, individually or collectively, infallibility.” (George Q. Cannon Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, 1957, 1:206)

“Even the President of the Church has not always spoken under the direction of the Holy Ghost.” (Elder J. Reuben Clark, quoted in Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History, p. 82)

“The Lord uses imperfect people…He often allows their errors to stand uncorrected. He may have a purpose in doing so, such as to teach us that religious truth comes forth “line upon line, precept upon precept” in a process of sifting and winnowing similar to the one I know so well in science.” (Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist, p. 47)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Different Definition of "Restoration"

I heard the following years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since:

Full "restoration" is much more about restoring harmony, beauty and peace (even harmony, beauty and peace that only has existed rarely) than it is about restoring structure, organization and dogma. Restoration, from an eternal perspective is about finding once again the unity of God’s family prior to the War in Heaven – prior to the first division that destroyed fundamental harmony, beauty and peace.   

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Welcome All with Gratitude and without Prejudice

In this Church our wards and our quorums do not belong to us. They belong to Jesus Christ. Whoever enters our meetinghouses should feel at home. The responsibility to welcome everyone has growing importance. The world in which we live is going through a period of great upheaval. Because of the increased availability of transportation, speed of communication, and globalization of economies, the earth is becoming one large village where people and nations meet, connect, and intermingle like never before.

These vast, worldwide changes serve the designs of Almighty God. The gathering of His elect from the four corners of the earth is taking place not only by sending missionaries to faraway countries but also with the arrival of people from other areas into our own cities and neighborhoods. Many, without knowing it, are being led by the Lord to places where they can hear the gospel and come into His fold.

It is very likely that the next person converted to the gospel in your ward will be someone who does not come from your usual circle of friends and acquaintances. You may note this by his or her appearance, language, manner of dress, or color of skin. This person may have grown up in another religion, with a different background or a different lifestyle.

So, my brothers, it is your duty to reach out to anyone who appears at the doors of your Church buildings. Welcome them with gratitude and without prejudice. If people you do not know walk into one of your meetings, greet them warmly and invite them to sit with you. Please make the first move to help them feel welcome and loved, rather than waiting for them to come to you.

After your initial welcome, consider ways you can continue to minister to them. I once heard of a ward where, after the baptism of two deaf sisters, two marvelous Relief Society sisters decided to learn sign language so they could better communicate with these new converts. What a wonderful example of love for fellow brothers and sisters in the gospel! 

I bear witness that no one is a stranger to our Heavenly Father. There is no one whose soul is not precious to Him. With Peter, I testify that “God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (Gerald Causse, October 2013 General Conference, "Ye Are No More Strangers")

Monday, May 12, 2014

Baptisms are Not the Measure of a Successful Mission

I don't like fast baptisms, as a rule or a standard approach - but I know of quite a few individual cases where a baptism within 3-5 weeks was completely appropriate. I don't want a minimum wait time established, but I don't like trying to set a baptism date in the first or second lesson. I want investigators to know up-front and immediately that the missionaries are there to teach and baptize them, ideally, so I don't mind baptism being mentioned from the moment they sit down for the first time, but I want it to be "whenever you feel a confirmation from God that joining our church is what He wants you to do" and not "let's pick a date and pray you feel good about it by then." 

That is my own view, and I don't claim that it is the only right one. 

I understand not wanting to make someone wait longer than necessary when they want to join, and I understand youthful zeal and enthusiasm, and I understand leaders (especially Mission Presidents) wanting to do their best and be recognized as successful leaders - but, in principle, I don't like rushing things that shouldn't be rushed. I'd rather take a little longer than necessary, for example, than too little time when it comes to baptism.

For what it's worth, I know the two-year retention rates right now for new converts are higher than they've been, overall, in the past - but I don't attribute that to fast or slow baptisms. I attribute it to better, more personalized teaching than used to occur with the memorized lessons and, overall, less measurement of success as a function of total baptisms. "Preach My Gospel" says in crystal clear terms that the number of baptisms is not how a successful mission should be measured, and I've heard it said from the pulpit in multiple locations over the last five years or so. It's sad that some leaders still are preaching the old line of success being measured best by baptism numbers, but it is not the way it is supposed to be.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Reverence, not Necessarily Quietude, as a Source of Revelation

Last Sunday, we started the month's topic of Prophets and Revelation. I focused on the lesson outline entitled, "How does reverence help me receive revelation?"

I didn't introduce the topic at first but, instead, pulled out my cell phones (personal and work-provided) and asked each student to name one benefit of having such technology available individually. They mentioned a bunch of things, all of which could be grouped into two general categories: information access and interpersonal connectivity. I then asked them to name something that is a negative about having such technology individually. The answers fell into two general categories: information access and interpersonal disconnectedness / distraction. We talked for a short time about how having so much information available to us allows us to receive answers to many questions almost instantaneously and to stay connected with people from whom we naturally would be separated, but having that same amount of information available constantly also can cause obsession, distraction, non-productivity, interpersonal distance, erosion of communication skills, etc.

I then talked about my experiences blogging and how hard it can be to convey full meaning with just words on a screen - how nuance and emotion can be difficult or impossible to express adequately, which can lead people who actually agree with each other to argue with each other due to misunderstanding what has been written. I mentioned one particular person whom I used to count as a friend who can't discuss anything online without turning it into a debate she is determined to win - and how she isn't that way in person. I also mentioned how anonymity can lead to people saying things they wouldn't say, ever, in person.

I then asked the students to define "reverence". One student said "respect" - while another one said it comes from the word "revere", which is extreme respect. I added the element of awe.

I asked if we tend to talk about revering food or such things, and one of them said, "Yes - chocolate!" After a good chuckle, we focused on the ultimate object of reverence in the context of church and a Sunday School lesson. Obviously, that is God. I asked about prophets and apostles - and they all answered that we should respect them but not revere them in the same way that we revere God, simply because they are human and make mistakes.

I asked how reverence generally has been defined in their years in the Church, especially in Primary. The answers were, "Be quiet," "Sit still," "Fold your arms," "Don't argue with your teacher," etc. We talked about how children need structure from which to learn - and I told them that, at some point, the challenge is to transition from the understanding of children to an individual, adult view. As an example, we talked about the "form of prayer" and how it is important for someone just learning to pray - but that, at some point, we need to learn to talk with God naturally and not in a formulaic manner. We need to revere God, not recite things to God.

In order to illustrate the point about moving to a more mature understanding of reverence, I asked if our hymns are supposed to be reverent. They said the hymns are supposed to be respectful and expressive of awe - but not all of them are supposed to be sung quietly and/or in a subdued manner. I had them open the hymnals randomly and read the titles of the hymns and the word at the top left (above the first line) explaining how they were to be sung. We laughed at the first person's selection, since it was "Reverently and Meekly Now" - but almost half of the hymns were supposed to be sung "exuberantly" or "with rejoicing" or "exultantly" or "energetically" or some other similar adjective. Each and every hymn dealt with a topic for which we should have deep respect, and even awe, but, for some of them, singing quietly and solemnly would be the opposite of reverently.

I told them that I wanted to go through all of that to make sure the last part of the lesson, which is really important to me, wasn't the only thing they took away from the lesson - that there is a very important element of the traditional focus on quietude and solemnity in reverence, which we were about to discuss, but I wanted them to be able to "rock" reverentially, as well.

We read 1 Kings 19:12 and 3 Nephi 11:1-7 (about the still, small voice) and D&C 63:64 and 84:54-57 (about valuing and not making light of sacred things), then we read Psalms 46:10 ("Be still, and know that I am God."). I went back to the discussion about cell phones and distraction / disconnectedness, and we talked about how hard it is to develop a reverential attitude when we aren't "still" and contemplative. I mentioned that when I recruit high school students I rarely call them; rather, I text them and ask them to call me or let me know when I can call them. I do that because most of them won't interrupt multiple, simultaneous text conversations to answer the phone. They have to stop what they are doing and set aside time just for me to have the important discussions that are necessary to get ready to go to college.

I ended with the idea that there is a cause-and-effect relationship articulated in: 1) Be still, and 2) Know that I am God - that, often, we need to eliminate distractions in order to commune with, recognize and gain understanding of the divine. We can be reverential without being quiet, but we can't be fully reverential if we never are still and quiet, especially internally. It is in that stillness that revelation often can come and be recognized - no matter how we reach that stillness (prayer, meditation, pondering, contemplation, etc.). Revelation can come amid chaos, but some revelation only can come in the stillness of the soul.

Friday, May 9, 2014

How Do You Feel the Spirit Individually? or, Why We Shouldn't Tell People How They Will Feel the Spirit

I have had a very few "burning in the bosom" experiences, but never totally on my own. For me, it tends to be a "settling upon my soul" feeling - or a convergence of mind and heart that brings me a feeling of great peace. Most of the time, however, I'm not much of a "feeler". I'm more naturally a "study it out in your heart and mind" person.

I'm a good example of why we shouldn't tell people how they will feel the Spirit, since the "traditional" ways don't work for me all that often. 

I'm interested in how others feel the spirit.  Please feel free to share, if you so desire.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Church Develops and Makes Mistakes, Just Like Individuals Do

"Seventy years ago this Church was organized with six members. We commenced, so to speak, as an infant. We had our prejudices to combat. Our ignorance troubled us in regard to what the Lord intended to do and what He wanted us to do … We advanced to boyhood, and still we undoubtedly made some mistakes, which … generally arise from a …lack of experience. We understand very well, when we reflect back upon our own lives, that we did many foolish things when we were boys … Yet as we advanced, the experience of the past materially assisted us to avoid such mistakes as we had made in our boyhood. It has been so with the Church. Our errors have generally arisen from a lack of comprehending what the Lord required of us to do. But now we are pretty well along to manhood … When we examine ourselves, however, we discover that we are still not doing exactly as we ought to do, notwithstanding all our experience. We discern that there are things which we fail to do that the Lord expects us to perform, some of which He requires us to do in our boyhood. … While we congratulate ourselves in this direction, we certainly ought to feel that we have not yet arrived at perfection. There are many things for us to do yet.” (Lorenzo Snow: April 6, 1900)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I Don't Want to be Required to See through Another Person's Glass

I hope we never get to the point in mortality that we formulate a Mormon theology that is so concrete that it makes us “creedal” in the classic sense of that word - where everyone is expected to understand everything the same way. I want general outlines and the freedom to wander around within them and see what hits me uniquely and individually – to come to experience God on a personal level and reach my own understanding what God wants of my mind and my heart.

In other words, I want to see through my own glass more clearly, but I don’t want to have someone hand me their glass and insist I see through it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Speaking in Church Is Not about the Speaker

Why is [a] man called to act as president over a people? Is it in order to acquire an influence and then to use that influence directly for his own aggrandizement? No, but on the contrary, he is called to act in such a position on the same principle as the priesthood was given to the Son of God, that he should make sacrifices. For himself? No, but in the interests of the people over whom he presides. 
Ask the Lord that you may say something during your remarks that will be beneficial to those whom you address. Never mind whether it will be something that will add to your own glory or not, but simply bear in mind that you are called upon to address the audience and that they desire to receive something that will benefit them. This can only come from the Lord. Do not worry as to whether … those who hear you may say you spoke beautifully. Do not mind about that at all, but remove every selfishness that may be in your mind that the Lord may dictate unto you something that will be of benefit to the people. (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, Chapter 18: Church Leadership and Selfless Service)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Why Are Ordinances Necessary Now if They Are Going to Be Performed for Everyone Eventually?

The question in the title of this post is one I've heard numerous times in my life, and I think it is a very good question - and I also think the answer to that question is absolutely vital to an understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the incredible power of the Restored Gospel as taught in Mormonism.  I hope the following answer to that question is understandable and helps someone who reads this post:

The LDS Church teaches that the ordinances of the Priesthood are necessary for exaltation, but it also teaches that those ordinances will be performed for literally everyone who ever has lived at some point in time when the information becomes available to us. This leads directly to the question in the post title: Sure they are necessary, but why should we care about performing them now? Within our theology, them happening at some point is a given, so it's no big deal for the people who have died, from an eternal perspective, that they happen right now. They might have to wait a little longer if we don't do the ordinances now, but what's a few more years (or even a thousand more years) in light of an eternity?   

My answer is that it's absolutely important for US that WE do them now.

1) Providing the ordinances for every single person who ever has lived removes all "arbitrary" aspects of salvation and exaltation and says we really will be "judged" according to who we become - not what ordinances we perform. That assertion, and the practical proof that we really do believe it, as shown by our willingness to do vicarious ordinances, cuts the heart out of the mainstream Christian arrogance that asserts salvation for the believers in this life and damnation for the non-believers in this life.

That's so important that I will repeat it in different words:

Whether or not ordinances literally are necessary right now is irrelevant, IF we posit that they will be performed in the end for every person who ever has lived. If they are going to be performed at some point, the only "real" benefit of doing them here and now is to those who perform them - particularly in regard to how they see and judge others. In other words, it's all about the effect of those ordinances on us. 

2) It truly is eye-opening to compare the statements in Malachi and the Doctrine & Covenants about the visitation of Elijah as it relates to vicarious work.

Malachi 4:6 says:

And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers...

D&C 2:2, on the other hand, says: 

And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. 

Notice that the verse in Malachi mentions two turnings of the heart, while the verse in the D&C mentions only one turning.  That distinction is critical, I believe, as it seems to say that the "heart of the fathers" already has been turned to the children - so all that is left is to turn the heart of the children to their fathers.  

In other words, at the most basic level, if we are to be united as one great, eternal, universal family of God, the need to perform vicarious ordinances lies in the need to have our own hearts turned to meet the hearts of our fathers that have been turned already.  The need to turn our hearts encompasses ALL of our ancestors - ALL of God's children - meaning we need to seek them out and acknowledge our eternal debt and connection to them, then try to show our love and respect by going to a temple and bearing testimony of our changed hearts by doing something they can't do for themselves but which could and will be done by someone else whose heart is turned to them if ours is not. 

Why are ordinances necessary now if they are going to be performed for everyone eventually?  

Our hearts need to be turned. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Chosen People and the Atonement

Two weeks ago, on Sunday, April 20th, as I was thinking of finishing touches for the Sunday School lesson, I had the distinct impression that the kids would hear my lesson in Sacrament Meeting and that they should attend Gospel Doctrine instead. I cleared that with our Bishop, and we cancelled class. Sure enough, the speakers in Sac Mtg went over every major part of my prepared lesson - and the Gospel Doctrine lesson was excellent. Also, I had an epiphany during it that served as the foundation of the lesson outline last Sunday.  It was the final lesson about the Atonement, and I approached it in a way that was new for me. I was a bit concerned about how it would go, but it went really well.

I started by writing "Chosen People" on the board and drawing a simple timeline below it. I asked the students to name some "chosen people" from the earliest records to the present time. We came up with Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob/Israel, Moses, David, John (the Baptist), Jesus, Paul and Joseph Smith. I mentioned Pres. Uchtdorf's talk "Faith of Our Fathers" and added the Protestant Reformers to the list. We then added Lehi and Nephi to the list to better represent our overall canon.

Next, I asked them who constituted "The Chosen People" at the time each person on the list lived. Adam and Eve were the first two chosen people; Noah's family is listed as eight people; the Abrahamic Covenant extended the number to millions / billions of people, eventually (and I explained how, genetically, by now, everyone is related if we go back far enough); Israel began a different kind of chosen people - one that was focused on laws and ordinances and was a restriction in a real way; Jesus re-established the universality of chosen-ness; it was restricted again through the apostasy to include only Christians; Joseph restored the idea that ALL are chosen for salvation and chosen for potential exaltation, while ALSO restoring the idea of a smaller chosen people who perform ordinances that make universal chosen-ness possible.

We then talked about what that means about us (the LDS Church) being "chosen people". We talked about the natural tendency to make discussions of chosen-ness turn into "us vs. them" conflicts. We talked about how, in our theology, even people who inherit the Telestial Kingdom are "chosen" in a very real way - that only those who consciously and knowingly choose Lucifer over God are not chosen in any way. We talked about how our "chosen-ness" is unique ONLY in the sense that we have been given the responsibility of making sure everyone has the opportunity to be chosen, as well. I held my hands together to form a small circle and said that we fail in our chosen-ness if we don't expand that circle as broadly as possible - and spread my arms as I talked to illustrate that point.

I told them that there are two "states of chosen-ness", if you will. There is being chosen to teach and share the Gospel (to expand the circle), and there is being chosen to receive God's glory. They all understood that receiving God's glory is more important than any idea of chosen-ness in this life - and that those who accept God fully in the next life are "more chosen" than those who have a chosen status in this life only.

We ended by talking about the ultimate vision of the Atonement - the ideal that every child of God ends up in the Celestial Kingdom and that we have to learn to view every child of God as having that potential and treating them accordingly, no matter how we see them naturally or how little potential we see in them currently. I explained the Atonement as the bridge between a smaller chosen people and a universal chosen people.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Playing the Jesus Card

Just so it's in print, I try to be VERY careful about using the "Jesus card" in discussions of just about anything (meaning I try to avoid saying, "Well, Jesus obviously would do _________" or, "Jesus obviously wouldn't agree with that," or something similar to that message) - but especially when discussing how the LDS Church is organized and run currently.  I avoid it for many reasons, not the least of which is that his ministry was WAY different than the running of a church organization.

Think about that seriously for a minute, and I think you'll see what I mean.  Jesus never led a church; he was essentially an itinerant preacher who gained a following but established nothing organizationally during his ministry.  He left that to his disciples to do after his death, and we have nothing recorded about his directives to them concerning that subsequent effort after his post-resurrection return - except the command to go, teach and baptize. 

The Jesus card squelches discussion pretty quickly - and if we start using the Jesus card, we really aren't doing anything different than Protestants, Catholics, ex-Mormons or anyone else who uses it to squelch discussions with us concerning our Mormon beliefs.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Nearly All Are in the Reach of Pardoning Mercy

Some years ago I was in Washington, D.C., with President Harold B. Lee. Early one morning he called me to come into his hotel room. He was sitting in his robe reading Gospel Doctrine, by President Joseph F. Smith, and he said, “Listen to this!” 
“Jesus had not finished his work when his body was slain, neither did he finish it after his resurrection from the dead; although he had accomplished the purpose for which he then came to the earth, he had not fulfilled all his work. And when will he? Not until he has redeemed and saved every son and daughter of our father Adam that have been or ever will be born upon this earth to the end of time, except the sons of perdition. That is his mission. We will not finish our work until we have saved ourselves, and then not until we shall have saved all depending upon us; for we are to become saviors upon Mount Zion, as well as Christ. We are called to this mission.” 
“There is never a time,” the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “when the spirit is too old to approach God. All are within the reach of pardoning mercy, who have not committed the unpardonable sin.” (Boyd K. Packer, “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, p.18)