Friday, August 29, 2014

I Like Joseph Smith, the Man, Much More than Joseph Smith, the Caricature

I have been asked multiple times in my life if Joseph Smith might have been (fill in the blank) by skeptics and opponents of the LDS Church.  Speaking strictly from an intellectual viewpoint, and employing standard psychological perspectives, there are multiple possibilities - and that applies even to something like the translation of the Book of Mormon.  I personally accept Joseph as a visionary prophet who brought forth modern scripture, but, again, from a strictly logical perspective, it is important to me to be able to understand intellectually and emotionally how others see him - to consider the possibilities.  The following list is not comprehensive, but it illustrates what I mean: 

According to his own words, Joseph was a treasure seeker by nature and inclination. Therefore, in regard to the Book of Mormon, the possibilities are not limited to just actual historical record on ancient plates or intentional fraud.

1) Exactly as he recorded it, including an actual visit to an actual hill with actual buried plates, with the plates being of ancient origin and buried by Moroni. (i.e., translated/transmitted non-fiction)

2) Exactly as he recorded it, including an actual visit to an actual hill with actual buried plates, with the plates being generic plates of unknown origin revealed by Moroni and "translated" by the gift and power of God. (i.e., inspired non-fiction)

3) Exactly as he recorded it, including an actual visit to an actual hill with actual buried plates, with the plates being the prop for divine transmission of the word of God but not literally a translation/transmission of an ancient record. (i.e., truly inspired fiction)

4) Completely visionary experiences, with something physical used as tangible "proof" of what was seen in vision. (could be any of the genres above - and could be visions of "actual beings" or hallucinations, both of which would be "real" and lead to sincere belief in what was envisioned)

5) Made up stories by an intentional fraud.

There are more possibilities, but the above are enough to make my point about trying to understand the perspectives of others. The above (and all the other options I've considered over the years) is much more analytical than an attempt to reach a specific conclusion that includes spiritual witnesses and constitutes a testimony. Having said that, the "simplest" options above are #1, #4 and #5. I can't prove any of the options above, but I've studied everything as a history teacher by nature and inclination, and the intentional fraud option just doesn't work for me. I've known a few "visionary" people in my life, and what I've read of Joseph fits them (and other historical figures) quite well. Therefore, I personally choose to see him as a visionary man - with all of the good and bad associated with that orientation.

Just in conclusion, I also think it's instructive for those who accept the stories literally that the actual quote is that his "name would be had for good and evil" - not that people would say good and bad things about him. When you parse that statement, analytically and not apologetically, it opens up all kinds of possibilities that make a lot of sense - at least to me. It certainly can make him much more complex and "real" than the caricatures that have been created of him over the years - by both passionate defenders and passionate opponents.

Personally, I like and admire the complex man much, much more than any caricature.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

We Need to Develop Both the Gift of Faith and the Gift of Study, Not One or the Other

What happens if you try to paddle a boat using only one oar? You go around and around in circles. If you paddle hard, you go fast. If you paddle slowly, you turn gently. But you still just go around in circles. It’s the same with trying to make study replace faith or trying to exercise faith but without study. We can often find ourselves just going around in circles. I think that the Holy Ghost cannot give us some answers until we are actively seeking knowledge.

Think what great progress has been made in medicine by those who use both oars in their training. For example, Elder Russell M. Nelson, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, used both oars in his former profession as a heart surgeon. With the trained skills of his hands, the knowledge stored in his mind from his study and his experience, and the faith in his heart that he would be sustained by the Holy Ghost as he operated, he has performed modern miracles that have spared the lives and prolonged the vigor and energy of so many people, including Presidents of the Church and many General Authorities. If he had relied only on faith, he still would have been a great man, but he would not have been a great surgeon. If he had relied only on study, he might have been a great surgeon, but I think there are many assignments that the Lord would not have entrusted to him.

It is the same with us. Each woman needs to develop both gifts, the gift of faith and the gift of study, to the utmost of her capacity. We need to exercise both study and faith to become self-reliant. We need to understand their relationship to each other and to us.

Chieko Okazaki (October 1994 General Conference, "Rowing Your Boat") 

I believe this is a very important concept - worded differently, that we need to study things out in our hearts AND in our minds.  Focusing on just one leads to imbalance and distortion - and, eventually, if left unchecked, extremism.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I Like Wearing White Shirts to Administer the Sacrament, but Not "The Uniform of the Priesthood"

I LOVE the idea of making the sacrament more tied to baptism in a visual way, so I have no problem with the desire to have the young men who administer the sacrament dress in white (and only a shirt is less restrictive than fully white attire). I have a friend who used to think that there was no doctrinal basis for asking those who administer the sacrament to wear a white shirt, but she understood better when I referenced the General Conference talk in which that advice was given and talked a bit about the intended symbolism from that talk.

The doctrinal basis is obvious to anyone who accepts the possibility of continuing revelation, changing symbolism and/or apostolic/leadership authority to make a doctrinal basis for new practices. The case of requesting white shirts be worn in the administration of the sacrament is far less radical a change than going from circumcision to baptism as a sign of accepting God and joining "his people".  People might not agree with the doctrinal basis for a practice, but there absolutely is one - and a very solid one in the case of white shirts and the sacrament.

Having said all of that, I really dislike the idea that there is a "uniform of the Priesthood". I believe linking the sacrament and baptism through visual symbolism is awesome; extending and distorting that link by applying it to everything imaginable (even simple church attendance) is planting so many hedges that the principle gets obscured completely - and, given how few members even remember the apostolic injunction against extending it to other things and not making it mandatory even for the sacrament, I would argue the "uniform of the Priesthood" angle actually has killed the original beauty of the General Conference explanation of why white shirts should be worn to administer the sacrament. For too many members, it has become about the shirt instead of the symbolic union of ordinances.

As I said in my response to Anonymous' comment below, I believe we have taken it to such an extreme that we have lost, almost completely, the deep meaning of wearing white for specific things - like *changing* into white for temple ordinances and baptism and wearing white to administer the sacrament.  Putting on ("donning") white for those particular things adds symbolic meaning; wearing white all the time for everything church-related lessens that meaning, sometimes to the point of obscuring it completely.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Lord Created a Human Orchestra to Hear and Value ALL the Instruments, Not Just One Kind

Some are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. Perhaps because they are different, they find themselves slipping away from the flock. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed.

Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole...

Some are lost because they are weary. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. With all the pressures and demands on our time and the stress we face each day, it’s little wonder we get tired. Many feel discouraged because they have not measured up to their potential. Others simply feel too weak to contribute. And so, as the flock moves on, gradually, almost imperceptibly, some fall behind.

Everyone has felt tired and weary at one time or another. I seem to feel more so now than I did when I was younger. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, even Jesus Christ knew what it meant to be tired. I do not wish to underestimate the weight that members of the Church bear upon their shoulders, nor do I minimize the emotional and spiritual trials they face. These can be heavy and often difficult to bear.

Joseph B. Wirthlin (April 2008 General Conference, "Concern for the One")

Monday, August 25, 2014

Almost Everything Can Be Interpreted Legitimately in More than One Way

I like to consider everything, and I mean everything, in as many ways as possible - literal, symbolic, figurative, allegorical, etc.

I find if I don't close off any possible meaning - if I least consider all possible meanings, I generally can accept more than one interpretation as enlightening and inspiring.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: Practical Ways to Strengthen Marriage and Family

We focused today on practical things that we can do to strengthen marriage and family in our own lives. Most of the kids in my class have two parents at home, and today all of the ones in attendance have traditional families, so I structured the lesson around a series of reflective questions and input from the students. Also, the Sunday School President attended the class, as did my wife. (She was called today to teach the younger class and wasn't prepared with a lesson, so we combined the two classes.)

I asked each question, gave them about a minute to think about it, and got their answers - talking about each one, if further discussion seemed appropriate. The following are the questions and the answers that were given:

1) What do your parents do to strengthen their marriage?

They help each other with the small tasks around the house.
They communicate with each other / talk about everything before making big decisions.
They work things out without arguing with each other.
They look for things to do together.
They still do silly, romantic things - like dancing in the kitchen while the food is cooking.
They go on regular dates.
They talk nicely to each other.
My dad made it clear he loves us but loves my mom more - that she is his top priority and he won't let us disrespect her.

2) What do your parents do to strengthen your family?

They make sure we read the scriptures as a family at least a couple of times each week and have family prayers most nights. (I loved the focus on regularly when "daily" just didn't work, especially since these parents are ward leaders and would be classified as traditional members by pretty much everyone who knows them.)
They try their best to put up with the kids.
They make sure we eat dinner together, even though my dad works 12 hour days.
They do fun family activities, including my favorite: rides after church on Sunday.
They had fun Family Home Evenings, including things like basketball in the backyard, tag, hikes, etc.
My mom helps everyone. She takes us to all of our activities and volunteers to help others, also - even though that leaves her little time for herself.
They spend as much time together as possible and work hard to have good relationships with us.
They show appreciation for us and compliment us more than they criticize us.

3) What sacrifices have your parents made to help their marriages and their families?

My dad took care of me when I was little and my mom was bedridden with her degenerative disease.
My mom got a job to help support our family, even though she wanted to stay home with us.
My dad started a new job during the day while trying to keep his business open. He would spend hours with us each evening, then, when we would go to bed, he would spend hours each night trying to save his business. We didn't know what he was doing until after his business closed, since he didn't want us to feel bad about the time he spent with us.
My mom gets stressed out easily. She tried to take medication for it, but it made her feel like a zombie, and she couldn't help us while she was on it. She gave up the medication and is trying to find other ways to cope with her stress, even though it's really hard on her. She told us she would rather struggle to be part of our lives than not struggle and not be part of our lives.

I used the responses to that question to reiterate again how we tend to talk about an ideal when we talk about marriage, but I pointed out (by asking the questions directly) that all of them know single, adult members of the ward - and divorced or widowed members of the ward - or members who are married to non-members and attend church without a spouse - etc. I told them that what we were talking about is important no matter what their individual adult lives end up being like - that it's much like in October when we will talk about "Becoming More Christlike".

I finished with one last question, and I told them I would NOT ask for their answers. I told them that it was something to consider now but also over time - and that it might be one thing or twenty-seven things or any number of things. I first reiterated the core definition of "repent" (which they all know by now is simply "change") and told them that this is a great example of a way to approach proactive repentance (making changes NOT because of mistakes / sins of the past but in order to grow moving forward).

4) What do you need to change about yourself in order to be a better husband / wife or mother / father when you are ready to get married and have a family of your own?

Finally, I told them not to try to find "the perfect spouse". I told them, for example, that the apostles and their wives weren't apostles and apostles' wives when they met, fell in love and got married. I told them if they are with someone who makes them feel worse about themselves when they are together to run away from that person and find someone who makes them feel better about themselves when they are together. I told them to find someone who will make them the top priority - who will be willing to sacrifice in some way to support them and to keep a strong marriage.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Individual Adaptation within Collective Norms

 I have a friend who has struggled with body acceptance issues for a long time.  She is working on coping mechanisms to help her overcome this difficulty, but wearing garments exacerbates seriously her struggles.  I can't understand those struggles fully, since I have never experienced them personally, but they are real and, at times, can be damaging and even dangerous.

With reference to the garment, she said something to me once that I thought at the time was very powerful - and I have thought about it off and on since then.  She said:

It's difficult for me to see how a loving Heavenly Father could require something that makes us feel this way.

I had the chance to communicate with her again a while ago, and the topic arose one more time.  Having thought about it since she first shared her frustration, I answered her in the following way:

I don't believe he requires us to do things that make us feel that way - but, if you accept his existence and the foundation of communal rules in any way, he does require some people to do things that aren't "ideal" for those people. There's no way to have communal laws, rules, regulations, suggestions, cultural practices, etc. that are going to be "right" for everyone. They are approximations of what works generally for the good of the collective group.

That's an important, even critical, distinction - and I believe it's vital to understand. "We" don't get everything that would be "ideal" for "us" when we agree to be part of any group. An essential part of learning charity - true charity - is acceptance of that fact. The key is to step back a bit, see the benefit for the collective group, make whatever sacrifices are possible for the group, make individual adjustments and adaptations that are important to you personally and find peace in that balance between serving the collective good and honoring what is vital to yourself.

It's not easy - this embrace of paradox and complexity. Simple extremes are easier - but they also are more destructive. Worship according to the dictates of your own conscience, but find a way to do it within the community you choose as your own. It might take a while, but it's worth it in the end - since the faith you carve out will be your own, and it will allow you to continue being an active part of your own tribe, so to speak. 

In the specific case of the garment and her body issues, I have NO problem with her not wearing the garment in the same way most Mormons who wear it do so.  The Church Handbook of Instruction actually leaves how she does so in her hands, and I love that policy.  If adapting in healthy ways means wearing it only for specific things (like when she attends the temple) - or only for a short period of time each day and/or night - or only one day per week or month - or even not until she has a better handle on her body acceptance issues, so be it.  I would rather have her be working on getting to the point that she can wear it without real damage than be damaged in a very real way on a regular basis.  The key, I believe, is not to wear or not wear but rather to face the issue head-on and strive to find a way to do whatever is possible in the present while working on making the future better.

I think that is a good outline for most things in life. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Deciding How to Calculate and Pay Tithing Is Up to Each Individual

Do I pay tithing on my income before taxes are taken out or on what I receive after taxes?

The First Presidency has answered this question in this way: “The simplest statement we know of is the statement of the Lord himself, namely, that the members of the Church should pay ‘one-tenth of all their interest annually,’ which is understood to mean income. No one is justified in making any other statement than this” (First Presidency letter, Mar. 19, 1970).

In other words, the way you define your income, and consequently your tithing, is a matter between you and the Lord. Prayerfully seek the Lord’s guidance on issues like taxes, gifts, scholarships, and other matters to determine what qualifies as a full tithe. 

New Era, February 2008

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How Many of God's Children Followed Lucifer?

We are told in scriptures that 1/3 of the host of heaven followed Lucifer in the pre-mortal war in heaven.  That generally is believed to be a literal 33%, but there is another view that resonates more with me.  

There is an interpretation of ancient numerology that believes 1/3 is more accurately translated as "a third part" and means "an unspecified minority" - and 2/3 means "an unspecified majority". Along those lines, "none" and "all" would be written as 0/3 and 3/3 (although they are never stated that way).

That changes the whole math of salvation dramatically - and in a way that is very important and foundational for my view of eternity. In that light, 1/3 can mean a few billion, but it also can mean a dozen or so and anything between - and I FAR prefer that ambiguity to the assumption of a literal 33%.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Be One Who Nutures and Who Builds. Leave People Better than You Found Them.

"Perhaps the greatest charity comes when we are kind to each other, when we don't judge or categorize someone else, when we simply give each other the benefit of the doubt or remain quiet. Charity is accepting someone's differences, weaknesses, and shortcomings; having patience with someone who has let us down; or resisting the impulse to become offended when someone doesn't handle something the way we might have hoped. Charity is refusing to take advantage of another's weakness and being willing to forgive someone who has hurt us. Charity is expecting the best of each other. 
Be one who nurtures and who builds. Be one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart, who looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them."

Marvin J. Ashton (April 1992 General Conference)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Analyzing Scripture: D&C 1:30 - "The Only True and Living Church"

First, here is verse 29:
And after having received the record of the Nephites, yea, even my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., might have power to translate through the mercy of God, by the power of God, the Book of Mormon.

Now verse 30:

“And also those to whom these commandments were given”

Joseph was mentioned in v.29 in relation to the translation of the Book of Mormon, but this verse references others – also those to whom “collectively” the commandments within the subsequent D&C were addressed.

“might have power to lay the foundation of this church,”

Lay the foundation does NOT mean or even imply the entire construction, only the setting of the foundation; thus, there is a solid implication that others “to whom these commandments were [NOT] given [yet]” would continue the construction upon the foundation built by these first people.

“and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness

I think “obscurity” is self-explanatory – and the Church certainly was obscured back then. In many ways, that only recently has been completed; in many ways, it still is being accomplished. I read “darkness” as describing the spiritual darkness of an apostate world – a light shining from the darkness to be set on a hill outside of that darkness, if you will. The fascinating aspect is that those who would “bring it forth out of obscurity and darkness” aren’t limited necessarily to the first group but appears to include those who later would build on the original foundation. I wonder how much of that removal process was figurative and how much was fulfilled by the literal exodus to Utah.


I always have read this verse as if it had a dash instead of a comma. It simply makes more linguistic and grammatical sense that way.

“the only true AND living church upon the face of the whole earth,”

of all the possible meanings for “true”, I like the following – as it relates to an organization: of the right kind; such as it should be; proper: to arrange things in their true order.” That changes the concept in very real and, I believe, important ways from what generally is assumed. In that light, I like the following definition for “living”: pertaining to, suitable for, or sufficient for existence or subsistence – which implies feeding in such a way that life can continue – meaning life-giving or regenerating – as in “living” water. Therefore, an altered translation might be something like, the only proper, correctly arranged/ordered and eternal-life-giving church . . .”

Also, the use of true “and” living can imply that there are other churches that are either true “or” living, but none that are both. I don’t know for sure, but I do think there is a powerful possibility of an implicit suggestion that some other churches might be partly true (not fully false) and lack, more than anything else, the grander vision that would make them “come alive”. I’m not sure that is what was meant, but it is a conclusion with which I agree – and which can be supported by the text.

“with which I, the Lord, am well pleased,” 

From a scriptural basis, this simply means “very pleased” – as opposed to merely pleased. It draws an implicit distinction between being “well” pleased and simply being pleased. More on that later.

“speaking unto the church collectively and not individually.” 

The Church as an organization is well-pleasing unto the Lord, even though any number of individuals, with no respect to position [even the Prophet himself], may not be “well-pleasing” at any given moment.  I think this is supported by the number of times Joseph Smith was chastised and called to repentance in the Doctrine & Covenants. 

I favor a period at the end of this verse. The dash, in context, makes vs.20-30 a parenthetical comment and ties v.31 to v.19 – and I simply don’t see that as the proper connection. It just doesn’t make sense.

When we look at this verse, there are three separate and distinct classifications used to describe the “church” – which, taken together, appear to constitute the full meaning of the word “church” in God’s eyes. “The foundation of this church” and “the true church” appear to refer to the basic organizational structure and essential offices (which are properly ordered and arranged), while “the living church” appears to refer to the Restored Gospel it teaches (especially the concept of eternal life that follows faith, repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost). On the other hand, “the church collectively and not individually” appears to refer to the membership. It’s fascinating for me to think of this as one more example of the use of a “trinity” construct to describe perfection.

Shifting gears a little, when I look at what I think the verse actually says, I am left to discount what I believe it does not say – even what has been assumed by many but simply isn’t there. The following are a few of the things I believe are incorrect assumptions – things the verse simply does NOT say:

False Assumption #1) The Church’s structure was restored exactly as existed in the time of the ancient apostles. Any deviation from the ancient structure invalidates its “true” structure, and every part of the current organization was in place in the ancient Church.

Hogwash. It just doesn’t say that. We do believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church, but it clearly was only the foundation that was laid at the time of the Restoration. Furthermore, the relevant Article of Faith (#6) follows the “same organization” statement with a listing of essential responsibilities/offices, not the entire structure. Also, architecturally, since we are dealing with a “foundation” upon which a structure will be built, similar or equivalent structures can contain radically different internal components and still be the same shape or structure. This idea is bolstered by the increasing complexity of the organizational Church as it grows numerically and geographically – changing the outward appearance and internal structure, but not affecting the foundation in the slightest – as well as the differences that appear to have existed among the various congregations within the ancient Church.

False Assumption #2) All other Churches are bad or abominable.

That simply not said – here or in JSH 1:19, which I analyzed a couple of weeks ago. They might not be “of the right kind; such as [they] should be; proper: [arranged] in their true order,” but it does not say they are evil or bad. They might not make the Lord “well pleased”, but there is nothing that says the Lord isn’t “pleased” with them in some or many ways. In fact, the usage of a qualifier ["well"] generally implies that the same term without the qualifier ["pleased"] applies to the entities being compared. I know it is a radically different interpretation than the standard one, but I believe the words of the verse itself state that the Lord is not displeased with all religions other than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – that at least some others do please Him to some degree.

False Assumption #3) Other churches (and members of those other churches) are spiritually dead.

That assumption is stupid, in my opinion. Their churches might not be living in the sense that they provide eternal growth [“eternal life giving"] – since they don’t even teach life eternal, as we understand it – but there is no statement saying the other churches cause their members to be separated from godliness, which is the orthodox definition of spiritual death within Mormonism. At worst, if other Christians accept their churches’ teachings fully and reject Mormonism completely, the vast majority of them still will live immortally in the presence of The God they worship – Jesus, the Christ. Nothing in verse 30 says otherwise.

False Assumption #4) Our leaders are “true” (infallible) and will never teach things that are not 100% true.

The verse itself says the Lord is NOT well-pleased with individuals in the Church, and it is followed by the numerous rebukes of Joseph, Oliver and others in the “commandments” it prefaces. The Church as a whole is well-pleasing and will continue to provide life to its members, but individual members, no matter their standing, still can incur the Lord’s displeasure.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

We Can't Preach the Gospel in Antagonistic Ways and Truly Love Others

We have two competing commandments - or at least it appears that way on the surface. 

The greatest one is, “Love God and love thy neighbor as thyself,” “Love one another,” or any number of ways to phrase it. The other one is, “Preach the Gospel.” Christ said that the world would hate those who represent him, but he didn’t say that meant we should preach in such a way as to alienate automatically by our own words and actions. He generally didn’t do that (except when condemning hypocrites and the Pharisees, primarily), and neither should we. 

We can fulfill the command to preach the Gospel as well as the command to love others, but we can't do both if we approach preaching with an antagonistic spirit.  In that light, I believe strongly that we need to stop framing so much of our discourse in battle terms - us vs. others, generally, and, more specifically, us vs. "the world".  We need to stop blaming others for issues for which they are not responsible (like, for example, blaming the homosexual population for the deterioration of traditional marriage, which is the fault of the heterosexual population). 

We need to preach what we believe (including real repentance), but we need to do so from a position of love - and we can't say we "love the sinner" while using language that is not conducive to love (or in language that, as Pres. Uchtdorf said, essentially judges others for sinning differently than we do).  We can't preach repentance exclusively to others, particularly in detail; we need to preach the Gospel (including the correct principle of repentance) to ALL, including and especially to ourselves. 

At the most basic level, it's not us vs. them; rather, it's me vs. me - and us WITH them.  We can work to build up the kingdom of God on Earth, but it won't happen (won't really be the kingdom of God) if we aren't working in such a way that we simultaneously are establishing Zion - and Zion is based on a foundation of real charity. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Very Short Thought about the Language of Prayer

Public prayers are for the public, so it is reasonable to use what the listening public considers to be "formal" language if that's what the group is expecting. Otherwise, they are thinking about the pronouns used in the prayer, rather than its content - and that never should be the focus of attention during a prayer.

However, behind closed doors, so long as the prayer is honest and the attempt to connect to God is sincere, I don't believe the pronouns matter much.

Frankly, I use both the "you" and the "thee" pronouns fluently, so I say whatever comes out when I pray privately.  Sometimes, I don't even bother addressing Heavenly Father, since I believe he knows I'm praying to him. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Even Prophets Interpret God's Word and Will through the Languages and Expressions with which They are Familiar

What if Hebrew prophets, conversant with only a small fraction of the surface of the earth, thinking and writing in terms of their own limited geography and tribal relations did interpret Him in terms of a tribal king and so limit His personality and the laws of the universe under His control to the dominion with which they were familiar? Can any interpreter even though he be inspired present his interpretation and conception in terms other than those with which he has had experience and acquaintance? Even under the assumption that Divinity may manifest to the prophet higher and more exalted truths than he has ever before known and unfold to his spiritual eyes visions of the past, forecasts of the future and circumstances of the utmost novelty, how will the inspired man interpret? Manifestly, I think, in the language he knows and in the terms of expression with which his knowledge and experience have made him familiar. So is it not therefore ungenerous, unfair and unreasonable to impugn the validity and the whole worth of the Bible merely because of the limited knowledge of astronomy and geography that its writers possessed.

Elder Stephen L. Richards (Improvement Era 36:451-453, 484-485, June 1933)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I Wish We Talked about Faith More and Knowledge Less

Faith, simply defined, is the decision to continue to act in the face of uncertainty. Faith exists as an element of humility; it dies as arrogance solidifies. Therefore, faith never changes in nature; it just ebbs and flows in degree.

I believe that is vitally important to understand. It's not faith that changes; it's uncertainty and certainty that change - through the acquisition of knowledge (facts). Facts move faith from its original focus to a new focus on something else believed but not seen.

Faith is empowering. Faith drives inquiry. Faith drives discovery. Faith drives innovation. Faith drives charity. Faith drives courtship. Faith drives revelation. Faith drives experimentation. Faith drives progress. Faith drives growth.

The lack of faith (the surety of absolute certainty) drives closed minds. It also drives fanaticism. It drives oppression. It drives arrogance. It drives stagnation. 

It's interesting that Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . meek . . . merciful . . ." - NOT "Blessed are those who know everything." It's interesting that he said, "Seek (an action undertaken ONLY by those who understand they don't know everything) and ye shall find." It's interesting that Moroni didn't say, "He will manifest it unto you . . . Ye may know all things." Rather, he said, "He will manifest THE TRUTH OF IT unto you . . . Ye many know THE TRUTH OF all things."

In focusing on faith, I am not dismissing knowledge, but I am saying that knowledge is only the eternal end goal for me. For me, in the here and now, it's much more the journey - the pursuit - the seeking than it is a final, completed acquisition in mortality.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Short Post about Depression and Robin Williams' Death

I've been thinking about how to write about my feelings regarding Robin Williams' death. 

First, I loathe it when stats concerning the legal use of anti-depressants are used as criticism of any kind.  I am so glad such use is becoming more acceptable, and criticism of any kind only furthers the stigmatization of depression and discourages people from getting the help they need. 

Second, I love so much of Robin Williams' work, but my favorite scene of any of his movies was near the end of "What Dreams May Come" - when he apologizes to his wife for leaving her when she was institutionalized and promises not to leave her again, even if that means he will spend eternity in Hell with her. It hit me hard, because that's how I feel about my wife: I would rather live with her in Hell than be alone in Heaven. Life would be too dark without her, even in Heaven.

The world just got a little darker, but Heaven just got a little lighter. May we each, in our own way, make Earth a little lighter – and may we NEVER add to the darkness of those who fight the dragon of depression. 

Development of the Intellect IS a Part of the Gospel of Christ

The scientific spirit acknowledges without reserve the laws of God, but discriminates between such and the rules made by man. It abhors bigotry, denounces the extravagances of the blind zealot, religious or otherwise, and seeks to perfect the faith of its possessor as a purified, sanctified power, pleasing alike mind and heart, reason and soul. In the charges that have been preferred by the theologians against science, and the counter accusations by the scientists against theology, it is evident that in each case the accuser is not fully informed as to what he is attacking. Irrational zeal is not to be commended; and the substitution of theory for fact, though often declared to be the prevailing weakness of the scientist, is wholly unscientific.

But it is easy to denounce; so to do is a favorite pastime of ignorance. That scientific theories have been and are being discarded as unworthy because untrue is well known; but no one is more ready to so renounce than the scientist himself. To him a theory is but a scaffolding whereon he stands while placing the facts which are his building blocks; and from these he rears the tower from which a wider horizon of truth is opened to his eye. When the structure is made, the scaffold,- unsightly, shaky, and unsafe, as it is likely to be, is removed. Tis not always possible to judge of the building from the rough poles and planks which serve the temporary purpose of him who builds. Yet how often may we hear from our pulpits, usually however when they are occupied by the little-great men, scathing denunciations of science, which is represented as a bundle of vagaries, and of scientific men, who are but Will-o-the-wisps enticing the traveler into quagmires of spiritual ruin. Would it not be better for those who so inveigh to acquaint themselves with at least the first principles of the doctrines of science? So general has this practice become amongst us, that the most inexperienced speaker feels justified in thus indulging himself, and in the minds of many the conclusion is reached, none the less pernicious in its present effects because unfounded, that the higher development of the intellect is not a part of the Gospel of Christ.

James E. Talmage ("The Methods and Motives of Science") This address was delivered in the Logan Temple about 12 years before he became an apostle.  It also was published in The Improvement Era 1900, Volume 3.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Why Do We Need Prophets: A Different Answer

I believe one of the reasons "we" need prophets is because "we" need to believe in prophecy.

In other words, I believe deeply in the need to believe in prophecy - fundamentally, at the personal, individual level. I believe deeply in the need to believe in on-going revelation - fundamentally, at the personal, individual level. I believe deeply in the need to believe in inspiration - fundamentally, at the personal, individual level.

Historically, however, that need to believe in prophecy, revelation and inspiration tends to be recognized ONLY when there are individuals who claim to be prophets - who "model" prophecy, revelation and inspiration and "teach" it explicitly in those terms. It is maximized when those "models" also teach clearly that such things are available to all who are open to it - as was the case with Joseph Smith. (Don't get me wrong. I don't believe in an equality of magnitude with these things - just in the need to believe in them collectively and individually.)

Thus, I believe the collective "we" needs prophets, because the collective "we" needs prophecy - and the collective "we" doesn't seek for it on our own. Individuals do, but "we" don't.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: People Who Truly Value Family Don't Push Family Members Away, No Matter What

[Obviously, there are exceptions to the extreme wording of the title, but the concept still is incredibly important and, I believe, not understood deeply enough by many people - inside and outside the LDS Church.  The example my daughter shared below from her mission in Germany is an important illustration of what can happen if something is believed and lived deeply enough.]  

I took a unique approach today, after talking with my wife about what was going to happen in YW. (My wife is the Personal Progress Leader, and the entire presidency was gone today, so she arranged the lesson.) The topic for the month is "Marriage and Family", and since our daughter just returned from her mission in Germany, my wife asked her to talk with the girls during the third hour about how marriage and family is different in Germany and what she learned about those topics from her mission. I thought that would be an excellent lesson for the boys, as well, so the girls in my class joined the next younger class and left just the boys in my class (since the girls were going to hear from her the next hour, anyway).

Sarah started by mentioning that she had thought a lot about how to address the topic, since she had been bored stiff when she was their age by lessons about marriage and family. She said she always thought:

"I'm 14 (or 16). I don't care about this topic right now, especially since I've heard about a thousand lessons in my life about it."

That got a nod and laugh from everyone.

She then spent the time talking about how the German people, generally, and the German members view marriage and family - and she shared some specific examples of people and families with whom she had interacted on her mission. There is no way I can remember and record everything she said, and much of this summary has to be generalized more than when she said it, so I am going to focus on four things that were particularly striking to me: 

1) She said that Germans value family, but they tend to cut off family members entirely who do anything that is against the family wishes - even some things we would view as trivial, but especially "bigger"things, including joining the LDS Church. (One example she used is a woman in one ward whose aunt refuses to acknowledge the woman's presence when they are riding the same bus.) The fascinating result of that tendency is that members of the Church tend to go to the other extreme when they embrace the importance of family - meaning they try hard to not let ANYTHING separate them from their kids, even leaving the Church or not living standards the members view as extremely important.

She said it is very common in the wards where she served to have visiting family members who are not church members attend meetings on Sunday, even if those visitors have left the Church entirely and had their names removed from the records - that they aren't there to support the Church but rather to be with family. She said, essentially, that it's easy to see how strongly people REALLY believe in family by how they treat family members who disappoint them in some way - and there was an amazing spirit that was almost tangible when she was talking about that.

I wish everyone in the Church who badgers, hounds, judges, dismisses, rejects or in any other way mistreats family who struggle or leave could have been in the room to listen to that part, especially.

2) She said that Germans tend to be very loyal and are very committed to keeping their word - and that causes surprising issues with marriage. She said that the default in Germany is for boyfriends and girlfriends to live together, starting often as early as 16. She said they live together until they split up and simply move in with their new boy/girlfriend. Apparently, Germany has a VERY high divorce rate and a VERY low marriage rate - with the underlying assumption / belief that it's no big deal to be with whomever you "love" at the moment and then move on to the next person - and the next person - and the next person . . . She isn't sure which came first - the casual non-marriage attitude or cynicism caused by the high divorce rate, but she said the general attitude among the younger generations is:

"Why get married? It never lasts, anyway, so why bother with a ceremony and promises I'm not going to keep?"

They are devoted deeply to honesty and loyalty, but they are so jaded by such a long history of failed marriages being the norm that they have given up trying in order not to break what they see as impossible promises. This is such an assumed given by now that the people she met generally were okay with the Word of Wisdom (at least, that Mormons would accept it, even if they couldn't) and tithing (since all the churches collect money in some way from their members) - but the vast majority of people simply couldn't understand the concepts of the Law of Chastity, lifelong monogamy and eternal marriage. Again, however, when it did "click" for someone who then embraced it, it became an incredibly important, powerful part of their life - to such an extent that they would NEVER accept disowning or hounding their family members into adversarial relationships.

3) She talked about how that same attitude leaks into how the members interact with each other and those who are investigating the Church - their "extended family". Over half of the members in each unit where she served (often well over half) did not have the traditional family structure, so they saw the Church's teachings about the family as an ideal toward which they could strive in their own unique situations and which they could try to initiate for their own children - to break the cultural cycle of their own lives. They never beat themselves up over not being in the "ideal" situation; rather, they focused on having as close to an ideal "church family" as possible by accepting everyone who entered the church building as "family" and doing anything possible to make them feel loved, no matter their personal life situation.

This is the daughter who told me after her first temple trip that we work so hard to build the kingdom of God on Earth that we often forget to establish Zion, so it was especially touching to hear her describe a church experience that, while obviously not perfect, shows how it is possible to establish Zion if people are really committed to it.

4) She said that the missionaries who were the most successful working with investigators and inactive/less-active members were the ones who accepted each person and worked with them individually in whatever way honored their individual agency and showed real respect.

As an example, two Elders had taught a nine-year-old boy whose mom was active (having left the Church officially but being rebaptized about ten years ago) but whose father had requested his name be removed from the records and never rejoined. His mother wanted the boy to be baptized, but his father wouldn't give permission. The Elders taught the boy all of the lessons in about two weeks and then tried to convince the father to change his mind. To say it mildly, it didn't work.

Sarah and her companion started teaching the boy the lessons when they replaced the Elders in the ward and quickly were told about his father's opposition. Given the situation, they taught the boy about once a month and spent more time serving the family in whatever way they could - and praying every day that the father would change his mind and allow the baptism. After finishing all of the lessons, they told the father that they were done teaching the boy, that they believed he was ready to be baptized whenever the father decided it was the right time and thanked him for letting them teach his son. They continued to pray daily for the boy and his father, stopped teaching the boy and continued to serve the family as they had been.

Shortly after Sarah transferred from the area, the boy's aunt called her and told her that the father had been so impressed by the simple respect the sister missionaries had shown him as the boy's father that he had told his wife, completely out of the blue, that he would give his permission for the baptism. Less than two hours later, someone from the Area Presidency office called the mother to let her know that they wanted to schedule an interview to renew her temple covenants - not knowing her husband had just given his permission for their son to be baptized. Sarah said it was her favorite experience of her entire mission - that praying so intently for so long for the family had helped her love them (non-biological family) in a way she hadn't realized was possible previously. She said it helped her understand better how the German members felt about "extended church family" being real family - how powerful the concept of "sealing" can be when it is seen as communal and not just about biological families. 

Finally, she served about 2/3 of her mission (about a year) in what used to be East Germany. As a humorous but touching aside, she said that EVERY German member who had been in the Church for at least two generations knows Thomas Monson personally and absolutely adores him - personally but also for getting the temple built in Freiberg, which was a lifeline and indescribable strength during their decades of isolation. For example, there was a Bishop in one ward whose sister is the young girl President Monson has mentioned giving special candy to when he was visiting Berlin on one trip. They still call him "Elder Monson" in stead of "President Monson" and say:

"We know he is the Church President, but he is and always will be our Elder Monson."

It was a wonderful lesson, and I really wish more people could have heard it - but I am quite certain it made an impact on the youth who were there.

Friday, August 8, 2014

I Don't Care Much about the Exact Nature of Our Temple Ordinances

I don't think the exact actions performed in the temple are eternal actions that must occur for each and every person who has lived throughout history for those people to be saved / exalted in the kingdom / presence of God. If circumcision could be replaced by baptism as a sign of a people's covenant relationship with God, then I'm open to just about any sign of that sort of covenant relationship. (Seriously, cutting off a bit of someone's penis changed to immersing them in water?! There is absolutely no connection there, except the symbolism and faith behind the actions.) It's not the exact form of one's actions that I believe is important; it's the intent and symbolism of those actions and how they impact lives and "becoming" that I think is critical, important, vital, significant, empowering, etc.

So, I believe in LDS temple work passionately for what it represents and symbolizes - but I could feel the same way if the exact nature of the actions was something totally different. Thus, I don't think the actions themselves need to be taken literally (in the sense that we use to extrapolate baptism back to Adam, which I just don't believe at all) - but I do believe the purpose / symbolism behind them is literal and powerful.

At the risk of sounding heretical, and asking everyone to understand what I am trying to say by wording the following in an intentionally exaggerated manner:

I wrote once that if jumping around like a monkey while barking like a dog somehow carried deep, symbolic meaning and purpose for a people, and if they chose, therefore, to enact sacred rituals in which they jumped around like monkeys and barked like dogs, I would have no problem with that - none, at all. (In many ways, that's how others often react to our own temple ceremonies - with that degree of disbelief and scorn.)  If they were able to feel close to God in that manner, if they really were able to tap into the divine in that way, God bless them and keep them. I wouldn't try in any way to shatter that and substitute something that wouldn't resonate with them and create that same wonder and relationship, just because their format wouldn't work for me. Therefore, I can appreciate much of what I see in lots of religious / sacred traditions and sometimes gain much from borrowing elements that actually do resonate with me - symbolically.

I do believe that some form of communal "ordinances / ritual" is important - that, literally, people have to create some form of worship that draws them to God. That, in my opinion, is literal - and I personally LOVE the way that it is structured in Mormonism in the temple. I love the concept and principle of turning our hearts to our ancestors and believing that they have turned their hearts to us. I wish badly that we as a people would look at temple ordinances as a chance to "re-call" our ancestors, as opposed to just "remembering" them. That, to me, is literal and vital - not the exact manner in which we do the recalling, even as I love the way we can do it in the temple.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Do Not Think Yourself More Righteous than Others

“Don’t be limited in your views with regard to your neighbors’ virtues, but be limited towards your own virtues; and do not think yourselves more righteous than others. You must enlarge your souls toward others if you would do like Jesus. … As you increase in innocence and virtue, as you increase in goodness, let your hearts expand—let them be enlarged towards others. You must be long-suffering and bear with the faults and errors of mankind. How precious are the souls of man!”

Joseph Smith ... &hideNav=1

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

One More Time: We Need to Stop Justifying the Priesthood Ban Using Former Justifications

I heard again recently the former Priesthood ban justified as being God's will because it was similar in nature to the restrictions established with the Levitical Priesthood in the Old Testament.  Once again, I cringed. 

We must stop trying to justify the ban by citing justifications that existed and were used prior to the ban being lifted in 1978.  There are too many statements by prophets and apostles since that date that have told us that all previous justifications were incorrect for us to continue to use them.  (If anyone who reads this wants to see some of those statements, search under the label "Race" near the bottom right of this blog.

As to the claim, the following is my response:

1) EVERY instance in our canonized scripture of such a restriction, if it existed, occurred prior to the ministry of Jesus Christ. Look it up: Every reference is from before he ministered among the Jews. I believe that simple fact is critical to understand as the foundation of the discussion. Thus, if someone posits that there were “bans” based on lineage or race prior to the modern one, they have to admit that those bans appear to have stopped with Jesus’ ministry – according to our scriptural canon.

2) There are NO recorded revelations justifying the modern Priesthood ban. ALL of them used the Old Testament time period justifications that were common within “apostate” Christianity at the time. Think about that aspect of the discussion – that the justifications were borrowed from denominations that we classified as “apostate” at the time. It’s instructive, I think.

2) Jesus’ statement in Matthew 15:24 about being sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel says absolutely nothing about the Priesthood. It refers only to his ministry – his preaching, healing and blessing. The woman in question wasn’t asking for the Priesthood; she was asking that He perform a miracle on behalf of her daughter. Thus, that passage is completely irrelevant to the modern Priesthood ban and any other similar ban.

3) The last message Jesus gave his disciples in Matthew before his ascension is recorded in Matthew 28:19-20, which reads (emphasis mine):

“Go ye therefore, and teach ALL nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe ALL things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

Notice, they were commanded to teach and baptize ALL nations (which doesn’t address a Priesthood ban, since even under the modern ban, all people could be taught and baptized), but notice that once ALL were baptized they, without exception, were to “observe ALL things whatsoever I have commanded you”. In other words, there is NO restriction of ANY kind on what ANYONE who was baptized was required to observe – and all members at that time couldn’t have followed that commandment without the Priesthood being given to them. Thus, by default (not reading into the passage what isn’t there), there was no Priesthood ban in the early Christian Church that was based on nationality or race.

4) Nephi (a prophet from the Old Testament time period) passed along the idea of a curse in his writings, but the Book of Mormon also has NO mention of it after the visitation of Jesus in 3rd Nephi. It ended, if there was one, with the ministry of Jesus among them. Furthermore, Nephi undercuts the idea that the curse he mentioned was skin- or lineage-related when he said in 2 Nephi 26:33 (again, emphasis mine):

“For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them ALL to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth NONE that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and ALL are ALIKE unto God, both Jew AND Gentile.”

Nephi says in that verse, explicitly, that black and white are “alike unto God” – and that God invites ALL to “come unto him and partake of his goodness”. People who are partaking of the same goodness and who are alike unto God eliminates, obviously and unequivocally, the idea that one group held the Priesthood and could attend the temple while the other group didn’t and couldn’t. The ban makes NO sense whatsoever when read according to that verse – and it was written before Christ’s ministry. If that verse is interpreted literally, and if there actually was a race-based Priesthood ban at some point in history, it had ended by around 600 BC – or, if read to coincide with the ministry of Jesus, it ended at that time, at the very latest.

5) The issue with the Gentiles in the early Christian Church wasn’t about Priesthood or the temple in any way. At least, there is NO mention whatsoever of the Priesthood in any passage dealing with the issue. It was about baptism, and once the Genitles were baptized, there is no reference to any of them not receiving the Priesthood based on race.

6) To add something that I almost never hear discussed or even recognized, there's a HUGE conceptual difference between the following: 1) giving one group in a "multi-tribal" population the right to perform rituals; 2) giving everyone except one specific group in a "multi-racial" population that right. In very real, practical terms, the modern ban was the exact opposite of the ancient Levitical structure.

7) Joseph Smith ordained multiple black men to the Priesthood, so it’s patently absurd to argue that he believed a ban was necessary – regardless of how he felt about any other bans that might have existed in the past.


Based on our actual scriptural canon, even if some bans actually did occur in the Old Testament times, there is NO evidence that any ban continued after the ministry of Jesus Christ – in either the Bible or the Book of Mormon. In fact, there are multiple sources that imply or state explicitly that a ban from that point onward was not the will of God – that ALL people everywhere now were considered “alike unto him”.

Finally, the LDS Church has published a statement entitled, "Race and the Priesthood" that can be found on in the Gospel Topics section that states more clearly than ever before how the ban originated and how the leadership views it now.  The link is:

"Race and the Priesthood"

So, if even our modern prophets and apostles say the former justifications were incorrect (“spectacularly wrong”, in one quote) – and if even they say they don’t know exactly why the ban was implemented (with which I can’t argue strongly, since I think it’s obvious but am willing to admit that I can’t see 100% into Pres. Young’s mind and know with total certainty why he did what he did) – and if they are saying forcefully that we should not perpetuate the former justifications – and if even they now have said that the Church condemns ALL racism of any kind, including that of our own LDS members, past and present – and if ALL the written evidence since the time of Jesus’ mortal ministry points to the incorrectness of a Priesthood ban (especially based on one drop of blood from a long-ago ancestor – who, by the way, is a common ancestor to ALL of us, if the “one drop” standard is used) — how can someone possibly argue that the modern Priesthood ban was justifiable based on the beliefs of those who lived and recorded their beliefs before Jesus was born, even if previous bans existed and were justifiable back then?

Such a position simply is not tenable, and, just as importantly, it is in direct opposition to our current leadership and their requests of us.  That, perhaps, is the ultimate irony in the justification being used  today by someone who believes in "following the prophet". 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Self-Understanding Is Not Easy, but It Is an Ultimate Goal

My mother emailed the following quote last year. I really like it, since it addresses not only one of my core beliefs but also the fact that self-awareness is not easy:

Make it thy business to know thyself, which is the most difficult lesson in the world.

Our belief that we are gods and children of the Most High God means, in a very practical way, that knowing and "sanctifying" ourselves is an important part of knowing God.

Monday, August 4, 2014

What or Whom Should We Follow?

1) I define "doctrine" as "whatever the leadership teaches and most people in a group believe at any given time". There is no such thing as "eternal doctrine"; there only is Eternal Truth; the first (doctrine) is the best collective approximation of the second (truth) - and sometimes that approximation is farther from Eternal Truth than a previous one. (That is a concise description of apostasy - when "doctrine" slides or falls further away from Truth. It happens all the time, everywhere.)

2) My answer to the title question of this post is:

"We should follow God - according to the dictates of our own conscience and understanding."

3) Of course, I "follow" leaders as a sign of respect for them and their burdens and responsibilities (and because I want that same consideration given to me whenever I am in a position of "leadership") - but I don't do so blindly, thoughtlessly or without exception. Within Mormon theology, that last description is Lucifer's plan - and it's important to remember that always and diligently. Blind obedience "just because" is wrong - and even is classified as the ultimate thwarting of God's purpose in creation. Period. End of discussion. So...

4) I follow God, to the best of my understanding, first and foremost. I follow God by following my conscience - which means (if I have the Gift of the Holy Ghost (a member of the Godhead) and if "the kingdom of God is within you") I follow my own "I am" in my attempt to follow the great "I AM" as a fundamental part of that first and foremost. I "follow" (at the side of) my wife, as 1/2 of my own "I am", as part of that first and foremost. I follow anyone else (and I mean anyone else) second. I respect, value, support and sustain those I follow second, but I still follow them second. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: When Ordinances Become "Communal" and Their Real Power Is Manifest

Last Sunday was the final week to discuss "Ordinances and Covenants", so I borrowed a copy of the Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 2 - intending to highlight some of the ordinances we hadn't discussed previously and the general policies surrounding performing ordinances. (Section 20) It didn't go fully according to my plan; it turned out to be a much better discussion than I could have imagined.

I started by revisiting the foundational concepts we had discussed in the first lesson this month:

1) Ordinances are actions we perform to convey a specific meaning or message. They are symbolic and have NO power whatsoever except what we give to them. For example, if baptism was about immersion in water only, we could have people jump into a pool and call it baptism - or we could eat some cake and drink some fruit punch in the cultural hall and call it the sacrament.

2) Covenants are the actual meaning of the ordinances - meaning the power and purpose of ordinances is wrapped up in what they motivate us to promise to do and then actually do. Again, without covenants, there is no power whatsoever in ordinances - since it's not performing them that is the key but rather what we choose to become as a result of participating in them.

I then explained what I had in mind, held up the handbook and asked how many of them knew that the handbook was available to all of them online. I shouldn't have been surprised due to their ages, but most of them (whose parents almost all have prominent callings in the ward) didn't know there was a handbook that contained the official church policies and general counsel. Due to that, I took a few minutes to read through the section titles and go through how to access the handbooks online - step-by-step, so they could do so anytime the wanted.

From 20.1 (General Instructions), I showed them the part about saving ordinances needing authorization from the person who holds the keys to the performance of that ordinance (the person who is authorized to control, direct and oversee it), then we read the general format of all ordinances:

1. It should be performed in the name of Jesus Christ.
2. It should be performed by the authority of the priesthood.
3. It should be performed with any necessary procedures, such as using specified words or using consecrated oil.
4. It should be authorized by the presiding authority who holds the proper keys (normally the bishop or stake president), if necessary according to the instructions in this chapter.

I modeled what something like a baby blessing would sound like if only the minimum requirements were included ("Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ and by the authority of the priesthood, I give his child the name of Jane Doe" - perhaps with an additional, "and bless her with everything you desire to give her. Amen.") - and stressed that such a blessing would be every bit as meaningful as one that lasted for 15 minutes. We discussed the danger of allowing blessings to become about us and our oratory skills. I told them about my varying experiences with blessings - how I have participated in hundreds of blessings throughout my life, with only a handful where I can say, without doubt, that I spoke revelation directly from God. I explained that even though I couldn't say that about the other hundreds, I was glad I had participated in them in order to experience the overpowering ones.

We talked about what kind of ordinances require exact wording (e.g., baptism, the sacrament, temple ordinances, etc.) and which ones don't (e.g., all blessings, confirmation after baptism, etc.). We talked about what is necessary for someone in one ward or branch to perform an ordinance in a different location (approval from the leader in that other location) and how that decision might be made (a letter from the other Bishop, a phone call, an active temple recommend - although that last one might not be accurate, if someone had sinned egregiously after receiving it, etc.). We then read 20.1.3 about that situation, and I pointed out the use of "should" - as opposed to "must". I told them we would revisit that issue at the end of the lesson.

From 20.1.1 (Participation in Ordinances and Blessings) and 20.1.2 (Worthiness to Participate in an Ordinance or Blessing), we talked about ordinances that require a current temple recommend and the Melchizedek Priesthood (primarily the "saving ordinances") and the difference between being the voice in an ordinance (representing the church leadership) and simply participating (less strict standards, with more discretion given to the local leader). We also discussed how baptism does NOT require either the Melchizedek Priesthood or a current temple recommend, even though it is considered a saving ordinance - which means there are a LOT of fathers who may perform that ordinance for their children who might assume they can't. I told them that I hope when they are leaders of any kind that they are mindful of such situations and allow fathers to do so as much as possible.

I mentioned that, as I read the handbook, I am struck by how many policies and how much counsel HAD to have been the result of members doing really stupid things. I mentioned how much smaller the current version is than in the past, but, even now, I envision the leadership sitting down to discuss the handbook and saying:

You're kidding me! They did WHAT?! Ah, crap, now we're going to have to write a policy and give counsel about that. :roll:

At this point, the lesson took a different turn than I had expected. We read the following:

Those who participate are usually limited to a few, including priesthood leaders, close family members, and close associates such as home teachers. Inviting large numbers of family, friends, and leaders to assist in an ordinance or blessing is discouraged. When too many participate, it can become cumbersome and detract from the spirit of the ordinance. Those who perform an ordinance and those who preside are the only ones required. Others provide support and sustain the spokesman.

I asked the students why the policy is usually to limit those who participate in ordinances to "a few" people. They were a bit stumped by that, so I asked them what would happen if a large family, with lots of adult relatives (like mine), wanted to have all of those people (say 35) help bless a baby. (I used an extreme to make the point obvious.) I gave them a visual illustration of how each person would have to stand in order for all of them to reach the baby - and we spent a few minutes laughing at the possibilities. When we had stopped laughing, I pointed out that what had just happened in our classroom (laughing at the visual image) is precisely why the policy is in place - along with the desire to not have ordinances become a contest to see who has "the most righteous" posterity / family or create concern about overlooking anyone and having people be upset that they weren't asked to participate.

Somehow, that discussion led to a different discussion about what happens when an entire congregation becomes invested in an ordinance and it becomes more than an individual experience and more of a true community (group unity) event. I shared the gist of one of my favorite blog posts ever, "Ninety One Words" - about a young man with a severe stutter being asked to say the sacrament prayer. I described how, by the end of the prayer, the entire congregation was mouthing the words silently - praying for the young man to have or receive the strength he needed to get through it. I explained how the sacrament had never meant more to that congregation, since they were united in support of someone else and were inspired to consider the words themselves more carefully and deeply than had happened previously in their lives. (Please read the post. It is stunning.)

The story really touched the students, and one of them shared an experience he had witnessed in his previous ward, prior to moving to our ward. He said the missionaries had been referred to and started teaching a man who was in the hospital being treated for the effects of being severely overweight - somewhere over 500 pounds. He accepted the message and asked to be baptized, but he couldn't fit in the church's font - so the Bishop arranged to perform the ordinance at a pool in the community. About a dozen or so people got into the pool, and someone said the baptismal prayer at the edge of the pool next to the man. After the prayer, people outside the pool used a fireman's tarp (the kind that is used to catch people who jump from burning buildings) to lower the man into the pool, where the people in the pool took the tarp and allowed it to sink to the bottom so the man could be immersed - then lifted the man back out of the pool and set him and the tarp back on the edge of the pool.

We talked about how it is moments like those experiences when what too often becomes little more than rote, autopilot actions suddenly take on real, deep meaning - when necessary exceptions almost force us to see the ordinances as they are intended to be - when we become truly invested in them and realize how much they mean to those who see and feel the power of the symbolism and are determined to participate no matter the difficulty.

We were almost out of time at that point, so I simply mentioned how important it is to read the handbook carefully and notice the choice of words, especially those like "should", "must", "can", "might", "encouraged", "discouraged", "forbidden", etc. I told them that I personally read everything with an eye to the most charitable, inclusive application possible - that I would rather err on the side of inclusion and charity than on the side of exclusion and judgment. I shared the story told here (without sharing the name of the site, obviously) about someone being denied the opportunity to have his baby blessed during sacrament meeting because he wasn't a member at the time - and I pointed out that there is nothing in the handbook that says a non-member can have a baby blessed, but there also is nothing in it that says it can't be done. I told them that I believe it our Christian duty to make our decisions based on what we feel would be the best for the people involved - what we would want if it was us making the request, as long as such a request was not explicitly forbidden in the handbook. I told them that they all probably will be leaders of some sort in the Church at some point in their lives and that I hope they will read and apply the handbook policies and counsel as expansively as they can - to make as many ordinances as "communal" as possible.

There was a spirit during the last part of the lesson that I couldn't have anticipated, and I am grateful it went differently than I had planned.

Friday, August 1, 2014

We Shouldn't Stop Baptisms for Our Own Dead Ancestors, No Matter What They Believed

Baptism for the dead of other people's ancestors is a highly emotional issue, especially when those ancestors were part of a group that died rather than deny their religion.  This is true of Jews, and particularly Holocaust victims, but it also is true of other groups throughout history.

I have heard the following analogy more than once from those opposed to our vicarious temple ordinances:

Imagine if a Rabbi said that Joseph Smith Jr. had been initiated in the Jewish religion now that he was on the other side of death. And because of that his whole life, all the work he stood for and his death are now worthless from the viewpoint of Mormonism. How would the LDS membership feel about that?  

I agree that this concept and principle is highly offensive to people, just like the example of the Holocaust victims. I really do. At heart, it can't be seen as anything but arrogant by those who aren't part of the group performing the ordinances. I get that.

Now, the inevitable "however" . . .

1) I think most of it is a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between baptism in the LDS Church and baptism in other Christian denominations. In other churches, a baptism is a choice made prior to the baptism happening and a binding, saving ordinance all by itself - and, since there is no concept of a "preliminary baptism, subject to acceptance later", baptizing someone else is seen as a violation of choice. Thus, people see baptizing others who have died as a violation of choice when, in principle within Mormonism, it isn't such a violation.

2) If I were a non-member, and if something like this happened with someone I know and/or revere, and if I understood Mormon doctrine better than most people do, I would be FAR more upset about the confirmation than about the baptism. I could understand the general concept of baptism for the dead, but I would have a hard time understanding the idea that a church continues past death and that my ancestor had been confirmed as a member of a particular church in the next life. I'm a firmly believing member, and even I don't see it that way. I'm OK with the practice of temple confirmations (since I can view it all symbolically), but I absolutely can understand why others would be upset about it who have no viewpoint other than the literal.

3) Finally, if we exclude some people, where do we draw the line? Do we stop baptizing everyone whose kin or nationality might get upset about it? That would include just about everyone. If so, we might as well shut down the temples completely - and I absolutely don't want that happening. The concept and principle of universal opportunity for salvation and exaltation is one of my favorite aspects of Mormonism - and I really do love the embodiment of that in the vicarious ordinances for the dead. Do we only stop baptizing celebrities and famous people - those whose names are easily recognizable? That just doesn't sit well at all with me. I'd rather shut down the temples than say, "We'll baptize all individuals whose work won't cause a scene, but we'll skip all those famous people whose work might do so."

Honestly, I really am torn on this one a bit - since I don't want to gut one of my favorite aspects of Mormonism. In many ways, my choice would be to have the Church issue a press release laying out exactly why we perform temple ordinances (with a Biblical justification), that there is no aspect of coercion or lack of choice in the practice, that the ordinances are not seen as binding in any way for those involved and that we won't stop doing something we believe has been commanded by Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. I'd rather have a strong statement saying, essentially:

"This is a core element of our theology, and we won't back down from it." 

I also would reiterate to the membership that their first concern should be finding and doing the work for their own ancestors, not submitting names of people to whom they are not descended directly unless they can show that they have exhausted all possibility of furthering their own genealogical research.

I know that would not help our missionary work with some people, but I think it actually would with others - and I just see it as the right things to do, if we really do believe in the concept and principle of the work done in the temple (even if we see it as purely symbolic).