Monday, September 29, 2014

Homosexuality and the LDS Church: We Can Change without Compromising Our Theology

I believe there are multiple ways the Church could continue to alter its stance on homosexuality without having to alter its core theology in the slightest.

I'm glad that we are moving away from blaming people for their sexual orientation. I'm glad the Church's official position no longer is that homosexual attraction is 100% a choice and can be changed with therapy, marriage and/or more faith. Being told you just need to stop feeling something that is central to who you are and over which you truly have no control is brutal - and was based on past biological ignorance.  If we could take the latest official statements in "God Loveth His Chlidren" and state fully, openly and explicitly from the General Conference pulpit that sexual attraction isn't always a choice, and that it can't be therapied away, and that it isn't a "sin" to feel the attraction - that would be a huge step in the right direction. We are getting there now, but we aren't quite there yet.

If we could stop categorizing all homosexuals as enemies and attackers of the family, that would be a huge step in the right direction.  My gay friends are not my enemies - and not one of them is attacking me or my family in any way.  For anyone reading this, imagine you are a gay youth who is a faithful member of the Church and hear regularly from the local pulpit that you are an enemy.  It happens regularly, often from "leaders" of some kind, and it simply ought not be. 

If we could allow homosexuals to do everything heterosexuals can do without violating the Law of Chastity as it relates to them (date, hold hands, kiss, express affection, develop non-sexual intimacy, etc. without actually engaging in "sexual activity" of any kind) - that alone would be a huge step. A heterosexual couple who can't have sexual intercourse still can be married and sealed - and if a heterosexual couple chooses not to marry but to live together without crossing lines of conduct prohibition, they shouldn't be disciplined in any way. (I know that would be an exception, but it certainly is possible.) Allowing homosexuals to live together but remain celibate and still be fully "worthy" wouldn't require any change to our current theology whatsoever, especially if the restriction on temple marriage was maintained. Allowing them to attend the temple and be sealed to parents and siblings wouldn't require ANY change to our theology whatsoever.

While acknowledging how far we've come in many ways regarding this issue in the last decade or so, the latest official policy still has one glaring issue. As I mentioned above, even expressions of intimacy that are not sexual in any way still are discouraged. In a way the current stance says, "It's OK to feel attracted to those of the same sex - as long as you never do anything that makes it obvious you feel those attractions." Heterosexual members can do all sorts of things that really aren't "sexual" in nature, while homosexual members can't do those exact same things.

Try this as a thought experiment:

You are a heterosexual man - someone who is attracted to women. Imagine what it would be like if you had been told all your life that such an attraction was wrong - and, in some cases, by some people, that such an attraction was reprehensible, disgusting, repulsive or even evil - that the very attraction itself, the very thought of having sex with a woman, was a gross abomination - that your attraction was seen by God as an abomination). Imagine if you had been told that you could overcome that attraction if you only had more faith - that, in a very real way, your attraction was a sign of your lack of faith. Imagine if you were told that you needed to marry a man and have sex with him in order to get over your attraction to women. 
Now, imagine being told that all of that was wrong - that you weren't the vilest of sinners because of your attraction to others of the opposite sex. However, imagine being told that you still couldn't let anyone, ever, know about your attraction - that you couldn't hold hands with a woman, hug or kiss a woman, put your arm around a woman affectionately (no lust involved whatsoever), spend time alone with a woman in a way that someone else might think is inappropriate. Imagine being told that the expression of intimacy of any kind, in any way, had to be absent from your life - with a man, because you weren't attracted to men, or with a woman, because such things still are seen as abominable.

We've come a long way, as I said, but the second half of the thought experiment above is what we currently ask of homosexual members. We aren't talking exclusively about avoiding "fornication"; we're talking about asking someone to live a completely intimacy-free life - at least with someone to whom that person actually feels a physical attraction. Living without physical intimacy of any kind is one definition of Hell - and we condemn it in the case of Catholic priests and nuns (and even blame it for the sexual abuses of the past within those groups). That is not what we ask of heterosexual members, so I understand completely why some people simply can't stay LDS who face that future.

I admire greatly anyone who can stay actively involved in the Church while being gay, which means I admire some of my friends greatly, but I also admire greatly those who face intense pressure to conform and who suffer greatly for their decision not to do so. What I admire most is not the specific decision, but rather it is the fact that either decision brings great, terrible pain and suffering initially and, in many cases, over an extended period of time.

There is no complete and easy answer right now, but there is much we can do to ease pain and suffering without compromising our theology in any way. What I have detailed above is just a start - but we absolutely need to start.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

We Don't Love People if We Won't Interact Postiively with Them or Serve Them

Complete love is not a feeling; it's an action verb. 

We can't say we love anyone unless we are wiling to interact positively with them and accept them for who they are, not just for whom we want them to be.  We don't have to approve of everything they say and do, but we have to let go of personal judgment and serve them regardless. 

If we won't associate with certain people - or if we only associate with certain people to change them, we don't love them.  We might love the concept of love, but we don't love them.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Religious Tolerance and Exclusive Truth Claims

I think it’s interesting that religious tolerance often is weakest in those who demand it for themselves the most vocally. They cry out for tolerance and acceptance, but they turn around and stereotype others - condemning them to Hell without really understanding their beliefs. The “tolerance of condescension” still is better than the “intolerance of competing conviction”. Given the stereotyped attitudes of the irreligious liberal and the evangelical conservative, I’ll take the irreligious liberal any day - and, ironically, twice on Sunday. 

We walk a fine line between the type of tolerance Joseph Smith preached so passionately (allow all men everywhere the same privilege, let them worship how, when or what they may) and the claims of truth he made simultaneously (the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth). Unfortunately, it is far too easy to cross that line and allow the claims to temper our tolerance.

Friday, September 26, 2014

It Is Important to Admit the Frailties and Faults of Our Leaders

I believe passionately in being able to look at issues, even those that involve leaders, as honestly and openly as we can without it leading to wallowing in criticism or condemnation - to still remain actively involved in the LDS Church (and even be "faithful" in every meaningful way, in some cases) while not seeing lots of things in black-and-white terms or like lots of other members. I also believe I can recognize, admit and discuss what appear to me to be real weaknesses and even mistakes without it making me reject / dismiss others because of what amounts to them being fully human. That can be done easily with regard to how others see me, so I try to grant that same charity to others as view them. 

I'm going to use an extreme example to make my point, and it might be a little shocking at first, but please understand why I'm using it:

Jesus of Nazareth is believed to be the only perfect man who ever lived, specifically because he is believed to have been "a partaker of the divine nature" in a way that nobody else has been. He is believed to have been the son of God and a God in and of himself. He is believed to have never sinned - meaning, according to the definition of James, that he never acted in opposition to his understanding.

Does that mean that I am "criticizing" him if I point out that I think he lost his temper on at least one occasion - or use that incident to say that he might have had a bad temper if he allowed himself to show it? Is it criticizing him if I hate the idea that "little Lord Jesus no crying he makes" - since I believe he cried just like any other baby, and soiled his diaper, and perhaps even punched a friend who cheated in a game when he was a child, or even cheated while he was playing a game when he was a child?

I don't see it that way. First, I don't see those things as sins, but I also don't see pointing out those things as criticism. I see it simply as talking about the idea that he really was human even while he really was divine. We say he was human in a very real way that matters deeply, but, if that is the case, we do him a grave disservice if we can't talk openly about what that means - about the implications of believing in a God who also was human. If we ignore and never speak of that dichotomy, if we ignore it in the name of not appearing to be speaking evil of the Lord's anointed, we are castrating him in a very real, though figurative, way.

I think the same applies to every person - and I think it applies to Moses, Peter, Paul, (and Mary - sorry, couldn't resist), Joseph Smith, Brigham Young or any other prophet or even historically extraordinary figure even more so that to you and me. I deserve to be seen and understood just as much for my imperfections as I am for my strengths. I deserve to be treated like a fully human being - meaning my callings over the years should be discussed simultaneous to my difficulty with formal, kneeling prayer all my life. My inclination toward charity should be considered along with my warped and risque sense of humor. I am a saint in some ways, but I'm a sinner in others - and admitting that about our prophets and other leaders isn't the type of "criticism" I try to avoid.

It's just an admission of human frailties even within our greatest leaders - and that admission is extremely important to me.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

My Birthday Wish for All: More Love, Patience, Tolerance and Care

The following is one of my favorite quotes from any General Conference talk I have heard in my lifetime.  I quote Elder Wirthlin's "Concern for the One" often, but I absolutely love this quote just as much.  I want to share it today, as a birthday wish for all.  

If we could look into each other’s hearts and understand the unique challenges each of us faces, I think we would treat each other much more gently, with more love, patience, tolerance, and care.

Marvin J. Ashton (April 1992 General Conference, "The Tongue Can Be a Sharp Sword")

May we try to do so is my wish. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Atonement Covers Honest Mistakes

I have to live according to the dictates of my own conscience and have faith that God will not punish me for doing so. I'd rather follow that path and be wrong, learning from my mistakes and having an atonement cover those honest mistakes, than to believe and do things just because others say I need to believe and do them. That last construct is the heart of what we call Lucifer's plan - and I think it's critical do recognize that.

I had a friend once who asked me if we can choose which revelations to believe. I think everyone chooses which revelations to believe, and, more particularly, which statements of leaders to classify as divine revelation - even if that means some people choose to think they believe them all. Actually, I think there isn't a Mormon alive who believes them all - when revelation is defined as "everything an apostle or President taught or said from the pulpit", since there are so many contradictory things that have been taught and preached (and so many things we no longer teach and preach). Just to be clear, I am totally fine with that; I'm just saying that every Mormon has to pick and choose exactly what s/he accepts from our history as divine revelation and as eternal, immutable truth.  (I think that also applies to every religion and denomination, not just the LDS Church.) 

Everyone looks at things and decides what they can believe - and then they choose what they can live - and then they construct justifications for the gap. For me, the most important one is that the Atonement will cover that gap, as long as we're trying to do our best. That, to me, is a huge part of pure Mormonism - an acknowledgment that all of us are living according to the dictates of our own consciences and hoping in faith that God will understand and not hold it against us.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Competence Is Important to Powerful Faith

"You know, it is a wonderful thing to be faithful, but a much greater thing to be both faithful and competent. There is no particular virtue in being uninformed, certainly no virtue in ignorance. When young people can acquire the skills, the techniques, and the knowledge of these times, and along with it have a spiritual commitment and a solid faith and cleanliness of life, there is nothing that you can’t achieve; nothing in righteousness or in reason."  (Elder Richard L. Evans, from an address given on October 15, 1971)

Monday, September 22, 2014

I Really Dislike Labeling People, Largely Because I Defy Most Labels

I don't like labels - at all. I just don't care about them, since they always misrepresent some people in their stereotyping net. I'm a great example of that, frankly.

I'm as active as it gets in every way that matters - but I don't call myself a "TBM". At some online discussion sites, I'm considered conservative; on other sites, I've been called borderline apostate. One commenter on my personal blog thanked me for being one of the key catalysts in her conversion and baptism into the LDS Church; a couple have chastised me for leading people astray. I'm not a label; I'm ME - and I'm a quite unique me, thank you very much.

To me, being LDS means that I walk my journey within the LDS Church - and I can bear testimony of lots and lots of wonderful experiences while doing so. I'm not just "active" in the Church; I'm about as "believing" as it gets - but that doesn't mean I'm stereotypical in many ways. I'm an orthoprax member who has some fairly heterodox views - and some radically heterodox views - and some very orthodox views - and some views that aren't fully formed yet.

I'm not a Mormon who is Ray; I'm Ray who is a Mormon. I am my own "I am" - and it's an LDS "I am". It's just uniquely me. I believe in my own "middle way" in the Confucian sense - in finding meaning, balance and personal harmony as I'm pulled by opposites. I don't believe in "A Middle Way" (as I've said in other threads), but I do believe in the concept of walking in harmony with my own conscience - which Joseph Smith preached very clearly.

That's me - but I respect, honor and support anyone in the pursuit of living according to the dictates of their own conscience. I hope that's accomplished while being LDS, but each person has to make that call for herself - and it's not my place to judge or label in a derogatory manner anyone who sincerely makes a choice that differs from my own. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

We Call Good Evil Far Too Often

Article of Faith 12 (excerpt): 

"If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."

I think we nearly always define this too narrowly. If I make a mistake, I want to err on the side that says, "If there is no over-riding negative, it is a positive."

Moroni 7 (excerpts): 

"That which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God. Wherefore, take heed, my beloved brethren, that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil. And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged. Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ."

I understand that the verses I did not quote in Moroni 7 add an elemental focus on Christ which can be problematic for some, but the basic point appears to me to be that we need to fight the natural tendency to label good as bad - thereby missing an expansiveness that can add richness to life and unite rather than divide. The admonitions about calling evil good are important, but, in this chapter, they appear to be a necessary subordinate to the overall objective of avoiding getting narrow-minded and exclusionary.

1 John 4:18 (excerpt): 

"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear."

Again, I think we err far too often on the side of rejection (usually out of fear of the result) and end up calling evil that which is good.

As a minor, fairly non-controversial example (with many more possible examples that are more controversial): 

I served my mission in Japan. The issue of ancestral shrines came up regularly. One of the bishops where I served said the following, to the best of my memory:

"'Ancestor worship' is a terrible translation of what our shrines mean to us. We do not 'worship' our ancestors in the way that foreigners usually assume. We honor them for their influence on our lives - for their dedication and love and service - for the connectedness we feel long after death. Our shrines are like our personal temples, places that show our desire to turn our hearts to them and recognize that their hearts are turned to us. How much more Mormon can you get than that?"

Friday, September 19, 2014

Charity: Really Good People Can Believe Really Bad Things

I had an experience a long time ago that is a great example of why I try so hard to understand people as well as possible and not reject them, even as I reject things they say and believe. I was thinking about it again recently, and decided to post my thoughts about it here. 

I have a long-term friend, someone I admire greatly in many ways, who is a wonderful, caring person - overall. She would do anything for family and friends in order to try to help them. She has had many experiences that I accept as profound, spiritual, enlightening, etc. There is so much to love and respect about her. I really do love her dearly - but it's hard for me to be around her for any extended period of time. A recent experience with someone else brought that up in my mind again.

She is a political extremist, and her extreme is on the other side of the middle from where I am politically. She will corner people and explain, in dire terms, what is coming if her political agenda is not established - if the wrong candidate is elected (in whatever election is next, at whatever local or national level). The world isn't just falling apart; the end of all we hold dear is imminent. Frankly, I believe she is over the paranoia line in that area - and listening to her conspiracy theories is nearly unbearable for me.

I really do love her - and she really is, at heart, a kind, caring, loving, dedicated person. It's just hard to remember that in the moment as soon as she inevitably starts on a political diatribe. It's not worth answering her openly, especially since she doesn't talk in church like she does privately (as she understands that church isn't the place to discuss politics at her desired level for private conversations).

I have learned a lot from her over the years I have known her. She is intelligent and insightful in many ways.

My point is simple:

My dear friend is fully human, and I can't blame or castigate her for that. I love her as deeply as I do only because I've stuck around long enough to see, to some degree, the full person she is - even as I want to run away screaming quite often when she launches her soap box missiles. If we weren't members of the same church, I wouldn't have gotten to know her as well as I do - and that would have been a shame, even as it hasn't been easy to deal with her regularly.

I try to remember that whenever I start expecting others to be all that I would like them to be - and I try also to remember everyone who talks with me and walks away shaking their heads at my own beliefs, but who also continue to talk with me, regardless. It's easy to forget how many people there are in that group - and it's important for me to model the charity and patience so many people have shown and continue to show me.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Modesty: There are So Many Lessons in This Picture

I have said often that I am not comfortable with the idea that women are responsible for the thoughts men have when looking at women.  I believe in the concept and principle of modesty in dress for men and women, but I believe the responsibility for one's thoughts ultimately lies with each person - not the person on whom the thoughts are focused. 

The picture in the link below is perhaps the best example of why I feel that way:

"A picture is worth 1,000 words" (Patheos)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"In the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is no place for ridicule, bullying, or bigotry."

The Savior taught us to love not only our friends but also those who disagree with us—and even those who repudiate us. He said: “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? … And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?”

The Prophet Joseph Smith warned us to “beware of self-righteousness” and to enlarge our hearts toward all men and women until we feel “to take them upon our shoulders.” In the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is no place for ridicule, bullying, or bigotry. 

Neil L. Andersen (April 2014 General Conference)

Monday, September 15, 2014

I Value My Wife-String as Much as My Me-Kite

I like Louis L'Amour books as brain candy. They probably are my favorite guilty pleasure. Most of them have the same basic plot structure, but I like the profound insights he throws into the stories as the simple plot progresses.

One thing he says in multiple books is that leaving the eastern cities and moving west across the plains had an enormously different effect on different people. It empowered some, by freeing them of the constraints in which they lived previously; it crushed some, who couldn't handle the endless expanse and never-changing scenery; it strengthened some who had never had to care for themselves and others; it drove some crazy out of constant fear of attack and the lack of law and order.

People need what people need, and people tend to construct their lives to provide them what they need - and want.

Being open-minded to me means, in the context of L'Amour's stories, not demanding that settlers be explorers - even as the typical settler mind-set is to be wary of and restrain the explorers. Often, explorers can explore in confidence largely because they know there always will be settlers waiting to welcome, feed, praise and provide security for a season when they return from their explorations.

Remember, also:  

A kite is not just the thing that flies through the wind; it also is the string that keeps it safely grounded.

I value my wife-string as much as my me-kite.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: The "What" and "Why" of Commandments; or, Often, We Emphasize the Wrong Thing

Last Sunday was the first lesson about commandments, the topic for this month.  To lay the groundwork for the rest of the month, we focused on two important questions:

What are commandments?

Why do we keep the commandments?  

I told the students that these questions sound like simple, Primary questions but that we were going to go a lot deeper and try to see them in their broadest, most powerful terms.  I then asked everyone to tell me what the word "command" means.  The responses included the following:

direction; order; advice; counsel; guideline; requirement 

I divided the list into two groups and asked them to tell me the difference between the groups:

order; requirement 

direction; advice; counsel; guideline 

They saw immediately that the first group described things that must be done (things that were harsher or might even include an element of force or strong expectation), while the second group described things that were more like suggestions (things that were softer and carried no hint of absolute necessity - things that were much more up to personal choice to accept or ignore).  Given that fundamental difference, the first group ("order; requirement") is the only group that fits "command". 

To emphasize the difference, I explained how "Let there be light" is translated in English and in Japanese (which is translated from German).  In English, as worded above, there is a feeling of almost benevolence and gentleness (of direction; advice; counsel; guideline) - as if God had said, "I will allow there to be light."  In Japanese, the wording is, "Hikare ga are" - which translates as an unyielding command that light exist, as if God had said, "There is going to be light, because I am God and command it to exist."  The follow-up statement that God "saw the light, that it was good" also carries an element of supervision - that God oversaw the process to ensure that the result was what he had commanded. 

I then asked the students who they should follow completely - in whom should they invest the ability to command them and their actions.  They immediately focused on God and understood when asked that obeying anyone else completely as a "commander" is "relying on the arm of flesh" and giving up individual agency.  We talked again, as we have in the past, about Lucifer's plan - about how the ONLY difference in the plan's was the focus on forced obedience vs. individual agency free of coercion (and the consequences of that difference).  That difference is encapsulated in our 11th Article of Faith, which says:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.  

I simply pointed out that "all men" means "all people" - and that includes members of the LDS Church, as well.  Yes, we sustain and support our leaders and give deference to them and what they ask of us - but we do NOT obey any mortal leader as if s/he was God.  We always have to rely on our own consciences and ask ourselves, whenever any mortal asks or tells us to do something, whether or not what is being asked of us is in line with or opposed to our own conscience and what we believe God would command.  What mortals ask of us is "direction; advice; counsel; guideline", not "order; requirement; command".  Without that distinction, we risk putting mortals in the place of Lucifer and obeying for no other reason than we are told to obey.  That makes us no different than animals - or, in Mormon-speak, confined to our "natural (wo)man". 

We then focused on the "why" of keeping commandments.   The students gave the following answers to that question:

to be protected; to gain help and strength; to be happy 

I asked the students to name some commandments that protect us, and they mentioned the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity.  Given the complexity of the discussion I wanted to have about why we keep the commandments, I stopped them there, and we focused on those two commandments.  

I took them through a discussion of how those two commandments could be taught: either through a focus on being protected or through a focus on gaining help and strength - and how each approach influences how we talk about being happy. 

With the Word of Wisdom, focusing on protection emphasizes the "don't" statements (strong drinks, tobacco, hot drinks, meat, etc.), while focusing on gaining help and strength emphasizes the "do" statements (wholesome herbs, grains, fruits, meat, etc.).  The "consequences" of obedience are "receiv(ing) health in their navel and marrow to their bones," "find(ing) wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures," "run(ning) and not be(ing) weary," "walk(ing) and not faint(ing)" and, ultimately, being passed over by the destroying angel.  I simply pointed out that there is NO distinction in the revelation between the "don't" and the "do" statements (nothing to indicate one is more important than the other) - and that when we focus solely on what we should not do and skip what we should do we are not keeping this commandment fully.  We focus on the "don't" verses primarily in an attempt to gain protection, but ignoring the "do" verses robs us of an important element of gaining help and strength and being happy. 

With the Law of Chastity, this difference is even more stark.  

We talked about the ways obeying the Law of Chastity protects us (avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, emotional harm, betrayal, etc.), and then I asked them why that just isn't enough in our modern world.  They didn't get it at first, so I asked them how our world now is different than it was in the past relative to the consequences of sex.  One of them said, simply, "protection" - so we talked about how birth control, contraception, abortion, etc. are so readily available now that many people might blow off the idea of keeping the Law of Chastity as a means of protection.  To avoid the obvious, natural consequences, they can say they are being protected even if they have sex.  (Obviously, that isn't 100% accurate, but people can and do make that claim - especially teenagers and young adults.)  Given that reality, I asked them how keeping the Law of Chastity provides help, strength and happiness.  

We were almost out of time, so we focused the discussion on self-control, trust, emotional stability and, ultimately, how all of those benefits and more help us become like God and become less animalistic or "natural".  We talked about how the Law of Chastity is "unnatural" and, therefore, must include blessings and benefits beyond just physical protection.  

To end the discussion, I pointed out how both the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity can be taught positively (focused on benefits, now and in the future) or negatively (focused on fear and/or punishment, now and in the future).  I told them that people respond to different motivations, so I understand why both a negative and positive approach are used - but, personally, I am motivated much more by the idea of actively gaining strength and help to protect myself than I am by being protected by inaction while living in a cocoon of fear.  I don't like to obey commandments passively (meaning simply not doing things because I'm told not to do things); I prefer to obey commandments actively (meaning doing things for reasons that are important to me).

Friday, September 12, 2014

When You Just Can't Find the Words to Explain Your Testimony

It's hard, and sometimes impossible, for someone who has seen the "far blue mountains" to describe them adequately to others who have lived their entire lives in a city or on a vast, unchanging plain.

Some things, some times, only can be kept and pondered in our hearts - until the time comes when mortal sight limitations are removed and everyone can see the mountains, cities and plains clearly and fully.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Seek Diligently for Truth, No Matter Where It Is Found

I believe deeply in finding truth in everything.  I think that outlook is a fundamental part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (see Moroni 7: 5-19, especially) and Joseph Smith's philosophy that animated the Restoration and his role as a prophet.

I was asked once if organized religion loses potency when it admits there is truth in everything - that a religion doesn't posses or even understand all truth and that "the fulness of the Gospel" doesn't include an understanding of all truth. My response was that it does not, according to Joseph Smith - or the notion of a process called the "restoration of all things" through on-going / continuing revelation.

Part of the grandeur I see in pure Mormonism is the audacity to believe that all truth can be circumscribed into one whole - and that striving to comprehend that whole is worth the effort. Limiting that whole to what we know now, and denying that there still is truth outside our current understanding to be included in the circumscription process (including things that others know of which we are not aware), goes against the very core of the Restoration.

A good friend of mine once wrote the following when he was asked about believing there is truth in every religion, denomination, faith tradition, science, etc.

1. If something is proven to be true, or beyond reasonable doubt, it's simply part of the gospel. As we study the creation, and the processes whereby creation occurred, I come to be in awe of the creator. Scientific discovery does not diminish my regard for god, it enhances my understanding of the absolute miracle of god's inherent power: nature. That god works entirely through nature is part of what Joseph Smith said, at least, in section 88, one of his most important and thoughtful revelations.

2. If something true is in conflict with scripture, then we need to re-evaluate our literal understanding of the scripture. I have to recognize how scripture was written in the mind and heart of the revelator, and thus, it's going to include the revelator's worldview. Obviously, this is controversial to those who believe that scripture is literally and forever true. Scripture is the milk -- it is not the meat of the gospel. As we grow up in our understanding, we sometimes need to set aside childish things.

3. There are a host of things that cannot be proven, and we need to take an attitude of suspended judgment for these things. I don't know if we pre-existed. I think it's a very useful model as part of the Plan of Salvation, but I simply don't know. Is it imperative for me to say "I know we lived with god before this life"? I believe it, I trust in it, but I cannot explain it. I don't know how it works.

4. I should never be afraid of truth. If Joseph Smith and Brigham Young did some pretty whacked out things, then I think it important to understand their humanity. I'm not afraid of it. I can understand how once you know that JS did a number of questionable things, that it's hard to believe that he was also a 'prophet', but I don't have a problem with it. I'm sure some people think I'm intellectually dishonest as a result. Whatever; truth is truth. Judgment is entirely another matter. I think it's true that Joseph did some pretty human things. My judgment is not affected by it -- he's still a prophet. He still facilitated the restoration. I find truth in the restoration, and therefore I can only conclude that God uses imperfect humans to do his work. This should be obvious from scripture. 

In summary, going back to my first thoughts in this post, as I am exposed to the thoughts, beliefs, discoveries, etc. of others, I try hard to make sure my initial response is:

What truth can I learn from this - no matter the source? 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Faith: We All Need to Decide in What We Have Faith

Faith is the substance of things hoped for (and the subsequent actions that manifest an attempt to realize those hopes) - and living without hope is a terrible thing. Therefore, faith is necessary - but the "in what" is the key.

Every person on earth needs to define her own hopes and "exercise faith" in them, whether that be related to a post-mortal life or whether it be focused on family, friends and this life - or both

Monday, September 8, 2014

Analyzing Scripture: Alma 56:47 - "God Would Deliver Them"

Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.

In Alma 56:47, all we are told is that the Anti-Nephi-Lehite mothers “taught” their sons that “if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.” From what, we are not told. We only assume it was from physical death in war because of the situation that caused them to relate it to Helaman (war and their preservation in it).

In other words, the immediate context surrounding the statement (war) influences the readers to assume this context fully defines what is said - by translating what they were taught into, “You won’t die in war.” However, given that we are not told from what God would deliver them, it is legitimate to look at the rest of the context and realize that there might be other, more comprehensive, legitimate meanings for “God would deliver them” – that their mothers’ words might have been valid even if some of them had died in battle

They had been “taught” – not “told”. This might be a one time occurrence as they were leaving home for war, as is the standard assumption. However, it seems like these young men had been “taught” dedication and obedience and exactness all their lives. Individuals might change in an instant, but it is unlikely that an entire group of 2,000+ young men would become ultra-obedient and diligent overnight. It is much more likely that they had been “taught” all their lives that God would deliver them (from anything that might threaten their spiritual, eternal well-being) than that their mothers simply pulled them aside on the way out the door and promised them they wouldn’t be killed in war.

Remember, those mothers had seen many of their friends (and perhaps some fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and husbands) slaughtered by other Lamanites – killed in the act of calling upon God even though they “did not doubt”. Those mothers knew full well that God didn’t always deliver His people from physical death, but they were convinced that He could deliver them from their natural and fallen and sinful and lost state – from spiritual death. (Alma 24:27 – “thus we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people.”)

Alma 53: 20-21 makes it obvious that these young men had been taught all their lives the reward for perfect faithfulness and obedience and dedication – the same reward their own “pioneers” had received, even those who had been killed for their faith and dedication and lack of doubt. I think it’s fairly safe to say, as a parent myself, that their mothers reiterated what they had been taught all their lives as they were heading off to war – that if they did not doubt and obeyed every command with exactness that “God would deliver them”, no matter the physical outcome.

There is another clue that this was not a one-time, war-specific statement. Remember, this was Helaman who was reporting about these young men. He was as close to them as any Nephite – ever. Yet, apparently, he did not know the specifics about what their mothers had taught them until they told him about it in the field of battle. He had been there when the parents had decided to fight; he was the one who had talked them out of it by invoking their sacred promise; he had been chosen as their sons’ military leader because they trusted him as a religious leader. He was intimately involved in the decision of their sons to fight in place of their parents. Perhaps “taught” simply can mean “told” – but I tend to believe that Helaman would have been there for the great send off when all the mothers collectively told all the sons that they would not die in battle – that he would have known about it and not have had to be told after the fact.

Having said all that, I do not discount the idea that the Lord might have promised the parents that He would preserve their sons in battle like He had preserved the sons of Mosiah on their missions – that it was couched in terms of, “You’ve sacrificed enough lives to follow me. I won’t require that you sacrifice your sons.” Even if that really is all it was, that’s enough for me, since it makes it an incredibly powerful story of the rewards of deep and difficult sacrifice and dedication.

Am I saying that this is the correct view of the statement, “God would deliver them”? No; I don’t know that. It might simply have been, “Stay valiant and none of you will be killed.” All I’m saying is that when you parse the text then consider the overall context, there is more than one possible meaning for that phrase ("God would deliver them.") – and assuming it simply meant “they will not die in battle” actually cheapens what I believe is taught in this story.

Are there other legitimate interpretations of this statement? If we “do not doubt”, will God “deliver” us? If so, how – and from what? Are there parallels with this statement that can apply to modern Mormonism in some real and unique way – ways to liken this unto ourselves?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

We Shouldn't Judge Ourselves or Others for the Thorns of Our Flesh

And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.  (2 Corinthians 12:7) 

The assertion that “wanting to repent of it” is all that is required to be able to change one's weaknesses and repent fully is problematic for those who struggle to overcome deeply ingrained inclinations and never totally conquer them in this life - and, to some degree, in some way, that applies to each and every one of us. For example, I know quite a few people who want badly to react differently to their children in stressful situations but can’t conquer their current reactions totally - and I would never claim that their desire to repent simply isn’t strong enough.  There are things about my own "natural man" that I am not sure I will be able to eliminate in this life.  The conclusion is simple but profound:

Some things are thorns of the flesh that will go away only in the resurrection.  If Paul, the apostle, and Nephi could write what they wrote about this issue, it's important to cut ourselves and others some slack and not insist that everything is fixable if only we really want to repent. 

That is not a blanket excuse for any action that the Church deems to be sin. It merely points out the danger in blaming one’s inability to control perfectly one’s deeply ingrained impulses and inclinations on an inadequate desire to change. The beauty of the Atonement, in my opinion, is not just that we can receive strength to change in the here and now, but also that we can receive grace for our efforts even when we cannot change in the here and now.  To even imply that not being able to conquer something completely is a matter of lack of faith or desire to repent denies the Atonement in a very real, practical way.  

I think that points to the need for those who find they struggle (or even are unable to) live a command completely at least to strive to live as close to the ideal as possible. It might not be the ideal, but all of us are commanded to try to live as closely to the ideal as we individually are able - trusting that the Lord in His infinite wisdom will understand our hearts and make up the difference. I’m not going to be judged against any other individual, and I’m not going to be judged against a universal, Mosaic Law-like standard; I’m going to be judged against myself - what I did with what I was given. Since I have enough problem understanding myself fully and have no idea the exact extent of any other person’s struggle to deal with his/her own thorns, I try to preach the ideal but not hold anyone to that ideal - trusting God to know all of our hearts and, in the end, be merciful, loving and long-suffering with his children.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sometimes, the Presentation and Attitude Are More Important than the Words

I had an interesting experience in Sacrament Meeting a few years ago, and I have thought about it off and on ever since: 

The first speaker talked about repentance - and, as strongly as feel about how we tend to present only a small, simplistic view of repentance in the Church, I ended up enjoying the talk, mostly. The speaker had a good sense of humor, was self-deprecating and used personal experiences of when he'd screwed up to illustrate his points. "Doctrinally" I had a few issues that could have been bigger - but his approach and attitude overcame those issues.

The second speaker (the High Councilor) talked about the Law of Chastity - and my experience with the first talk was magnified throughout the second talk. There were more aspects for me over which I could have taken issue (and those issues were deeper for me), but, in the end, I was impressed by something that hit me hard - and I mean really, truly HARD:

He obviously was sincere - and trying his best to be compassionate, understanding and empathetic. His delivery method and attitude were humble, even as probably 2/3 of his talk was content I never would have chosen for a talk about that topic - and 1/2 of that content I couldn't have said over the pulpit if I'd tried (like some of his description of pornographic imagery - even not in explicit terms - since I believe that only brings such images into the minds of those who need help the most without actually helping them in any way).

I didn't know either speaker - had never talked at length with either of them. All I had was their words and their presentation of those words - and, in the end, what I FELT about them as I listened outweighed what they actually said. I felt like they were good, sincere people doing the best they could to help others - so the fact that I believed that some of what they said wasn't helpful in the slightest and, in a few cases, actually incorrect, didn't mean as much as that impression. I cut them slack because of what I felt, when I would have been more critical if I had felt differently about them.

It's true that often we overlook things people say if we love them - so I try to learn to love people who see and say things differently than I do. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

We Can Unite with Those Who Do Not Accept Our Doctrine

A man and his wife learn to be one by using their similarities to understand each other and their differences to complement each other in serving one another and those around them. In the same way, we can unite with those who do not accept our doctrine but share our desire to bless the children of our Heavenly Father.

We can become peacemakers, worthy to be called blessed and the children of God (see Matthew 5:9).

(Lesson 2: "Developing Unity in Marriage")

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Shaman Exercise: A Secular Example of How Councils Should Function

The idea of councils in the LDS Church reminds me of "The Shaman Exercise".

When someone has a problem, they stand in the middle of the circle and present the problem to the circle. The circle is composed of people from all walks of life and status in the world. Each person in the outer circle gives their analysis of the problem and a proposed solution, while the person in the center listens.

At the end, there is no resolution expected from the person in the center -- but that person walks away with far more information, a broader view of the world, and far more perspectives and angles than they could generate on their own. And ultimately decides on the answer that is right -- for them. And it may be none of the answers given in the circle. But the circle had influence. 

That is precisely how I view the concept of councils.  If I am in the position of the person who presides, I listen, read, talk to others, etc. - and certain things they say "stick". Sometimes the ideas come on my own, but most often it's a synthesis of what I have experienced, what I have read, and what the people around me say.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

We Should Never Suggest Someone Move if They Don't Agree with Us

If neighbors [non-Mormons OR Mormons] become testy or frustrated because of some disagreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or with some law we support for moral reasons, please don’t suggest to them - even in a humorous way - that they consider moving someplace else. I cannot comprehend how any member of our Church can even think such a thing! Our pioneer ancestors were driven from place to place by uninformed and intolerant neighbors. They experienced extraordinary hardship and persecution because they thought, acted, and believed differently from others. If our history teaches us nothing else, it should teach us to respect the rights of all people to peacefully coexist with one another.

Elder Ballard (Oct 2001 General Conference) 

Elder Ballard was talking specifically about those who don't share our religion, but the same principle applies to those within our religion who see things differently than we do. We should never suggest they leave if they don't agree with us. Zion is peaceful coexistence despite differences, not complete unanimity of thought in all things.  (Frankly, that last description would be Hell for me.) 

Monday, September 1, 2014

"The Middle Way" vs. "My Way"

I believe strongly in the concept of "a way" - and it is encapsulated beautifully for me in Jesus' statement that He was the way, the truth and the light.  Thus, I have no problem with people talking about "the way" when it comes to religion.  However, I also believe strongly, based on decades of personal experience talking with thousands of people and on my own faith journey over the course of my life, that all of us see many things in slightly or even radically different way - that there are numerous "faith orientations", if you will.  Since I believe in the principle that allows every person alive to worship God according to the dictates of her own conscience, I believe that there are many unique "ways" to worship God legitimately - ways that are acceptable to Him, because they are sincere and the best each person can do.

There is a movement of sorts among some members that has been happening online for quite some time to self-identify as "middle way Mormons".  Having said what I did in the paragraph above, I don't believe in "the middle way" as it is used by this group of people. I believe in individual ways - each person finding what works for himself or herself. I actually dislike the term "the middle way" used in this context - simply because it implies there is one way ("THE middle way") that works or ought to work for those for whom a more traditional, orthodox way doesn't work.

I've known enough members over the course of my life to believe strongly that there is no collective, all-encompassing way that works or ought to work for every member of the Church. For example, there is absolutely no way whatsoever to believe and follow everything that has been taught (or is taught currently) within Mormonism and the LDS Church. It's impossible, and anyone who disagrees hasn't studied what church leaders have said over the years in detail. Even the apostles and prophets and Presidents haven't agreed on many things over the years - so even they have had to construct their own understanding, their own "way", in a very real sense.

On the other hand, I really love the Confucian use of "the middle way", even if, in the context of our own time and within the context of our own church, "the middle way" has come to mean something very different than Confucius' meaning. Confucius focused on an individual path, as I described above - what I choose to term "finding my way"; "the middle way" as used collectively now is becoming more and more a group path that is radically different than what Confucius taught.

To make my point a little differently:

Most members I know, even most members who would be classified as traditionally orthodox, actually do strive for balance in their lives. Of course, there are members who are extremists (on each side of any question), but they are nowhere near the majority, in my experience. Even within the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, that is true. For example, President Packer is a lightning rod due to his stance on moral issues, especially homosexuality, but he also has made many statements over the years that sound like they are straight from Confucius' middle way philosophy. I mean that seriously. I think most members who struggle with his stances on moral issues would be shocked at how dominant his "balance" statements are numerically. The message of balance is taught repeatedly - but the messages that jar the most for some people shock their systems so much that they dominate their memories and distort the other messages that aren't extremist.

"There must needs be opposition in all things." 

Therefore, by definition, every way is "a" middle way - a way between opposites.

When we talk in extreme terms, migrating to an extreme (any extreme), we lose sight, recognition and understanding of the other extreme which must needs be. We become incomplete due simply to being pulled to an extreme. We move from a balanced "way in the middle" from which we can see, evaluate and internalize things from all directions and incorporate anything that rings true for us to a more restricted, unbalanced way from which many things vanish from sight.

Ironically, things look clearer as we become unbalanced, but it's because we are able to see and contemplate LESS than we could in the middle.

I talk of "the muddle in the middle" for two reasons:

1) There is more through which to sift, making the glass through which we see mistier / darker / less clear;

2) Slowing down in order to muddle through everything keeps us from jumping to conclusions about the meaning of what we see - which, ironically, in the end, makes our ultimate decisions more fully ours. True growth and progress, in my opinion and experience, occur from the need to sort through much and make informed decisions - not from seeing only one option and pursuing it unwaveringly.

That, by the way, is a decent, alternate definition of faith.