Monday, December 14, 2015

My Sacrament Meeting Talk on the Meaning of Christmas

I spoke yesterday on the meaning of Christmas. 

I started by sharing my daughter's quote after attending the temple for the first time: 

We spend so much time building the kingdom of God that we forget to establish Zion.

I then said that the meaning of Christmas depends greatly on how we view the Kingdom of God. I asked everyone to close their eyes and picture a kingdom. Then I asked them how they would describe what they saw in their mind's eye. I asked them if there were large castles, clean and bright streets, smiling and happy and well-fed people, etc. Nearly all of them smiled and nodded in agreement. Then I said: 

So, when we think of the Kingdom of God, we usually picture a Disney movie - but that is radically different than what we see in the New Testament about Jesus, of Nazareth, his own life and the followers he gathered around him during his ministry.

I told them I believe we miss the real meaning of Christmas if we don't focus on and understand Jesus' early life, his ministry and whom he focused on teaching. The following is a simple outline of how I addressed that misunderstanding: 

1) "The whole need not a physician, but the sick." 

2) Mary was unmarried when she became pregnant. Without Joseph's acceptance and support, her baby probably would have been raised in abject poverty - and it is likely he either would have been discarded as trash, literally, to die or sold into slavery, as was the custom in that time and culture for babies born without available support. 

3) When he was a young child (probably 1-2 years old), his parents took him and fled a terrorist attack in his homeland, seeking refuge in the strongest opposition to the Roman Empire - Egypt. We have no idea in the Bible how many others in that area learned what Herod had decreed and was doing and fled with Joseph and Mary - but it is reasonable to believe there were many. 

4) When he started his ministry, he taught in the synagogues, but his followers were mostly the poor, the sick, the sinners, the publicans, the outcast, the rejected - "the least of these". In a very real way, he served those like himself in his earliest years. 

I told them that I see the meaning of Christmas as the message that every person on this earth, including those whom others can't love and accept and serve, is of equal worth in the eyes of God, with equal potential - and that we will not honor the true meaning of Christmas if our congregations and dreams resemble a Disney movie more than the people whom Jesus served in his ministry. I asked them to think of persons and people whom they naturally tend to judge and avoid - and to reach out, somehow, in their busy lives, to those specific people. After all, he said: 

Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.

The following are two posts that were the foundation of my talk: 

"Thoughts on the Meaning of the Birth of Jesus" (Brad - By Common Consent) 

"It Is Finished: Death on Easter Sunday" 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Tribute to My Mother (and Father) on Her Passing

My mom passed away on Monday. It was completely unexpected, and nobody knows exactly why it happened. She had said recently that she wanted to be with Dad again, and we choose to believe her sincere wish was granted. 

On this day of thanksgiving, I am most grateful at this moment for parents who loved me - truly loved the unique person I was - and allowed me to be different - and treasured me for that difference.

I am grateful for six children who allowed me to try to emulate my parents' loving acceptance - even when their unique differences occasionally challenged my determination to do so.

I am grateful to have been raised with the idea that families are forever, literally. I don't know why I was and am blessed to be a part of such a wonderfully unique family, but I thank God for it. My parents were ordinary heroes, and I will treasure my association with them forever.

I am thankful, deeply, that my mother has been allowed to receive her fondest desire - to be with my father again. God bless you, Mom and Dad. Save a place for all of us. 

I wrote her obituary yesterday and share it here for my children to be able to remember their heritage: 

Nora Jane Westover DeGraw, of Ada, OK, passed from this mortal life to the next on November 23, 2015 of natural causes incident to age.  She was 75 years old.  

Nora was born on October 28, 1940 in Joseph City, Arizona to Lloyd Westover and Laura Hudson.  She was the fifth of six children.  She attended school in Santaquin and Payson, Utah, graduating from Payson High School.  She married her sweetheart, Curtis Lamar DeGraw, on March 29, 1961 in the Salt Lake City LDS temple.  Together, they raised eight children (losing one daughter to a stillbirth) in a home full of love and the gospel of Jesus Christ, later serving as a missionary couple in South Carolina. 

Prior to their marriage, Nora worked as a secretary on the staff of David O. McKay, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After their marriage, she dedicated her life to raising their children, returning to part-time work as a secretary at the Santaquin Elementary School after their youngest child started school. Her typing and shorthand skills were legendary. She lived most of her life in Santaquin, Utah – with a few years near the beginning of her marriage in Salt Lake City and the last five years in Ada, OK, living near a son and daughter and their families. 

Nora was a naturally spiritual person, whose smile lit up the world around her and whose tears were harder on her children than any punishment. She was small in stature, but she had the largest heart possible. She was known by all as one of the kindest, sweetest, most gentle people on this earth; nobody ever heard her raise her voice in anger or frustration, and she was never known to criticize others. Her optimistic, loving, accepting personality was a beacon to her family, their eventual spouses, her extended family and friends, and everyone with whom she associated. She loved her family, her religion, her friends, music (an accomplished pianist), reading (especially next to the heating vent under the kitchen desk during the winter in her Santaquin home), getting to know, appreciate and love others, and, most of all, her husband – her eternal companion.  She loved him truly, deeply and exclusively.  They were married for 52 years and were a testament to the power of complete love and fidelity.  Her greatest wish after his passing two years ago was to be with him once more, but she was willing to wait on the Lord’s timing for that glorious reunion.

At this time of thanksgiving, her family is grateful to have been a central part of her life. We miss her, but we are thankful that God saw fit to answer the prayer of one of His elect daughters and allow her to join Curtis, their daughter, Lorna Sue, and all of her departed relatives and friends. We can see our father greeting her on the other side of the veil, then waiting patiently, with a loving grin, as she greeted and hugged every person she ever knew and loved. Truly, we come from a long line of love, and we honor our parents for the incredible examples of Christ-like love they gave us.

Nora is survived by three siblings, eight children, thirty-six grandchildren and eighteen great-grandchildren.  She was preceded in death by her parents, two siblings, a daughter and a grandchild. 

As was the case when Curtis passed away, his family asks that each person who knew and loved Nora renew an individual commitment to love and serve others – that all who wish to honor her do so by accepting and internalizing the Savior’s words:

“As I have loved you, love one another.” 
She would prefer to be honored by what we do, how we live, and who we become more than by anything we might say.  In particular, she would want everyone to fill their homes with smiles and good music – the universal languages of love.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

My Talk in Church Today: Gratitude

I spoke today about gratitude. My daughter is sick, so I don't have time to do a full outline or summary, so the following is a condensed version:

Colossians 2:6-7 - "abounding therein with thanksgiving"

Two-edged sword - (Ammonihah = gratitude on steroids; public acknowledgment can be boastful, especially when righteousness is implied, and can hurt those who don't share the same blessings [talk on marriage and family last month as example])

Gratitude does not mean constant happiness. Life is difficult and brings trials and grief - moments that make gratitude hard. Also, biological issues like depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety, etc. can inhibit one's ability to feel gratitude and joy. None of those things constitute sin. I pray that nothing I say will add in any way to the burdens carried by anyone here today.

Being grateful also does not mean we have to be thankful for our trials themselves. Rather, it means being thankful for what we learn from those trials. Let me give two examples of what I mean:

My mother's schizophrenia (not grateful for it but grateful for what I learned as a result of it)

Friend whose daughter died unexpectedly (He wasn't grateful she died, but he was grateful he was able to draw closer to God as a result. Nobody should ever say he should be grateful for that trial.)

I hope nobody here feels unworthy in some way if you can't thank God for a particular trial, but I also hope you can be thankful, now or in the future, for what you will learn as a result of that trial.

Three degrees of love, gratitude and service: God = telestial; friends / same (including family) = terrestrial; enemies / different (including family) = celestial

Michelle's weekly blessing list that has helped her see and recognize her blessings as they happen, rather than only in hindsight

My blessing list (Due to time constraints, only "For the Strength of the Hills" and a description of John Daniel Malan's sacrifice for his testimony.)

Definition of praise and honor in our theology being centered on doing and becoming - need to show gratitude and not just to verbalize it (although saying it is critical, too)

Plan of Happiness works for some people; Plan of Salvation works better for other people. I pray I can help everyone be grateful as a result of their interactions with me, whether pursuing happiness or receiving salvation is more powerful to them.

Invitation to count our blessings every day and then work to bless others - to show our gratitude in visible, tangible ways

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

True Maturity: A Beautiful Statement from Someone Acquainted with Grief and Pain

“A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (It Seems to Me: Selected Letters)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

My Talk Today on Marriage and Family

I was assigned to talk today about Marriage and Family. The following is the general outline and content of my talk:

First, at the risk of further embarrassing your good Bishop, I appreciate the mistake he made earlier when he announced the wrong opening hymn. I have made far worse mistakes from the pulpit, and those mistakes actually are a good introduction to the topic I have been assigned.

Second, I don't want this talk to be a downer in any way, but I have felt impressed to address my topic in a way that will not be traditional and might seem depressing at first. I hope this approach was inspired and can help someone here today in some way.

There are a lot of tension points in the Church and the Gospel that deal with our desire to teach what we see as the ideal while living lives that are not ideal. We say there is opposition in all things, but I'm not sure we understand how true that is. As an example, we teach that reverence, including quietude, is important for proper worship, but we also bring our little children with us to our worship services each week - and we all know those two things often are incompatible.

Ideal vs. Reality (caterpillar / butterfly)

I love the analogy of a caterpillar to resurrection and the Atonement (a creature that lives, seems to die and then emerges as a whole new, beautiful creature), but I have been struck by another application of caterpillars as metaphors for our lives. We often describe caterpillars as "ugly" and "worthless" prior to their metamorphosis into butterflies, simply because of our perception of what beauty and worth mean - but caterpillars are of great worth ecologically and can be seen as beautiful in a very real way by those who are willing to see them that way. How we talk about them is dependent totally on our view of them, NOT on anything objective about their individual lives.

It is important to accept and value the caterpillars as caterpillars and not just future butterflies - and this applies directly to my topic today: marriage and family.

1) I have been blessed greatly in the area of marriage and family (described that a bit), but I know many faithful, sincere, wonderful, worthy members who have struggled in many ways with their marriages and family situations. Let me tell you about a few of them.

a) Sister Renlund (from "Just Call Me Ruth") - only having one child in a Church culture that can be dismissive and even derisive toward those with no children or only one child.

b) friend whose husband got addicted to prescription medication and ruined his life and their marriage, causing her to become a single mother who heard (along with her children) over and over again in church how broken and non-ideal her life and family was.

c) friend in her 50's who has never married and hears regularly that she is lacking worth as an ideal Mormon woman because she is not a mother.

d) young man who is one of the most talented, good-looking, smart, kind-hearted, Christian people I know who walked out of church one day and never returned because a high counselor said people like him (gay) are enemies and are destroying the world. This young man believes he has no realistic chance to have our ideal marriage and family.

e) a dedicated Relief Society President who finally left the man she had married in the temple who subjected her to years of terrible abuse.

I have no idea why I have been blessed so much in this regard, but I do know it has nothing to do with being more righteous or better in any way than those without the blessings I have experienced. What I have come to believe about marriage and family, given my exposure to so much suffering and fervent faith of others, is the heart of my talk today.

I appreciated the intermediate hymn today, "Where can I turn for peace?" I believe we have two places to which we can turn: the divine (our Heavenly Parents and Jesus, our Savior and Redeemer) and to each other. I want to focus on our responsibilities to each other with regard to marriage and family.

1) Help each other become what we desire to become (Perfect = complete, whole, fully developed) in our own unique situations and as a community, no matter the structure of our individual marriages and families.

2) The ideal of the Proclamation to the World (equal partners, helping each other in all aspects of marriage), applies to our interactions with everyone, not just to spouses.

3) Ward as family (hospital ward and automobile repair shop)

4) Advice to those with "ideal" and "non-ideal" families

a) To those who struggle, listen to those who express gratitude for family and marital blessing with kindness and charity, even when those expressions sometimes hurt. We don't mean to hurt others in those situations, and it is important to express thanks and gratitude. As a friend once said, "Bear my joy a while."

b) To those who don't struggle, express thanks for your blessings but be aware of those who might be hurt by your words. Accept them and their lives as valuable and worthy, and never, ever, ever judge them personally based on their situations. Truly, there but for the grace of God go you, and they have much to teach and contribute to you personally and the Church as a whole.

Seeing all as children of God (why we call each other brothers and sisters) - Atlanta temple experience when the Lord was black

Zion is possible within our ward families, but it is possible only when we see each other as beautiful caterpillars, first and foremost, and we love and serve each other no matter what, without exception. Each of us is loved by God right now, for who we are, not just for whom we may become. As we come to church, often carefully clothed and groomed and made-up in ways that mask our struggles and brokenness, may we see past those facades and love each other in that same way - for our humanity and not despite it. May we model among ourselves as a ward what marriage and family are meant to be ideally.

That is one way we can comfort those who stand in need of comfort rather than heaping more discomfort upon their heads. That is one way we can talk of marriage and family in a way that uplifts and heals rather than oppresses and hurts. That is the heart of the Gospel of Jesus, of Nazareth - true, deep, unconditional love, acceptance and service.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I Am Blessed

I have six months to get used to the idea of being married to a grandmother.

Life is good.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Humility: Every Person Is a Diary

Every man is a diary . . . he writes one story while intending to write another. His humblest moment is when he compares the two." - J. M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Seven Years of Daily Posts Has Come to an End

Since I started this blog in September 2007, I have written over 2200 posts. At first, I wrote fairly long posts every two-three days; for the last seven years, I have written shorter posts every weekday and longer posts many Saturdays.

I knew the time would come when I couldn't continue at that pace, and yesterday was the first weekday in over seven years when I didn't post something. I'm not sure right now how I will move forward with this blog, but I hope to be able at least to keep the schedule I used when I started of at least two posts each week.

I have enjoyed tremendously recording the things of my soul and will continue to do so. I have spent no effort trying to employ any sort of marketing strategies to maximize the traffic here, so I appreciate greatly those who have found this blog, commented on the posts and, in some cases, formally followed my thoughts here. Thank you, sincerely, for your thought and comments over the years. They have meant and continue to mean the world to me.

If my words have helped you in any way, I am humbled by that. All I ask in that case is that you share this site with others who also might be helped in some way. With well over 2000 posts, I think I have written about most topics someone would associate with Mormonism, specifically, and religion, generally.

It has been a joyous daily walk along my individual path of faith, and I have loved walking it with all of you.

See you sometime next week.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Understanding Anger against Mormon Missionaries

Wilfried Decoo is one of my favorite Mormon bloggers.  Some of the most profound posts I've read in my life about Mormon life come from him.  The following is profound, and the comment thread is very good, as well. 

"Understanding Anger against Mormon Missionaries" - Wilfried Decoo (Times & Seasons)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Personal Limitations: We Won't Be Stuck Like This Forever

One of the reasons I hold onto the concept of a redemption and the way it is framed in Mormonism is that there is a clear statement (at least to me) of bedrock faith that we will not be punished in any way for those things we don't choose - and that we won't be "stuck like this forever" when it comes to those things we don't like about ourselves. It's termed as not being punished for Adam's transgression in the 2nd Article of Faith - and I think it's instructive that it is the second one on the list - that it's right after the statement of belief in God and BEFORE the statement about the Atonement of Christ and obedience to laws and ordinances.

Think seriously about that, please. Our first few Articles of Faith are composed in the following order:

1) the existence of the Godhead;

2) no punishment for those things that simply are a part of mortality that aren't chosen by us and, therefore, aren't "sins";

3) atonement (by implication, for "sins") through obedience (by implication, to things we are capable of obeying).

That's a fascinating, compelling, wonderful arrangement.

I know it might not help much in the exact moment of greatest pain, but, at the very least, for me, it is an amazing concept - that ALL of those things we list as our natural obstacles in life will not be held against us in ANY way when all is said and done. When all is said and done, our efforts to change some of them will be rewarded, no matter the degree to which we are (or feel) "successful". I see that as the core of the "truth (that) shall make you free" - that we are loved for who we are and that we will be allowed to escape these mortal limitations - not just in the next life, but in this life (when talking about things we can change) and in the next life (when talking about things that really are beyond our control here in mortality).

To any who read this who are struggling to deal with a particular unchosen trial of mortality: 

God continue to bless you in your efforts, but, most of all, may you find peace in those efforts and an acceptance of yourself as you are - even as you strive to be more what you want to be. This is one case where I think the statement "well done, thou good and faithful servant" applies perfectly - when "enduring to the end" means something deep, wonderful and inspiring.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Using the Book of Mormon: Personal Soapbox Alert

Last Monday, I wrote a post about how we often misunderstand the Book of Mormon.  This post is a follow-up of that one.  

I have no problem with the statement that the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion. I just accept that characterization for a different reason than most people.   

When it was used as the keystone ("Here is Moroni's promise. Read this book from cover to cover with that promise in mind. Follow that promise. THEN, when you've done that, we'll start teaching doctrine."), missionary work flourished the most. When we started using it as a doctrinal proof-text and started focusing on teaching doctrine over converting spiritual experiences, missionary work flourished the least.

I know people who were converted to Mormonism through the Bible, and nearly every unique aspect of Mormon theology is grounded more in the Bible than in the Book of Mormon (which far too few members realize), but I know so many people whose subsequent reading of the Bible was influenced by what they read in the Book of Mormon - who "gained a testimony" of the Book of Mormon then had totally new insights as they read the Bible. After all, the Book of Mormon says in at least two places that it's primary intent is to convince people to believe the Bible - and, in my opinion, that means believing what the Bible actually teaches, not what centuries of theologians and religionists have said it teaches.

I believe the Book of Mormon does what it was intended to do very well, when used as it says it should be used - not for every single person, since nothing works for everyone, but generally. I think we as a people might understand that better if we actually used it "correctly" as a "correcting tool" - again, not with regard to doctrine but rather with regard to "spiritual orientation" or the opening of "spiritual eyes" to possibilities that have been hidden by centuries of denial.

To say it in a slightly different way:

In more than once passage, the Book of Mormon itself says that, ultimately, the Bible is more important than the Book of Mormon. I believe that message is loud and clear in the Book of Mormon - but it doesn't contradict the idea that the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion. The Book of Mormon can be the keystone while allowing the Bible to be the most important theological treatise (the record "held up" by the Book of Mormon) - which is how I would classify the two if I was trying to be concise. In other words, the Book of Mormon says as much about the worth of the Bible as it does about the role of Joseph Smith - although it does address that role, obviously.

The core intent of the Book of Mormon is to teach and testify of Jesus, the Christ. I don't think there is any reasonable dispute about that. However, I believe that this goal is accomplished differently than too many members realize.

The structure of the Book of Mormon (especially Moroni 10:3-5) is laid out in such a way that people who read it will believe that God can and will speak to them (let them know the truth of all things) - and that such a recognition will allow them then to read the Bible and understand and believe what it really says (primarily about God, their relationship to God and what the "power of godliness" really entails). In other words, the Book of Mormon allows people to read the Bible with "new spiritual eyes" through which the "mists of darkness" caused by centuries of Christian apologetics can be overcome and people can understand who they really are.

To say it differently, much of the grand theology of the Bible has crashed and burned since the Bible was written and canonized (and even before then). The "keystone" allows that theology to be rebuilt firmly; it "holds it together" not because of the words themselves contained in it but because of the process generated by the concept it teaches of a Father God who actually will communicate with his children and, subsequently, when re-reading the Bible, teach them of their "divine worth".

A core failure of our current approach at the local membership level, in my opinion, is both a lack of understanding of the Book of Mormon's role in that process (and what the Book of Mormon actually says) and a lack of understanding of the Bible and what it actually teaches. When we short-circuited and altered how we study, view and use the Book of Mormon, I believe we started losing the former respect for and understanding of the Bible that LDS members used to have.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ward Boundaries and Divorce: Irreconcilable Differences vs. Tolerance and Charity

I like the use of geographic boundaries to define wards and branches. I know there are issues in individual cases, and I know it causes grief sometimes, and I have NO problem whatsoever with people attending another ward, where geographically possible, in cases where real harm is occurring . . . but I really like that the default is geographic boundaries, rather than allowing people to congregation shop.

There is an element of learned tolerance and charity in having to try to worship with people who wouldn't normally be one's associates that I don't want to lose. I don't want us to adopt the individual salvation of much of the rest of Christianity; I want to maintain the principle that Zion is the goal and that "atonement" is a communal process. Those things are jeopardized when people can change congregations for any reason whatsoever - like "irreconcilable differences" now means almost nothing in divorces. Divorces should occur when there truly are irreconcilable differences, so I'm fine with people changing wards and branches in truly exceptional circumstances, but I want it to happen only in those exceptional circumstances where there really are irreconcilable differences no matter how hard the person tries to make it work. In other words, I don't want "common problems" to morph into "irreconcilable differences" - and I am positive that would happen without the geographic boundary default.

As a rule, I don't like making policies (in anything, not just the Church) based on exceptions. I like allowing exceptions in exceptional situations, not changing the default based on exceptional situations.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Seeing People as "Too" Something

“Sometimes we have what I call the Too Syndrome. We feel that there are some people we can’t really extend full acceptance to because they are too something--too old, too young, too liberal, too conservative, too rich, too poor, too educated, too uneducated, too rigid in religious observances, too lax. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, if the traveler who fell among thieves was like other Jews of his time, he felt that Samaritans were too ethnically impure to worship in the temple; I don’t think he felt that the wine and the oil poured on his wounds were too Samaritan, do you?” 

Chieko Okazaki, "Aloha," p. 98-99  

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Baptizing the Developmentally Disabled

1) If someone is aware enough to want to be baptized without any pressure or coaching from others, and if there are no "worthiness" issues that would prohibit it, I have no problem whatsoever with that person being baptized.

2) We teach that up until baptism at the age of eight, the kids who are baptized haven't been accountable up to that point - at least not in the same sense as converts who are baptized. Thus, really, what's the difference between the standard eight-year-old baptism and baptism for someone who isn't accountable after being baptized?

3) We teach of the need to avoid being baptized "unworthily" - and it's hard to say someone who is not accountable is "unworthy", in the classic, traditional sense of how that word is used.

4) Baptism, the Priesthood, temple attendance and marriage are very different things, and I don't want to deny one simply out of concern about the others.

5) I understand, however, the concern that baptizing those who are not considered to be accountable could perpetuate the idea that they need to be baptized and, eventually, that they (and, by extension) all people actually are accountable from birth, no matter their capability to understand. I also understand that if one such person is baptized, others who have loved ones in similar situations might feel like those loved ones also should be baptized. Therefore, I understand the desire to maintain a bright line with those who are believed not to be accountable. It can be a can of worms that isn't worth opening.


I would have no problem baptizing someone who wants to be baptized - and if someone understands enough to feel like he isn't a "real member", I think he understands enough to be baptized. However, I personally would do it as a clear exception to the general rule - and, if I were the Bishop, I probably would announce the baptism much like if it were a convert baptism and say something very direct, like:

Billy has come to me and asked to be baptized. After talking with and interviewing him, I believe he understands the purpose of baptism well enough and is fully worthy to be baptized. Therefore, his baptism will occur at such a time.

However, having said that, I would support a Bishop completely and without hesitation who felt like he couldn't make an exception - even though I believe exceptions often are what give real meaning to the rules. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

I Wish We Understood the Book of Mormon Better

A church member said the following a while ago, and my response is below what he said: 

The Book of Mormon claims to be the word of God - every sentence, every verse, every page.

No, it doesn't make that claim - and, in fact, it says exactly the opposite. 

It claims to be a tiny abridgment complied exclusively by four people (Ether, Nephi, Mormon and Moroni) from a massive collection of various records written by mortal, imperfect people - with mistakes and "deletions" admitted openly and directly throughout the text. ("What I've chosen to include is not even a hundredth of what I could have chosen," means lots of stuff was deleted from the other records, if you will, in the writing of the summary.) It's not the Mormon version of the inerrant Bible - even though that's how many members view it.

This is a great example of what I've said for many years - that the biggest problem in the LDS Church right now with regard to the Book of Mormon is that many members (including many leaders at all levels) don't understand what the Book of Mormon itself actually says in a lot of cases. (I'm not saying I do totally, but I've spent lots of time and effort trying to parse and understand it - and it simply doesn't say or teach LOTS of things many members think it does.)

So, at the most fundamental level, I'm much more concerned about the church membership understanding what the Book of Mormon actually says than about exactly how individual members view it.  I believe it is the word of God; I just don't believe that means it is the inerrant (mistake-free) word of God, straight from his mouth to prophets to the page.  That isn't what it claims within its pages. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Idealistic Realism / Realistic Idealism: Striving for a Healthy Balance

Today is my birthday, and, as I contemplated what I wanted to share, I decided to write very briefly about the perspective I try to cultivate to direct how I interact with other people.  

I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and trust them until they show me they are not trustworthy – and I’m not sure whether that primarily is because of my religion or simply my personality, inherited particularly from my mother (who is schizophrenic and, along with medication, needs peace and a lack of stress in her life to function properly). She was trusting and non-judgmental out of physiological necessity, and that probably rubbed off on me to some degree.

I have come to believe that a generally trusting nature is more healthy than a suspicious, cynical nature – even with the dangers of being too trusting. It’s finding the proper balance of idealistic realism or realistic idealism that is my focus – and that is not an easy journey. It takes conscious effort to avoid being too much of many things, since it’s so easy to gravitate to an extreme.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Appreciating Differing Scriptural Interpretations: The Power of Likening

I've shared how I like to view various scriptural stories and texts a little differently than the traditional interpretations we hear regularly and had people complain that some of those views seem to be at odds with the intent of the original writers.  I simply respond that I have no problem with people seeing those stories and texts differently than I do, and I have no problem seeing them differently, perhaps, than the original authors did - since my views work for me and others' views work for them. 

When we collectively "liken all things unto ourselves", we are bound to end up with differing individual likenings - since those doing the likening are different than each other.  We are not likening ourselves to a story or text; we are likening the story or text to ourselves. 

I appreciate that distinction and the breadth of possibility it provides for people to understand God and scriptures in ways that make sense to, resonate with and empower themselves.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Being Farther Along than the Church - and the Nature of Proper Pruning

"Farther along than the church" - Steve Evans (By Common Consent)

 Normally, I would link to a past post from someone else on a Tuesday or Thursday, but I want to do so now in order to give the proper foundation to a couple of comments I made about the nature of pruning in an organizational setting.  This post is focused on those comments, but I wanted to provide a link to the post that prompted for my comments below.  I want, especially to highlight two things from those comments, so I will bold those things. 

I think of the allegory of the olive vineyard in Jacob 5 and the idea that there will be bitter fruit that will need to be pruned right up to the very end – and I see that bitter fruit as corruptions or lack of pure knowledge that causes beliefs in the Church that don’t match what God would grow if he micromanaged everything solely to preserve pure, eternal doctrine. In other words, I see corrupted understanding existing naturally as a result of the human nature of the membership (including myself) – and the need to prune imperfect understanding according to the strength of the root, even if that means experiencing long-suffering as a result of recognizing some bitter fruit and not being able to remove it completely through radical surgery.

The issue for me, personally, is trying to make sure I am attempting to prune along with the Master of the Vineyard as he works incrementally and cautiously – even if I personally think a more vigorous pruning wouldn’t kill the tree. If I’m going to make a mistake, I think it ought to be on the side of the type of patience Jacob 5 describes as being the Master’s focus.  

Btw, fwiw, Elder Oaks’ talk [April 2014 General Conference] is a major move forward – although it stops short of what many people would like. It took me four weeks in the youth Sunday School class I teach to go through it this month (since the topic this month is the Priesthood), averaging only six paragraphs per lesson. I am MUCH more concerned about so many members not understanding and accepting what is said in that talk than about any perceived lessening of fathers and husbands.
I also see intense irony in not accepting what Elder Oaks said in that talk (or what is said in the Proclamation) and clinging to former understanding and then criticizing someone else for wanting more than what Elder Oaks and/or the Proclamation was able to give. One wants less; one wants more. Both are natural and unavoidable for anyone who does not give up all agency and will and thoughtful consideration and personal accountability. When one side says, “You are rejecting the words of the prophets and apostles,” while simultaneously dismissing, diminishing or not accepting different words of those same prophets and apostles . . .

Perhaps, in some ways, relative to some issues, all of us are both behind and ahead of “the church”. Perhaps, part of the pruning is allowing ourselves to be pruned and not insisting on being only a pruner – and performing the pruning we feel we must do with the same approach we hope is used in pruning us.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I Would Rather Feed Nine People Who Need No Help than Make One Needy Person Go Hungry

But I say to you, deal justly, act mercifully and eschew evil. Do good to all men. We say sometimes, "I will not do any favor for that man, he is unworthy of assistance." I will give you a piece of counsel. Do good to all. It is better to feed nine unworthy persons than to let one worthy person—the tenth, go hungry. Follow this rule and you will be apt to be found on the right side of doing good.

Suppose we look around here. How many of you sisters have donated fifty cents to help gather the poor this season? Don't say you have no money. Have you not had fifty cents to buy a ribbon? How about that ten dollars to buy hair from somebody else's head when you have plenty on your own? Take the brethren, too, who wear needless clothing, smoke cigars, etc. Take all the money that is spent for tea and coffee and squandered in waste and how much could we get?

Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 16:40

Monday, September 21, 2015

"True" Can Be Defined in Multiple Ways

"True" can be defined in lots of ways.


— n
1. the quality of being true, genuine, actual, or factual: the truth of his statement was attested
2. something that is true as opposed to false: you did not tell me the truth
3. a proven or verified principle or statement; fact: the truths of astronomy
4. ( usually plural ) a system of concepts purporting to represent some aspect of the world: the truths of ancient religions
5. fidelity to a required standard or law
6. faithful reproduction or portrayal: the truth of a portrait
7. an obvious fact; truism; platitude
8. honesty, reliability, or veracity: the truth of her nature
9. accuracy, as in the setting, adjustment, or position of something, such as a mechanical instrument
10. the state or quality of being faithful; allegiance


fact, veracity, sincerity, candor, frankness, precision, exactness.

In the first chapter of the Book of Mormon, Nephi defined true as being consistent with personal experience. 

I like the definition that means "pointed in the right direction" - as with "true north". 

In a fireside at BYU in November 2009, President Uchtdorf said:

Because we see imperfectly in mortality, not everything is going to make sense right now. … It’s true that ‘faith is not … a perfect knowledge’ (Alma 32:21), but as you exercise your faith, applying gospel principles every day under any circumstances, you will taste the sweet fruits of the gospel, and by this fruit you will know of its truth.  (“The Reflection in the Water”)

 In this quote, he used "truth" in reference to "the gospel" - so he wasn't even talking about "the Church" in that passage. That is a critical distinction to make when evaluating his talk and asking what he meant. "The Gospel" is defined properly, in my opinion, quite narrowly as one of two things:

1) the principles and/or commandments that Jesus taught;

2) faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost and enduring to the end.

About the only way that "truth" can apply within that context is if it is focused on the eventual outcomes being what are claimed. There is no way to try to define it as anything related to "accurate in a quantifiable way" with that usage - and faith is all we have in that regard, since even Jesus promised trial and pain to those who followed him most closely. Thus, Elder Uchtdorf was 100% correct. The only way to "know" is through faith (and it requires faith to even believe that knowledge might be possible eventually).

Friday, September 18, 2015

Extremism Is Not Modesty - and Extremism Hinders Perfection

A friend once asked me why women's clothes are more revealing than men's - in the context of a conversation about modesty and how it is taught in the LDS Church.

It's an interesting question, and I think it's an important one to ask as a launching pad for any discussion about dress standards and why they tend to fall more heavily on women than on men.  The following response is nowhere close to exhaustive, and it is a bit generalized, but I want to include it in this post to make a broader, more important point about modesty and how we talk about it - and ought to talk about it differently - in the Church:

It's evolutionary (a survival of the fittest instinct to attract men and ensure protection), cultural (look at the fashion and celebrity industries, where "innovation" and "attention" are paramount), biological (there is a physiological difference between women's breasts and men's chests), power-political (most communal leaders throughout history have been men, and they think more about women's bodies than about men's bodies), etc.  It's a complex, fully human issue, and it is influenced by just about every aspect of communal life. 

It's not a simple issue that can be fixed easily, but I like the concept of leadership teaching the correct principle, without specifics (modesty meaning moderation in all things, not just those related to sex and how we clothe our bodies), and governing ourselves. In that way, this topic is no different than tithing (individuals determine how to pay, based on a general principle), Word of Wisdom (individuals determine how to be spiritually and physically healthy without unnecessary addiction), church attendance (individuals determine how much time they can spend in church-related meetings while maintaining a proper balance with family, job, community, personal health, etc.), and on and on.

True modesty allows us to do and be more than we can at any extreme - and that's interesting to consider when our ultimate goal is to be "perfect" - meaning "complete, whole, fully developed". Extremism inhibits that type of perfection, while modesty allows it.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

If We Could Look into Each Other's Hearts

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.  

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. Be fair with your competitors, whether in business, athletics, or elsewhere. Don’t get drawn into some of the parlance of our day and try to “win” by intimidation or by undermining someone’s character. Lend a hand to those who are frightened, lonely, or burdened. 

It seems interesting that the first principles the Lord Jesus Christ chose to teach His newly called Apostles were those that center around the way we treat each other. And then, what did He emphasize during the brief period He spent with the Nephites on this continent? Basically the same message. Could this be because the way we treat each other is the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

During an informal fireside address held with a group of adult Latter-day Saints, the leader directing the discussion invited participation by asking the question: “How can you tell if someone is converted to Jesus Christ?” For forty-five minutes those in attendance made numerous suggestions in response to this question, and the leader carefully wrote down each answer on a large blackboard. All of the comments were thoughtful and appropriate. But after a time, this great teacher erased everything he had written. Then, acknowledging that all of the comments had been worthwhile and appreciated, he taught a vital principle: “The best and most clear indicator that we are progressing spiritually and coming unto Christ is the way we treat other people.”

Would you consider this idea for a moment—that the way we treat the members of our families, our friends, those with whom we work each day is as important as are some of the more noticeable gospel principles we sometimes emphasize. 

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

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

There is Much Truth Outside of Mormonism, and We Can and Should Learn from It

We have multiple statements from prophets, from Joseph Smith to Gordon B. Hinckley, that say explicitly and implicitly that Mormonism embraces truth no matter its source - and that God can and does communicate with all of his children who will listen, in their own language and according to their understanding.

Collectively, we don't live up to that in the LDS Church, but it's there in our theology in spades.  We can and should "seek after these things" - and we should be open to finding it in and adopting it from other religious and faith traditions. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Honoring the Faith(s) of Our Non-Mormon Ancestors

Pres. Uchtdorf gave a talk in the April 2008 General Conference called "Faith of Our Father". In it he said:

When my own family contemplates the phrase “faith of our fathers,” often it is the Lutheran faith that comes to mind. For generations our ancestors belonged to that denomination. In fact, my son recently discovered that one of our family lines connects back to Martin Luther himself.

We honor and respect sincere souls from all religions, no matter where or when they lived, who have loved God, even without having the fulness of the gospel. We lift our voices in gratitude for their selflessness and courage. We embrace them as brothers and sisters, children of our Heavenly Father.

We believe that it is a fundamental human right to worship “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.”


As the restored Church of Jesus Christ blossoms throughout the globe—now with more than 13 million members—“the faith of our fathers” has an expanded meaning. For some, it could refer to their family’s heritage in one of the hundreds of Christian faiths; for others, it could refer to Middle-Eastern, Asian, or African faiths and traditions.

I know the rest of that talk was a pretty standard interpretation of the Restored Gospel, but I really love the quotes above. Notice how Pres. Uchtdorf said "faiths and traditions" - not just "religions". We really should honor "sincere souls from all religions" - and I would add, "sincere souls who profess no religion".

Monday, September 14, 2015

Book of Mormon Criticism: Anachronisms Aren't an Issue for Me

As a former history teacher, and out of personal curiosity, I've read a lot criticisms of written claims that have been dismissed by later discoveries. The criticisms made sense in their time, but they faded into irrelevance in the light of future knowledge.  It really is incredible how common such misguided criticisms have been and still are.

That doesn't prove anything one way or another with regard to the Book of Mormon and people's criticisms of it over time, but it is fascinating how many claims of anachronisms in that book have dropped away in light of later discoveries. The best example probably is the elephant reference, since it occurs only in the Book of Ether, the most ancient record in the book (and we have no clue what time period that covers, really) - and since there are American Indian references to elephant-like creatures that would fit the general time frame.

Language (specific vocabulary words) is another non-starter for me, since "translations" always depend on the vocabulary of the translator and, almost always, include approximations for words that don't translate perfectly. (The existence of non-English, non-translated words in the Book of Mormon actually is a good argument for a "translation process" of some kind.) Although it often is a criticism, the use of "adieu" is a perfect example of vocabulary precision in the Book of Mormon, since the root meaning of that word fits perfectly (and I mean perfectly) the context of the passage - far better than any single English word would. I came to that conclusion on my own, because I wanted to see why in the world Joseph would have used that word - or, from a traditional perspective, why that word would have appeared to him. I looked it up in a dictionary, saw the original, complex meaning, saw where it was used and, just as importantly, where it was not used, and realized it was the perfect choice for the context.

There are legitimate concerns about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, including the way that King James Bible passages and phrases occur in it, but I've yet to see a historical anachronism that I believe is a serious threat.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Zion, in a Nutshell

Zion is its own reward - one we give ourselves, collectively, if we are willing to build it.

The core principles of the Gospel (love, faith, repentance) are the building instructions.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Analyzing Scriptures: Genesis 3:12 - Adam Did Not Blame Eve

There is frequent debate and disagreement about exactly what transpired in the Garden of Eden relative to the partaking of the forbidden fruit.  There are those who interpret the entire account allegorically – who come up with widely varying ways to liken it unto themselves.  However, even among those who read it literally, there are widely differing ways that the actions and statements are perceived.

One of the most often discussed verses, with the most wildly divergent perspectives, is Genesis 3:12, where Adam is quoted as saying:
The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.
One common interpretation of this verse it to criticize Adam for passing the buck – for blaming the woman (and, by some interpretations, even God) for his actions.  However, when the words themselves are parsed strictly for what they actually say (especially when the PofGP version is considered), I believe a very different message and statement appears.

“The woman whom thou gavest [me]”

It is apparent in this phrase that Adam was referencing how he came to be with Eve – that they were together because God made it happen.

“to be with me [and commanded that she should remain with me]”

It is apparent in this phrase that Adam was referencing what God had told him about Eve – that they were commanded to stay together.  It also is worth noting that this commandment was given before the commandment to not partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – meaning that the command to remain together appears to have been viewed by Adam as the “first and great commandment” he had been given by the Lord.

"she gave me of the tree"

In this phrase, Adam simply explains very succinctly and accurately what had happened, and it is important to point out that there are no disclaimers that would add any blame or recrimination or anger or any other emotion.  As actually worded, this phrase is as dispassionate as it is possible to be.

"and I did eat."

This phrase, like the previous one, is a dispassionate statement of what happened, and it also can be viewed as a summation.  It is the conclusion of a simple and straightforward “this, therefore” juxtaposition.  The only question is if there is some contextual meaning hidden within the words – and I find no reason to believe there is such hidden meaning.

Therefore, I believe the straightforward meaning of this verse, strictly parsed into modern terms, would be something like:
“You made this woman and commanded that she should remain with me.  Therefore, when she gave me the fruit to eat, and I realized we would be separated as a result, I ate it also in order to remain with her.”
Personally, to add a bit of the background story, I would fill it out thus – knowing that it is going beyond simple parsing, but confident that it is not wildly speculative or off-the-wall:

“You made this woman and commanded that she should remain with me.  That was the first and greatest commandment you gave me.  Therefore, when she gave me the fruit to eat, and I realized we would be separated as a result, I ate it also in order to remain with her – and fulfill the first and highest law you gave me.  I had a choice to stay with you alone or be with her outside your presence, and I chose to remain with her rather than to remain alone with you.

I have read quite a few varying interpretations of this verse, but each of them requires that the interpreter make some core assumptions about the relationship between Adam and Eve – and, in almost all cases, those assumptions are a direct reflection of either our modern conception of relationships, an obvious argument for a particular politics- or gender-specific issue or a view that simply is not supported by the text itself.  As someone who sees the story figuratively rather than literally, I understand differing interpretations, but the one I have outlined is the only one that makes sense to me – given the totality of the account and the initial command to “cleave unto her and none else”.

Consider carefully the following point: “None else” includes the Lord, Himself – so, in a very real way, Adam was making the choice we teach that all will have to make in the eternities (to “leave home” and the presence of the Father and Son and embark on our own eternal journey as a united couple – “God” to our own spirit children).  Thus, I see figurative meaning in the Garden for both our mortal and immortal existences – and I see Adam’s statement in Genesis 3:12 as his straightforward explanation of his choice to accept the Father’s plan.  (I also see Eve’s partaking as a similar manifestation of her acceptance, but the difference between the two is a topic for another post.)