Friday, January 30, 2015

"Many Questions Must Await a Future Answer": The Case of Homosexuality

I don't believe that all people who end up in homosexual relationships are hard-wired biologically for that. I understand enough about the research on human sexuality and know too many homosexuals who had traumatic experiences that influenced greatly their choices and/or actions to believe sexual orientation is predestined at birth for all. Boys who are sexually abused in their childhood by a male are more likely to be abusers of other boys when they are adults; women who are abused by men are more likely to turn to other women for comfort, support and sexual fulfillment; etc. I understand those "environmental" forces and their effects on sexuality.

However, I also know WAY too many homosexual people who lived completely normal lives without any trauma, "indoctrination" (which I really don't like using regarding a topic like this, since it's a standard charge that means, in practical terms, "teaching something to children that I don't believe") or other environmental influences. I've known too many people who have known only sexual attraction to those of the same sex from the days of their earliest awareness of sexual attraction - and many who have tried to change that aspect of themselves without any success whatsoever. For them, like for me, trying to change their sexual attraction from one sex to another is useless; it simply can't be done.

Thus, I believe the following statements in the Church's latest pamphlet about same-sex attraction ("God Loveth His Children":

Many questions, however, including some related to same-gender attractions, must await a future answer, even in the next life.

However, the perfect plan of our Father in Heaven makes provision for individuals who seek to keep His commandments but who, through no fault of their own, do not have an eternal marriage in mortal life
Same-gender attractions include deep emotional, social, and physical feelings.

It also is interesting that the pamphlet does not use the word "repent" or "sin" once when dealing with homosexual attraction. Rather, it talks about such attraction often lasting throughout one's entire life and speaks of "self-mastery" - not "change". That is a critical word choice.  It is obvious that the Church no longer views homosexual attraction itself as sin, which translates into the belief that homosexual attraction is not a conscious choice in many cases.

All other issues aside, I believe that foundational understanding is key. Yes, there are environmental forces at work in many cases, but there are genetic forces at work in many others. I have come to this understanding partly through the research, but a more important part of my understanding was gained by talking openly and deeply with those about whom this post is addressed - and the ultimate realization came from multiple people who asked me, point-blank, if I could change my own sexual orientation if I tried hard enough - if I "only had more faith". I couldn't, and the very assertion that I should evokes a powerful oppositional reaction within me. In that sense, I "get it" - and I understand why many people hear someone say that they weren't "born that way" and feel like such statements are a direct attack on them and their honesty and sincerity. It is very much like saying, "That's not true. You are lying - or deceived." They aren't lying, and they aren't deceived. They simply are being honest about what they feel and, in many cases, always have felt.

So, for me, the "solution" to this type of discussion is to recognize the truth of the Church's first statement I excerpted and posted above:

Many questions, however, including some related to same-gender attractions, must await a future answer, even in the next life.

I'm fine with doing my best to understand what I can in this life while admitting openly that many questions must await future answers. 

Having said all of that, I also need to make it clear that there are parts of the pamphlet I have excerpted and parts of the general view of homosexuality within the LDS Church with which I do not agree.  I also need to make it clear that we do NOT need to await further light and knowledge regarding this topic only "in the next life" - that we are learning much in this life and must be open to continuing that learning, both religiously AND scientifically. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Lehi & Nephi: The Power of Scriptural Stories Gets Lost if We View Prophets as Objective Historians

I believe the power of the stories in our scriptures gets lost when family dynamics and other practical, real-life factors are ignored - when "the prophets" are viewed as next to perfect and their narratives are viewed as objective history. I understand that considering these things often moves the reader into a realm of speculation, to varying degrees, but I believe it is important to accept the need to speculate a bit when reading such stories. 

For example, I believe any effort to understand Nephi's narrative in the Book of Mormon as fully as possible must include consideration of Lehi's vision and his sudden conversion at the beginning of the Book of Mormon - and I believe understanding that vision and conversion more fully must include an attempt to consider multiple possibilities for Lehi's life prior to that vision and conversion, since his prior life had to have influenced the family dynamic and Nephi's subsequent narrative.

There is NO indication Lehi was a religious man before his vision - and there is evidence that he was an absentee father, to some degree, during Laman and Lemuel's early years. I read Nephi's family narrative as similar to the one involving Israel and his son, Joseph - the favored younger son and the anger of the older brothers, right down to "birthright / ruler" issues.

In other words, I see a very complicated, very dysfunctional situation.

In this post, I am going to focus on only one aspect of that dysfunctionality - the possibility that Lehi was an absentee father, to some degree, and the impact that simple fact might have had on the narrative we have.  

1) Lehi had the ability to pack his entire family and leave at a moment's notice - for an extended journey.  That would not have been common if he had been a "city dweller" (thus, "at" Jerusalem and not "in" Jerusalem).  Such readiness implies a background of ready mobility, which, in that time, likely means an occupation that required regular travel. 

2) Lehi followed a route through a forbidding, dangerous, nearly barren area that, despite hardship along the way, ended at a habitable area.  It might have been accidental or revealed divinely, but it also might have been due at least partly to previous travel through some of that area and/or areas like it. 

3) Lehi obviously was a wealthy man, based on Nephi's description of their attempts to get the plates.  I like Nibley's suggestion that the most likely occupation was merchant trader, and that he probably traveled to Egypt as part of that trade.  It would explain a lot of other things in the narrative, especially his understanding of written Egyptian.  It also would make him, of necessity, an absentee father, to some degree, especially in the earliest years of Laman's and Lemuel's childhood. 

4) Lehi appears to have favored Nephi more than Laman and Lemuel.  That could have been for any number of reasons, but the most likely are:

a) He had more than one wife in this lifetime (two, for sake of ease in discussion), and Nephi (and possibly Sam) were from his second wife.

There is nothing whatsoever in the record to tell us Sariah's genetic heritage.  That isn't a surprise, necessarily, given the male-centric nature of most record keeping back then - but the lack leaves interesting doors open. Lehi wasn't Jewish, and, based on his lack of knowledge of his own ancestry (finding out only by reading the plates), he wasn't a religious man in the traditional, orthodox sense of the time.  Being a man who was open to visions doesn't mean he was a religiously devoted or "actively religious" man.  There is no way to know with certainty about his background prior to his vision, which opens all kinds of possibilities outside the social, insider norm.  His married life easily could have been a bit complicated and/or unorthodox, as well. 

b) He was entering a retirement or management stage in his life a few years prior to his vision (which would make sense, psychologically, since extra time for contemplation could lead to such an experience).  If Nephi had been born as or after Lehi was entering that retirement or management stage in his life, Lehi would have doted on Nephi more than the older children who were establishing their own lives as emerging adults.  That would be doubly true if Nephi was the only son of the new wife of a wealthy, older man.

c) It also appears that Nephi's personality was much closer to Lehi's personality at the time of the vision than was true of Laman and Lemuel - and, being even more speculative, I think Laman and Lemuel might have been closer to how Lehi used to be prior to his vision.  They appear to have been more focused on wealth and the lure of the city, probably having begun to establish their own ties and their own future careers - perhaps in their father's business and perhaps as sons of luxury.  If they had been helping run the family business while their father was traveling . . . and if they were concerned about losing position and possible inherited wealth as their younger brother got more and more attention from their father . . . and if their father suddenly announced he was abandoning his (their future) business and wealth . . . and if their father asked them to abandon what they had been building for themselves to join him in the wilderness. . . and if their younger brother positioned himself as their father's confidant against them . . . and if their younger brother gave away their wealth for a history book (meaning they couldn't go back at any point and reclaim it when their father's foolish impulse ran its course) and then killed a prominent man to get that same history book (meaning they couldn't return even without their former wealth) . . .

All of that leads me to believe Lehi might have been an absentee father to some degree in his life. 

I don't know if what I just described is accurate, but I think it would explain a LOT about the narrative and how it unfolds - and I think it is a good foundation for charity in the way Laman and Lemuel are viewed.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Depression: A Personal Explanation from One Who Suffers

I have a friend who has struggled with depression for many years.  We were talking about the effects of depression on many members for whom it (and other similar issues) are difficult to control.  He shared the following and gave me permission to share it here.  (the bolding is mine; the underlining his)  I hope it helps someone, somehow, in some way: 

One of the issues that I think can stand some scrutiny is the issue of what happens to worldview with a mental illness. All my life I was taught "The light of Christ is given to all men so they can know good from evil. If you do what's right, you will be blessed (always with the caveat that it may be in the next life that you are blessed, leaving you holding the bag in this life)." This is a great principle. It sounds like a law of physics or a mathematical equation - when you do x, y will happen. You pray, you get a feeling someone is listening. You serve others, you get a warm fuzzy feeling inside. So what happens when it doesn't work for you? Did I just fall out of the human race/all men category?

We like rules to be comprehensive and without exception so we can count on them. Without rules that follow accepted patterns, the apple cart is upended and the whole world around you goes into flux. "I don't know what I can count on anymore when life itself seems to change on a daily basis." This way of thinking could end tomorrow, or it could go on for decades or until the end of my life. It is a shame that we mentally ill folk are so complicated ("Doc, what do I do?" "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning." "Bishop, I don't feel things anymore. How do I feel the spirit?" "Just pray, and it will come to you.") The 2 + 2 equation breaks down like light around the event horizon of a black hole (perhaps a more apt analogy than I intended!) Thus, it is not unreasonable to conclude that for some members or non-, just doing the "prescribed" church standard answers will not necessarily result in an invariably positive result. Ergo: faith crisis that may or may not have a resolution subject to missionary discussion-level prescriptions for "finding the truth."
I am not looking for anyone to diagnose or try to treat me or my issues. I have shared what I have shared simply to put forth the idea for discussion that there are people in the faith community of the LDS Church for whom the normal rules do not appear (I chose that word carefully) to work the same as they do for many others, or even themselves earlier in their lives. This is not a necessary consequence resulting from sin, lack of faith, apostasy, or not "doing the right things." I invite you to comment on this as you see fit.

If I could speak for others who may feel like me, I would want to say "we just want to know that we are not excluded (by biology, by genetics, by disease, by spiritual state, by nature) from what other faith-holding saints are able to feel and recall on a daily basis that guides them on their walk through life." But I have to admit, I do feel like God has made an exception for us and struggle to believe that what happens in my life and my heart are evidence of a "loving" Father in Heaven.

It is possible to feel alone standing in a room crowded with people - depending on if you feel excluded (not even necessarily by them but from them). It is extremely difficult when you feel the same way about God.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"I know tenderness and I know its opposite, and I know tenderness is better."

Cherish One Another - Cathy Stokes (The Mormon Women Project)

This interview with Sister Stokes is incredible. 

Blessed, honored (modern day) pioneer, indeed. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Of Parenthood and Pedestals

Part of being a parent (except for the really bad ones) is being put on a pedestal. Part of being a parent (even for the really good ones) is being taken off that pedestal to some degree. Part of being a good parent is allowing yourself to be knocked off the pedestal and actually encouraging children to be able to think about and see things differently than you do.

I've tried to do that with my kids from a pretty early age. I've shared different perspectives with them, and I've talked openly about how I like and respect many different views and beliefs. I've told them that I want them to study in college whatever they want to study - and I've told them it's fine to change their mind. I've told them what I think when they've asked, but I try to follow that up with, "What do you think?" (or, ideally, that process in reverse, asking them first what they think - then validating their opinion - then offering my own - then reiterating that I just want them to figure out what they believe) I've shown them that I can support and sustain church leaders even when I disagree with them - and that I can do so at all levels of leadership.

Joseph Smith once said:

Many persons think a prophet must be a great deal better than anybody else . . . I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm yet deals justice to his neighbors and mercifully deals his substance to the poor, than the long, smooth-faced hypocrite . . . I do not want you to think that I am righteous, for I am not . . . I am like a huge, rough stone rolling . . . History of the Church, v5 p401

I like admiration, respect and deference; I don't like pedestals - at least not for myself and fellow humans. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Did 1/3 of God's Children Reject His Plan? Implications for Eternity

I have addressed that question in a previous post, but I want to expand just a little on it in this one. 

No, I believe it is not an exact, numerical percent.  Three was a powerful number in that society, and 1/3 is the equivalent of saying "the minority" (or "a smaller part"), while 2/3 is the equivalent of saying "the majority" (or "the larger part").  So, I take it to mean that some people reject God, but most follow God - when faced with a choice between good and evil.

I think that fits our theology very well, and it also informs how I view the three degrees of glory.  Many members assume that only a relatively few select, righteous people will inherit the Celestial Kingdom, with most ending up in the Terrestrial Kingdom and a large number being in the Telestial Kingdom (and a very small number being cast out into Outer Darkness as Sons of Perdition).  I look at it quite differently.  I believe the majority / the larger part / two-thirds will accept God and his plan in the end and wind up in the Celestial Kingdom, and I lean toward a very large majority as the final figure.  I see our kingdom theology as symbolic of stages of progression rather than merely final, ultimate destinations - so, while I do believe that some people will not progress to the ultimate desired end, I believe God's long-suffering charity allows for a much more extended growth period than we tend to envision in the limitations of mortality. 

So, in the end, like our pre-mortal experience, I believe the large majority will "keep their second estate" and have glory added forever and ever while a small minority will not. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Teaching Youth the Word of Wisdom When They Have Heard about It for Years

I have been asked on more than one occasion about how I teach the Word of Wisdom to youth in the Church who have had lessons about the Word of Wisdom for years - about how to make it new, fresh or enlightening in any way. 

I teach it in that situation by focusing on two things:

1) The first few verses about "why" - that it was given in warning of addiction peddling in the future. I mention lots of other things that now are addictive and ought to receive the same scrutiny - and let them come up with a list, since that makes it personal for them and allows me to distinguish for them the difference between addictions and occasional actions.

2) The "what" - and I do that by talking about how dietary and health codes have changed over time, from the ancient Hebrew / Jewish code to what Jesus followed (differently than John, the Baptist, for example) to what we had with D&C 89 when it was counsel to what we have now (when addiction peddlers are running rampant) as a standard for temple attendance. 

How would you respond to such a question? 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why I Believe DNA and the Book of Mormon Is a Non-Issue

I think the Book of Mormon DNA issue is very easy to reconcile intellectually, IF the only conclusions are drawn from the actual book itself and not from what members (including leaders) assumed for a long time that it says. I'll try to be concise, but here is the way I read the book itself, relative to DNA:

Three groups are detailed, to some degree, in the book. In order of longevity and size:

1) The Jaredites - This group is described as being large at the beginning of their migration - mulitple familes, perhaps an entire "tribe". If we assume the standard Old Testament chronology, which I don't assume to be accurate but can use for this purpose, they left their home probably no later than 3,000 BC - which means they were in the "promised land" for roughly 3,000 years when the other two groups arrived. The Book of Ether is quite clear that it covers ONLY the people who remained at or near the government center - and basic population demographics pretty much guarantee that they would have spread widely across whatever land they inhabited. Thus the total annihilation described at the end of the Book of Ether logically could have been only the people who lived close enough to be gathered, leaving many people still spread out elsewhere - and the area they inhabited easily could have been massive.

In looking at the society described, as a former History Teacher, I would place their origin in the Northeast Asian steppe region, meaning their DNA would be consistent with the current research. Thus, it is very plausible that they would be the "principal (largest and/or original) ancestors" of the Native American Indians - that the primary DNA still extent 2,000 years after the destruction of their government would be Asian.

2) The people of Mulek - This group was relatively small and occupied a very limited area (one city and perhaps its surrounding area) when discovered by 3) the Nephites. As small as they were, they were "more numerous" than the Nephites - the smallest group. Interestingly, both groups combined were FAR smaller than the Lamanites, which only makes sense if the Lamanites had combined with a more numerous, indigenous people - and if that indigenous people were of Asian descent (some of the non-killed Jaredites), it would explain perfectly the "apostate" designation and dark skin stigma attached by the Nephites to the Lamanites.

The population and distance clues in the book itself are convincing to me of a limited geography model - and I reached that conclusion on my own long before I read any modern arguments for them (and long before I read any DNA research showing Asian origins for the Native American peoples). Thus, I see a very limited geography and a relatively small population of Nephites (just over a couple of million, tops, and perhaps significantly less) destroyed, while a much larger population dominated genetically by "Asians" continued to spread widely (perhaps even inter-continentally) for a total of at least 5,000 years.

That's what I see when I read the book itself and focus only on what I think it actually says. That means two very simple things to me:

1) The latest DNA research doesn't invalidate the claims of the actual book about origins.

2) The latest research shows that the assumptions about the overall demographics in the book (particularly what "principal ancestors" meant) held by the people who believed in the book (the early Mormons, including Joseph Smith and other leaders) were wrong.  

I'm OK with the second conclusion.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Few Things "I am" Relative to the LDS Church

I am the controlling agent in my relationship with the LDS Church, so I am able to get the good out of it without being subject to the cultural bad (or most of it).

I am an "agent unto myself", as the Book of Mormon says I am supposed to be.

I act and don't allow myself (usually) to be acted upon.

I am the subject in the relationship, not the object.

I don't belong to the Church; it belongs to me; it is mine.

I am Mormon to the core - but the primary focus is on "I am" not "Mormon"

I am interested in hearing others' input into what they are in this regard. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Leadership in Zion: Helping Create an Ideal Balance

I believe:

1) Communal sociality is a process of filtering back and forth what is best for the individual and what is best for the society.

2) Social leadership is, by definition, the position of determining where groups draw the line between the pursuit of those two ideals in very practical ways.

3) "Zion" is the idea that there is an ideal balance between the two - a condition of community (communal unity) that serves both ideals properly - where unity exists despite differences.

4) My role in creating Zion is to strive to find the type of individual balance between the two general ideals in my own, internal life and work to help others find that type of individual balance in their own, internal lives. If I am a "leader" of some sort, obviously I have more potential to help more people, but I don't see my role as "attacking" or "changing" anyone; rather, I see it as being a "helper" or "servant" of anyone and everyone.

5) Thus, all I can do is "offer" - consistently, humbly and without expectation. I can't "demand" or "command". I also must be willing to learn from everyone I'm trying to serve - and, in practical terms, sometimes that is the hardest aspect of Zion of all.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

My Sacrament Meeting Talk Last Sunday: How Our Understanding of the Godhead Ought to Influence Our Actions

My wife and I were asked to speak about "The Godhead" today. The following is the general outline of my talk:

1) Human understanding of God has evolved throughout time. From our scriptures and Mormon theology, this includes:

a) In the pre-existence, GOD was the Father of all spirits ("Elohim", which is plural, so I included a Heavenly Mother), with Jehovah as a chosen representative.
b) In the Garden of Eden, GOD was the Father of all humans (Adam and Eve, whose names mean man and woman/mother).
c) By the time of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, God was seen as one of many competing, tribal, regional Gods.
d) When Jacob experienced God in his travel outside his homeland, he expressed surprise that God was not bound by geography - but the God of Israel still was "our God", not "their God" or the God of all humanity.
e) At the time of Jesus, that had not changed, with the Israelites tracing their chosen status to Abraham, Issac and Jacob and with a warrior God who would avenge their long oppression.
f) Jesus reintroduced the concept of a Father God, working through a Representative Son, whose primary characteristic was love. Jesus taught:

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:34-35)

This focused on loving each other, and the use of the word "as" means "like; in the same way; following the same pattern".

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? (Matthew 5:43-46

Here, Jesus focused on the other extreme - those who actively do things that make them enemies. He also says explicitly that God blesses even those at the other extreme. What is left unaddressed in these two passages so far is the HUGE majority of people who are neither "us" nor "the enemy".

Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. (John 15:8)

This verse also was spoken within the context of love. I told everyone I would return to that concept later.

g) Jesus then commanded his disciples to take the Gospel message outside of Judaism, and Paul's ministry began to extend the chosen people status to others. However, in a very real way, God still was limited, in that God still was seen as "our God" and not as the God of "others".
h) Over the centuries, the concept of a Heavenly Father as distinct from a Representative Son began once again to disappear within a large section of Christianity. Many essentially eliminated the Father completely - both through official theology and through removing Him from the process of prayer (praying to Jesus, in Jesus' name, for example).
h) Perhaps the most basic aspect of the Restoration through Joseph Smith was the re-emphasis on God, the Father, and God, the Representative Son, as distinctly individual Beings - and the reassertion that God is the Father and God of all who desires to save and exalt all of His children. The most distinct aspect of this is our temple theology, through which we perform ordinances for any and all who have lived. We focus first on our own ancestors, but we also do the work for those about whom we know NOTHING - and that is critical to the purity of our teaching. We don't pick and choose who receives vicarious ordinances, based on any criteria; we do the work for ALL, since ALL are equally loved by God, our universal Father.

I then went back to the idea of being disciples of Jesus. I defined "disciple" as "pupil; learner" and then added "follower" as one who applies what is learned and acts accordingly. I talked about "following" being an action verb and that following Jesus when he lived would have meant, literally, walking with him and helping him do what he did.

If that is the case, what did he do?

He preached to people, but we have ONE reference to that happening in a synagogue. We don't know if he attended synagogue regularly, since we don't have a day-by-day accounting of his ministry, but we only have one reference to that. What we have are some references to teaching and a LOT of references to serving and helping and healing - of actively ministering to people.

To whom did he minister? Whom did he love in action and not just in word?

Those who were rejected, marginalized, scorned, outcast, ridiculed, etc. by the religious people of that time: publicans (the tax collectors), sinners (those whose sins were seen as particularly heinous), lepers (the disgustingly sick), Samaritans (the unclean, heathen extended family members), etc.

If, as Pres. Uchtdorf said in "His Hands", we are supposed to be the hands of Jesus to those around us, whom would He be serving if He lived among us now? Whom are WE, as the religious people of our own time, rejecting, marginalizing, scorning, ridiculing and excluding from our fellowship?

Perhaps the list would include, those who drink too much, those who smoke cigarettes or use illegal drugs, homosexuals, those on welfare, illegal immigrants, unwed teenage mothers, etc.

I love our ward, but I look around and see that we are a fairly homogenous group - and that leads me to self-reflection. 
I have lots of friends who drink and smoke, but do I use that as a reason not to invite them to church - especially if they do so to excess? I have lots of gay friends, but do I not invite them to worship with me out of fear that they won't be accepted and loved? Whom do I instinctively avoid - and can I see myself seeking them out, serving them in a way that shows a real love for them?

Elder Wirthlin said in "Concern for the One" that many people stop coming to church because they are different. Am I contributing to their departure? I know there are members of record in our ward who drink and smoke, and I know there are gay members of our ward. Are they not among us because they feel like they will not be accepted and loved due to those things?

Pres. Uchtdorf said in "Stop It", "Don't judge me because I sin differently than you do." All of us sin and come short of the glory of God; all of us must rely on God's love and the grace of Christ to be saved. 
Am I judging others who are living as being too different to love - unlike those for whom I am willing to do temple work? If I can go through the temple for someone regardless of what they did in this life, why can't I take that same approach for those who are living? Why can't I love them in the same way - and honor and accept them simply because they are a child of Heavenly Parents just like I am, despite both subtle and obvious differences?

Mormon theology states, as a central concept, that our purpose in life is to become like our Heavenly Parents. If that is our belief - and if we really believe it, we need to participate to the greatest extent possible in the ministry of God, the Representative Son, and gain a deep conviction that our own congregation should reflect more comprehensively our community and the world. We should love and serve and fellowship those whom we would avoid naturally - and that love should be motivated solely for a love of all of our spiritual brothers and sisters.

I closed my talk by asking each person in the congregation to ask himself and herself to identify one group of people whom s/he naturally avoids and to find a way to get to know those people better, to serve them unconditionally, to love them AS Jesus loved others. I bore testimony of the transformative power of that effort.

Friday, January 16, 2015

I Also Don't Like the Phrase "Keep the Sabbath"

Last month, I mentioned that I don't like the phrase "break the Sabbath".  I didn't mention it in that post, but I also don't like the phrase "keep the Sabbath".   Frankly, I don't feel as strongly about that wording as I do about the breaking wording, but there is a theological reason I feel the way I do. 

The actual commandment says:

(1) Remember the Sabbath Day to (2) keep it holy.

Thus, in the Biblical injunction, there are two aspects of approaching the Sabbath properly, and I think we miss the mark greatly when we eliminate the first aspect totally and abbreviate the second one by eliminating the word "holy".

Not only does that version alter the injunction itself in important ways, but doing so opens the door for the kind of list-making that plagues our culture.

Why is such list-making so insidious?

1) It is a great example of building hedges so far around the law that the law itself gets obscured and, too often, forgotten.

2) It eliminates the heart of agency encoded in figuring out what is constituted by "holy" in unique lives of different individuals and, instead, substitutes demands from someone else.  Some things that are holy for some people in the circumstances of their lives are not holy for others, and list-making denies people the ability of keeping the Sabbath holy in legitimate ways.  It is a great example of that about which Moroni warned in Moroni 7: calling that which is good, evil, and, moving further from the charity he extols in that same chapter.   

Finally, I know this sounds hyperbolic, but, in a real way, it substitutes Lucifer's plan for the plan of the Father - albeit on a small scale. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

What Will We Do in the Next Life?

Someone once asked me what I would like to do after I die - how I would like to spend my time in the next life.  Given my sense of humor, I think I would like to do the following:

Read; play Monopoly, Rummy and Free Cell; play and listen to good music; do a million piece puzzle; sit with my wife and talk - then flirt until she slaps me and insists that I stop; invent new sports; talk with everyone for years, since time will be irrelevant; learn everything there is to know; create a universe and a few billion spirits. (without post-mortal pregnancy, since neither my wife nor I want anything to do with that)

You know, the simple things.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Competing Realities: Grace, Atonement and Charity Are Key

I was asked once why people hurt other people "by avoiding reality" instead of dealing with difficult things.  My most concise response was that it is because they are human, and humans only can handle those things which they can handle.

My longer answer would be:

Most people aren't consciously lying or avoiding reality when they hurt others. They simply are dealing with what they are capable of seeing and feeling - and I don't mean to be condescending or judgmental in saying that. In my case, part of my being comfortable with uncertainty is admitting I might be wrong, especially about things that require me to make some kind of subjective judgment, and that is truer in the realm of religion than anywhere else - but I still have hurt others at times because the way I see things (my reality) simply is different than the way those others have seen things (their realities).

A practical example:

Some people believe in "tough love", while others believe in never alienating others almost no matter what they do. Neither is lying or refusing to face reality; rather, they simply are seeing what they see and acting on it.

At the most basic level, "reality" is whatever it is for each and every person. When a schizophrenic is hallucinating, those hallucinations are reality to him. I mean that completely; they are reality to that person while they are occurring. When he hurts others in that situation, he isn't avoiding reality; he is reacting to reality - living within his own reality.

Thus, for all of us, grace and atonement are critical - and charity is the heart of it all. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Widow's Mite: Jesus Did NOT Condemn Tithing

I have heard people say that Jesus condemned the payment of tithing and use the story of the widow's mite as justification for that claim.  On the other hand, I believe it's interesting to look at the story of the widow's mite, since it says something most people completely overlook - and speaks directly, I believe, to the concept of it being the condition of the heart not the amount that matters.

Jesus did NOT condemn the system that accepted the widow's mite, nor did he dismiss or chastise in any way the widow who paid it. He also didn't say she shouldn't have paid it. In fact, he praised her for paying it and condemned the rich man for not paying more. In a very real way, Jesus praised the widow for being willing to live the Law of Consecration, and he chastised the rich man for not being willing to pay tithing (comparing his percent to hers). Jesus didn't condemn tithing or any other payment of a lesser percentage than consecration would require; he framed it as the lesser commitment than the widow's willing contribution. From strictly a conceptual standpoint, that's important to recognize and consider.

I don't care personally how someone else interprets tithing or how they choose to calculate their own tithing. That is between them and God, and I refuse to try to sit in a judgment seat. Ain't happening. However, I also will not condemn or criticize any church for teaching tithing - and for having other areas where contributions can be made.

The principle, in my opinion, is to give as much as possible (money, time, talents, and everything with which God has blessed me) to God - however I define and calculate that gift. To me, buying a house that is much bigger than needed, buying an expensive car when a less expensive one will do just fine, buying high end clothing, etc. is "grinding the faces of the poor" - because the extra money spent on something that is nowhere close to a need keeps me from donating that money, in some way, to help the poor and/or build a community infrastructure that will help all alike.  Such expenditures literally keep me from full participation in the establishment of Zion, even if I pay a full and honest tithing. 

So, while I am completely open to people calculating amounts and arriving at definitions differently, I am opposed to the idea of doing it just to keep more money for themselves - over and above real need, which I also leave up to them to determine. I love the concept and principle of the law of consecration and its modern component parts (tithing, fast offerings, charitable and humanitarian giving, service, etc.), so, even though I won't try to dictate how someone participates in and implements that concept and principle, I believe strongly that everyone should look seriously at how they can try - and be willing to give up wants to provide others' needs.

Monday, January 12, 2015

It's OK to Be Wrong about Elements of Our Beliefs

I think the purest definition of faith allows us to be wrong about many things we believe.

I think the purest definition of the Atonement requires that we be wrong about some things we believe - and allows us to be wrong quite often and even spectacularly wrong sometimes.

I think the key is our adherence to the dictates of our own consciences and our willingness to construct that adherence to take into account sacrifices for the good of others. especially those who see some things differently than we do. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Agency: Gospel vs. Doctrine (of Varying Sources)

I think it is extremely important to distinguish between the Gospel of Christ ("Good News" of faith, repentance, baptism, Holy Ghost, enduring to the end), the doctrines (teachings) of Christ (as recorded in our scriptures, understanding the "translated / transmitted correctly" caveat), the doctrines (teachings) of the early Christian leadership (which sometimes contradicted the teachings of Jesus recorded in the New Testament "Gospels") and the doctrines of the LDS Church.

They aren't the same thing, and I don't even classify all of the Biblical "teachings of Christ" as eternal and completely binding - since I am not convinced Jesus of Nazareth actually taught all of them. Move forward into the Pauline epistles, the teachings of the "Christian fathers", the teachings of the Popes, the teachings of the Protestant reformers, the teachings of the early Mormon leaders, the teachings of the subsequent Mormon leaders, the teachings of the current Mormon leaders, the teachings of my parents and co-worshipers, etc. and I see generally good people doing their best to understand the Gospel and the doctrines of Christ in ways that help them in their own world. I'm cool with and honor that - but I don't see it as eternal or binding. I also see my own need to "be the source" in my own life for myself - to establish my own "doctrines of Ray" that govern my life - to be, truly, an agent unto myself, as it says in the Book of Mormon.

I'm fine with some compromise (quite a bit, actually) from what might be my own personal ideal in order to work best with my immediate family, my church family, my community, etc - but, in the end, I have to figure out what my own doctrines are and try to live by them. After all, I am told that I can receive revelation (obvious or not) and live by what I believe to be the word of God. Really, that's all I can do - and I won't push that responsibility onto others, even as I default to "doctrines of the Church" when I lack a personal alternative about which I feel strongly. If it doesn't matter enormously to me, I generally will accept the group standard - but I still maintain my right and privilege to change my view about anything if I feel I've gained "further light and knowledge" about it.

I think that is a central tenet of Mormonism and indispensable within the concept of agency and accountability. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Search for the Lost Sheep, but Don't Push Them Off the Cliff

A friend of mine who had been inactive in the Church for a while made the following comment to me: 
There are a few people who go in search of the lost sheep only to end up accidentally pushing the sheep off a cliff.

I agreed with him, since I have seen it happen on more than once occasion. Some people just aren't good shepherds, mostly out of incorrect assumptions and an unwillingness or inability to ask the person(s) involved and sometimes due to particular personality traits. 

Also, I've known two people in my life who had official finding responsibilities and weren't pushing accidentally. They were looking for reasons, any reasons, to remove people from the rolls of the Church. Luckily, they were told to knock it off when their leaders found out what they were doing.

When it's the leader doing the pushing . . .

Most people want to treat others like they want to be treated. That's gets wonky sometimes, since some people want "tough love", but most people who are active, if they think about it, would not want to be pushed out and removed from the rolls of the Church - so most people don't look for excuses to do that to others, even if, because they just can't understand inactivity in any other way, they have to find reasons and explanations for inactivity that reflect badly on those who don't attend. 

That frustrates me to a degree, but I understand that those people just can't see and understand the real reasons in most cases. They are sincere and as loving as they can be with their limited light and knowledge, just like I am. Aside from the intentional cliff-pushers, I can't be mad at them. They are doing the best they can - and they really do care or they wouldn't be trying.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Simple Belief is OK: or, You Can Stay Even if You Don't Know

I want to share the beginning of a conversation I had once with a friend who was struggling to accept the fact that he hadn't had an undeniable spiritual witness, even though he loved the Church and his life in it.  I hope it helps someone, somehow, who reads it - and I think it says something about our culture that de-emphasizes and even de-values faith in its near obsession with knowing

First, his description of his dilemma (bolding is mine):

I joined the church two years ago and I have never really known that the church is true. I was baptized as I believed everything I was taught (It all made complete sense to me) and I wanted so much for it to be true and thought I would get the confirmation as I lived my life as the best member I could. I love the church and I love the gospel, but I have still never had it confirmed to me that this is the true church. I have never felt the spirit, and as much as I want to stay in the church, having now been a member for two years and still not having confirmation is making it difficult to remain and making it difficult to keep lying to my friends.

I don't know what to do anymore. Everyone thinks I am this super strong member with a wonderful testimony, but in all reality I am just following the crowd. I have tried so hard and prayed so sincerely but have had no response. I have taught lessons on recognizing the spirit many times and know for a fact that I have never felt the spirit.

I am still active within the church as I love my life as a member and I love everything that I stand for as a member, but I am struggling so much with the basic fundamentals that I don't know how much longer I can continue lying.

Now, my response:

Just some questions for you to consider personally. Don't feel any pressure to answer them in writing, unless you want to do so. They are meant to cause introspection and challenge what I believe are unrealistic expectations.

1) Why do you need a strong spiritual witness if you love the Church and the Gospel taught in it? I mean that sincerely. Stop and consider why you feel you need something to justify your happiness.

2) Why do you need more than what you describe having? What you describe is wonderful.

3) Why do you feel you are lying? Are you saying things in a dishonest way - or do you equate others thinking differently about you than you feel about yourself as lying? If so, realize that nobody sees you like you see yourself, since they don't know you like you know yourself. It's unavoidable; it simply "is"; it can't be changed - and it certainly is not dishonesty for it to occur.

4) Think of this simple statement:

"To some is given to know . . . to others is given to believe . . ."

Why aren't you OK with believing without knowing, if the scriptures of your faith tradition say it's totally natural and acceptable for that to be the case - and go even further by calling your ability to believe without knowledge a "gift" from God?

5) For what it's worth, expectations are two-edged swords. My suggestion: Stop using the sword of unrealistic expectations against yourself. Easier said than done, I know, but at least recognize in hindsight what you are doing, so you eventually can work on letting go in the moment.

I think it would be a tragedy if you allowed yourself to guilt yourself out of the Church over something where there is no "wrong" about which to feel guilty. After all, God is credited as having said that to some is given to believe. Thus, according to our scriptures, you are completely "righteous" (right with God) in that state of simply believing.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Establishing Zion Is Just as Important as Building a Kingdom

Zion happens (or should happen) in the here and now. If we really understood that, collectively, and lived in such a way that we created a truly Zion community, we wouldn't have to preach; people would flock to us naturally due solely to who we would be, individually and collectively.

As my oldest daughter said after her first time in the temple:

Dad, we focus so much on building the kingdom of God on earth that we forget about the establishment of Zion.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Separating the Temple from Experiences Tangential to It

I have a friend who had some negative experiences related to attending the temple but not related directly to the temple itself.  I came across my advice to him and hope what I told him helps someone, in some way, now: 

This is going to be more analytical than "emotionally supportive", so please understand that upfront. There is no intent other than to analyze and offer that sort of suggestion.
I think it's important, very important, to separate from the temple itself, intentionally and consciously, from the experiences you describe and work on getting a handle on the emotional residual effects of the experiences before returning to the temple. It sounds like you understand the underlying issues at the most basic, intellectual level, and I'm not saying you have to go back to the temple right away. I am saying, however, that, if you really do feel like you need to go at some point, as you indicate, then you are going to have to tackle the emotional effects of one bad experience directly related to temple policy (not the temple itself), one bad experience directly related to clueless in-laws (not the temple itself) and one bad cumulative experience directly related to church members (not the temple itself).

I don't mean to minimize those experiences in any way (truly and sincerely). They were difficult. Period. However, only one of them, at the heart of it all, really was, primarily, temple-related - and that was about policy, not the temple itself. Your clueless in-laws were part of the first bad experience (along with strong cultural expectations) and the direct, singular cause of the second one. (Seriously, without your in-laws and cultural expectations, you wouldn't have had that bad experience.) Your ward members were the direct cause of the third one. (Seriously, without their actions, you wouldn't have had the series of experiences in that ward.) Underlying the second and third experiences was the crushing disappointment of the first one - and your inability to separate emotionally the temple itself from your anger / feelings of being judged, ignored, dismissed, etc. For example, according to your own description, the third experience wasn't a temple-specific experience; rather, it was an extension of your overall experience in that ward.

Again, I'm being more clinical than emotionally supportive simply because I think that solution-focused viewpoint needs to be stated - even as I also want to offer the emotional support of making it clear that I think you need to tackle what I described above in your own way and on your own time table. I just think it's really important in the case you described to make it explicit that your issue isn't with the temple itself. Your issue is with a policy which I also would like to see changed (insisting on temple sealing prior to civil marriage in countries that recognize temple sealings as legal marriages) and with people being stupid - and one woman who did her best to help you in a meaningful way. Yes, her offer ended up making you feel worse, but it was a wonderful, kind, caring gesture, nonetheless - and I think it's important amid the negative memories to credit the effort of a good-hearted, kind person.

If I could make one suggestion, again with the timing totally up to you, I would arrange a time to attend the temple with only your wife - even if you have to go to a temple other than the one where your in-laws and ward members attend. Don't tell anyone else you are going; just go. If you like baptisms, do or help with baptisms. If not, do an endowment session - then sit together in the celestial room and talk or just hold each other without saying a word. Think of the type of activity you would like in the temple, then do that - away from anyone for whom you are struggling right now to have kind feelings, overall or related to the temple.

Most of all, I hope you find peace with the temple eventually, however that can occur.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Service for the Sake of Service: We Serve Conditionally Too Often

I believe that being born again is all about being a child of God and Christ in a very personal way - and I think that happens fully when we maintain communal allegiance, support and service but find our own faith, understanding and vision within that community. We then turn around and help others find their own faith, understanding and vision and accomplish their own desires - even when they differ slightly or significantly from ours, both within and without our central religious community. It's serving simply for the sake of helping in whatever way is possible, not with an ultimate agenda in mind - other than that person's joy and peace. At the most fundamental level, it's not about baptism, church attendance or any other conditional motivation; it's being born into Jesus' ministry in some real way and helping simply to help. 

I know how unorthodox that is in the minds of some members, but it absolutely is in line with a lot of things that are taught in General Conference, for example. Elder Wirthlin, Pres. Uchtdorf, Pres.Monson and others often talked and continue to talk about service just for service's sake. Yes, we have responsibilities to our religious community and "tribe" - but we also have this over-arching theology that teaches us we are part of a global, eternal, universal religious community and family. With that foundation, our ultimate responsibility is to everyone, not the small subset who are or might become members of our Church.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Evil Can Be Pretty; Great (Wo)men Can be Deeply Flawed

There is an old movie that portrays evil as very seductive and handsome and convincing and suave and enticing - that evil personified can be indistinguishable from you and me based just on physical appearance - that it is easy to succumb and can be resisted only by single-minded focus on God. In one part, it also portrays evil as nearly universal - that the person who resists is the anomaly - that the world is hopelessly lost and ruled by powerful evil. In fact, I think such a message can't be ignored as one of the central themes of this particular movie. The "darkness" of the presentation style doesn't rival our more culturally popular movies (like The Dark Knight, for example), and the overall message leads to a happy ending, but the message of the section that deals directly with evil personified is fascinating.

One of the central protagonists succumbs to this evil and is saved from it only by the resistance of another protagonist who chooses consciously to thwart the evil by remaining with the other character in the continued presence of that evil in order to fight it together. Interestingly, I think many people who have seen this movie would classify the one who succumbed as the ultimate hero in the end - or, at least, just as much a hero as the one who stood fast in opposing the evil. However, I wouldn't say the film glorifies or celebrates evil in any way - even though it clothes it in such a "pretty package".

I think the idea that deeply flawed people who often fail in their struggles to resist temptation still can perform heroic acts and be respected and admired and loved because of it fits side-by-side with nearly all of the scriptural canon I try to read regularly - and I believe that is a central theme of the Atonement of Jesus Christ that is part of what we call the Restoration.  

I don't know exactly how Joseph Smith would feel about the movie I mention here in its current form, but I'm fairly certain he would understand those who view him similarly to what I just described in this paragraph - as a flawed man who did great things, nonetheless. In fact, what I have read leads me to believe that he would rather be characterized in this way than as an "idealized hero" - that he would prefer his own description of being a "rough stone rolling" to a romanticized version that describes him only in hushed terms and air-brushes away the thorns of his own flesh.