Friday, July 31, 2015

Holding On and Letting Go: Mormonism Is Unique, but Not As Unique As Many People Think

I have heard a lot of Mormons bemoan what they see as the abandonment of some unique aspects of Mormon theology and history that they believe and cherish.  I share that general concern that we not lose our uniqueness and become just another Protestant denomination, but I disagree that we have abandoned our uniqueness in an attempt to become more mainstream.  I believe we have abandoned some of the unique aspects of our historical interpretations of doctrine that I have come to see as "the incorrect traditions of our own fathers".

To frame this around missionary work and the message that is presented currently to people who are investigating the LDS Church, let me mention a few areas of improvement I see now compared to when I served a mission:

Improvement #1) My daughter served a mission in Germany just last year – and she taught most of the things most people mention loving so much. She didn’t teaching a new, watered down version of Mormonism, different than I taught almost 30 years ago. She taught the same concepts and principles – but she could dig in and tailor what she said to each person in a way I couldn't when I served.

Improvement #2) I don’t want our “folklore” taught by the missionaries, and it isn't being taught. I don’t want much of our current culture taught by the missionaries, and it isn't supposed to be taught. I want them to teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, including the unique aspects of Mormon theology – and they are. I have no quibble whatsoever with the missionary discussions that are in Preach My Gospel – and I absolutely am a bit envious that my kids get to teach in a very different way than I had to when I served and said the same memorized words, in the same order, to every. single. person. I. taught. My daughter gets to rely on the Holy Ghost to help her teach individuals about the Gospel and the Restoration in different ways, not teach the exact same lessons to widely diverse people.

Improvement #3) I want all of the unique gems of our theology to be taught in ways that make as much sense as possible to those who are listening – and, often, that can be done better by using Biblical passages they already say they accept than to focus exclusively on the Book of Mormon. Our relationship to our Heavenly Parents is a perfect example. It is rich in the Bible and, essentially, non-existent in the Book of Mormon. Teaching it from the Bible through passages Christians supposedly already accept (even if they don’t understand them) isn’t sacrificing our teachings in any way. In fact, I see it as strengthening and emphasizing those teachings much more than I used to be able to do.

Improvement #4) There is a lot of stuff from our past that I and many people who read here don’t want taught. We’ve moved on from much of it, and we celebrate and thank God for that. Being unique and being similar (and, in some cases, exactly alike) are not mutually exclusive – and I believe it’s worth letting go of some “uniqueness” if, in fact, I believe that those unique things are not eternal and, in some cases, even are damaging and not of God. I don’t mind at all much of what we have jettisoned in my lifetime, even as I share the concern that we not jettison what I see as the wonderful aspects of our peculiarity.

That’s not an easy balance to strike, and it never will be accepted unanimously by our membership, since we all see things slightly (and even radically) differently - but I really like the fact that I see the Church leadership making an honest effort to strike that balance of both holding on and letting go.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

When Stories Outgrow What They Are Intended to Teach

A friend of mine said the following a while ago, and I thought it was profound.  The discussion was about the benefits of taking some things literally and other things figuratively, mythologically or symbolically.  I bolded a few things I want to highlight. 

When it comes to religion I've found that the answer to the great question of life, the universe and everything (other than 42) is . . . hymns. I hope you're still with me, I was serious. That's my answer for a lot of the questions I've had (in my life).

So why hymns?
Setting scriptures or gospel principles to music helps us remember the principles better. It's a mnemonic. For instance, I have several hymns memorized but I have a real hard time committing those scripture mastery scriptures to memory.

I think that was the point of all the stories in the scriptures - being vehicles to help us remember the principles they relate. The problem is that the stories grew a life of their own - so much so that the principles the stories teach are completely overlooked or overshadowed.

Noah's Ark for instance. It can be a story about following God . . . or about seeing a job through to completion, planning ahead, providing temporal needs for your family, and doing the right thing despite peer pressure . . . or we can search a mountain range for remains of a boat and try to arrive at the true size of a cubit to see whether there was enough room for the dinosaurs.

Adam and Eve is another one that's trending these days. My facebook feed is filled with creationists attacking evolutionists and vice-versa. In some ways, the story has outgrown the teachings, even to the point of contention.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

I Don't Like Polygamy, but Many Critics Are Hypocrites

I don't like polygamy - and I loathe the way polygamy works in many situations. I understand abhorrence for polygamy in our current culture and time, but I also think it's interesting to see attacks on it in our own Mormon history from people who think it's disgusting that anyone over 100 years ago could even entertain the idea. Not only is there the historical reality of it being so widespread, but many of those same people don't fuss nearly as much about serial adultery or multiple sexual relationships outside of marriage. I know people personally who despise polygamy and think of it as a great evil who are far less vocal or bothered by someone using willing women for nothing but sex - no commitment, no emotional attachment, just a body to use momentarily and forget.

It also doesn't escape me that such complete disregard for sex involving commitment is much more prevalent in our own society than polygamy is or ever has been - and yet polygamy (even when every person is a consenting adult) is called a great evil while serial, non-committed sex is accepted, at worst, as a moral failing. Polygamy is labeled a terrible threat, while rampant non-committed sex is almost ignored in similar discussions - even when the numeric and structural elements of such sex are polygamous in nature.

Again, I don't like polygamy, but I have worked with high schools and colleges for many years. Give me a choice between polygamy among consenting adults (with no hint of coercion and/or eternal punishment for not participating) and what I know of the sexual practices of many high school and college students, and I'll take that type of polygamy every day - and twice on Sunday.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

White Collar vs. Blue Collar Leaders in the LDS Church: Two Qualifying Points

There was a group discussion last year about the percentage of local church leaders who are white collar vs. blue collar workers.  It was an interesting discussion, with input from quite a few people.  The following was one of my comments, highlighting two things that I rarely, if ever, see mentioned when this topic arises - and which I believer are critical to a full conversation: 

1) It’s interesting that (when I saw the figures last year) Salt Lake City is the most upwardly mobile city in the United States, meaning a higher percentage of people who are raised in the lowest socio-economic quartile end up moving into the highest quartile as adults. (Just for the sake of information, Seattle was #2.)  The LDS Church itself mirrors this, when viewed broadly compared to other religions.

We tend to look at where leaders end up and ignore where they started. I think that’s an important element of this conversation, because not including it places Pres. Uchtdorf and others at the top as “white collar workers” while ignoring the fact that they started their adult lives with blue collar roots. I know a lot of local leaders about whom that could be said (white collar workers as adults who understand blue collar issues very well) – and if I ever become a Stake President (God forbid), people will chalk me up as just one more white collar worker, not realizing I came from a background of significant poverty. (My father was an elementary school janitor with eight kids, and my mother didn’t work outside the home. At the end of many months, my parents counted their available balance in coins, not bills.)

2) Another overlooked element is that we tend to misrepresent (or, at least, forget how little we know about) the financial situations of Jesus’ closest disciples – the ones that became the leading apostles of the early Christian Church. We emphasize the fishermen – but that isn’t an accurate characterization. Of those about whose professions we know, there was a physician and a tax-collector – and the “fishermen” (James and John) appear to have been business owners and not time clock laborers. Those four would be considered white collar workers of their time – a time when the white collar work population was significantly lower, as a percentage, than it is now. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember if the others’ employment prior to following Jesus is mentioned, but Judas had enough financial knowledge to be the group’s Treasurer (and we also tend to ignore the implications of why a treasurer was necessary, in our tendency to think of the group as poor, uneducated itinerants).

Perhaps this isn’t as new a discussion as we tend to believe - or maybe it simply wasn't an issue back in the day. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

I Don't Look for "The One, True Interpretation"

I am completely comfortable taking whatever I want from a story and leaving the rest - choosing how I want to interpret it. I do that with commercial fiction, from historical books, from myth and even from scriptures. 

Where I am convinced of a scriptural story's allegorical, figurative or mythical nature (Jonah, Job, some of the more extreme narratives in the Book of Mormon, etc.), I don't try to draw lessons from a literal interpretation - but in cases where I simply can't be certain, I pick whatever interpretation gives me the most powerful message - and, in some cases, I pick multiple interpretations (one literal, one allegorical, one mythical, for example) and take multiple lessons from each one.

Some people who want the one, true interpretation can't stand that approach, but it works for me.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

My Sacrament Meeting Talk: What is Fasting? (not what we generally think)

I spoke yesterday on the topic "What is fasting?"

Between two talks that lasted longer than anticipated and an intermediate hymn that took a while to start, I had five minutes left. Afterward, I realized that was a good thing, since it allowed me to focus on the heart of the message I wanted to give.

I started by mentioning how important it is to understand what something means in order to live it properly. I used reverence as an example by saying that I could be sitting silently in church and be totally irreverent. Reverence means "deep respect, worship, adoration, etc." - and I could be thinking about sports or my job or any other topic that did not make me reverent. I also pointed out that some of our hymns are supposed to be sung "confidently", "with vigor", "enthusiastically" - and many of them are sung best when sung loudly. Those songs, when done appropriately, are sung reverently - since they convey deep respect, adoration, worship, etc.

(If I'd had more time, I would have used modesty as another example. We largely have taken an important concept, when viewed in its entirety as "moderation", and narrowed it so restrictively to the way we [and, mostly, women] dress that it has lost much of its transformative power - and, in many cases, we have begun to term conservative immodesty [over-dressing for an occasion or activity] incorrectly as modesty.)

I told everyone that I had planned on reading Isaiah 58, which I highly recommend and see as the best explanation of what fasting is and is not, but that, given the time constraints, I would summarize the central message, instead. I first said that I don't think God cares one bit about us not eating when we can choose to eat, in and of itself, and that fasting is not supposed to equal not eating - just like reverence does not equal being quiet or silent.

With that, I focused on Isaiah 58. The first few verses explain why Israel was condemned for the way it fasted. They abstained from food but simultaneously continued to oppress the poor - and performed their normal labors - etc. Fasting changed nothing about their practices and their lives. They also fasted for their own benefit, including making it an obvious sign of their righteousness. In fact, by wearing sackcloth and using ashes, they put on disguises that made them appear to be poor - a rank form of hypocrisy.

The rest of the verses focus on the pure intent of fasting: helping the poor, the afflicted, the imprisoned, etc. In other words, fasting is supposed to help people who generally don't understand poverty and hunger in a powerful way forge a link with people who don't have the luxury of choosing to fast - who go without food regularly and without end in sight - who would never dream of making a show of their poverty - etc. In a way, it is similar to temple work, which is supposed to connect our hearts with our ancestors in a unique and eternally-binding way and help us respect, understand and love them differently than we could without that concept.

I emphasized that if we are not feeling connected to the most poor and needy - the truly destitute among us and throughout the world, in some way and to some degree, we are not fasting as it is meant to be. If we are not becoming more Christ-like in how we interact with those who are hungry and marginalized and outcast and demeaned and ridiculed and "stand in need of comfort" in some way, we are missing entirely the foundational reason why we are supposed to fast. If we are not receiving the suffering of the poor, we are not fulfilling a pure fast.

I said there are legitimate reasons why we should fast at times for certain blessings in our own lives, but that if we make ourselves the center of most of our fasts we are, in a real way, no different than the Israelites in Isaiah 58.

Friday, July 24, 2015

I Remember the Pioneers because I Can’t Forget Them

The following post is from two years ago and is the best post about honoring our pioneer heritage I have read, ever.  To call it stunning is not hyperbolic.

When I think about pioneers: July 21, 2013 - Rebecca J (By Common Consent)

On a personal note:

My wife's fourth-great-grandfather was one of the first two native Italian converts to the Church. (The journals simply record the day and not the order.) His ancestors had been the Waldensians - "The Poor" - who had been persecuted and killed by Catholic armies for 500 years for refusing to accept Catholicism. Those people were driven out of their Italian homeland time and time again, at one point almost becoming extinct, but they vowed never to leave for good - so they kept filtering back to their valley until the killing finally stopped. It was a sacred bond they had with that land, passed on for hundreds of years through intense hardship, suffering and death. If you want to read an amazing story of dedication, faith and dogged determination, their history is stunning. (Whenever I feel like being sorry for myself because I'm not understood, I think of them and immediately realize how self-centered and blown out of proportion that self-misery is.)

John Daniel Malan walked away from that sacred homeland and his kindred dead when the saints were asked to gather to Utah, largely because he chose to believe in a modern prophet, the Book of Mormon, the principle of vicarious ordinances and the eternal vision the missionaries preached. He did it largely as a sign of his devotion to his heritage and his belief that his new religion honored them in the fullest way imaginable.

I don't want obsession and fanaticism, but, as a friend once said:

I can't resist having the profoundest respect (for him - and others like him).

Blessed, honored Pioneer, indeed!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Certainty, Not a Lack or Loss of Faith, Causes Many Faith Crises

I believe the expectation of knowledge over acceptance of faith causes a lot of crises. Those crises are not caused by losing faith; they are caused by losing certainly. 

In fact, I believe certainly breeds many crises. A crisis can't occur without the breaking of certainty - and certainty is a lack of faith, in a very real and important way. If we insist on knowing everything, we lose the ability to believe the unseen - and seeing something that doesn't fit our certainty shatters that certainty - since we can't hold on to what is left - that which still is unseen.

Working through a faith crisis is, to a large degree, an acceptance of uncertainty - a willingness to wait and not leap to conclusions (generally the opposite of previous conclusions, as in the example of a completely zealous Mormon who becomes an equally zealous Anti-Mormon).

Working patiently through a faith crisis involves patience and weighing of options (multiple, complex, mixed-up, paradoxical options), and that is opposed to certainly and the expectation of knowledge. It requires faith that an answer might exist beyond the simple, two-dimensional caricatures at the extremes of the spectrum - and that "the answer" might not come in the desired time frame.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Opposite of Pride Is Not Humility; It Is Self-Loathing

I believe the opposite of pride is not humility. I believe the opposite of pride (self-elevation) is self-hatred / self-loathing (self-lowering). The opposite of loving one's self too much (pride) is loving one's self too little / hating one's self. The cure is learning to love ourselves - and we can't do that if we equate loving ourselves with pride.

The second great commandment in the law starts with the foundation of self-love, which then can be extended to loving others as ourselves. That type of self-love comes from love of God - meaning, I believe, in this context, recognizing that God loves us for who we are - since, "We love Him because he first loved us." Thus, accepting that God loves us is the first step toward rejecting self-loathing - and accepting that God loves everyone else as much as He loves us is the cure for the other extreme: pride.

We are children of God, and HE loves us - he LOVES us - he loves US. That is the foundation on which everything else can be built.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Monday, July 20, 2015

"Mild Barley Drinks", "Hot Drinks" and "Strong Drinks"

From a purely analytical standpoint:

I would say that "mild" beer is perfectly in line with the original spirit and message of the Word of Wisdom, but that many (if not most) of the current beer options are not. Generally speaking, beer is not nearly as mild as it used to be. Also, the original said explicitly, "not by way of command" - but that was changed decades later, due, in my opinion, to Prohibition, the radical increase in alcohol advertising and the rise of "non-mild" options being marketed as just fine and dandy - making more drinks truly addictive in content to a far greater extent than previously.

At the heart, I think that the change is a great example of the human need for clarification - the tendency to want to be commanded and/or command in all things. "Mild barley drinks", "hot drinks" and "strong drinks" morphed into "beer, coffee, tea and all forms of alcohol" - going from categories requiring personal consideration and decision to a list of specific products on a Do Not Consume list.

I actually am okay with that stricter standards for those who want it and those who need it (probably the majority of people and certainly a large minority), especially those who are prone to addiction and the efforts of "conspiring men in the latter days", and I follow it to avoid eating meat in the company of those who abstain from meat and because I know myself well enough to know I am prone to addictive behavior - but the stricter standard is harder for those who neither want nor need it - who could partake in moderation without adverse health effects and/or addiction.

It also leads too often to judging others, even those who have not committed to follow the Word of Wisdom, as being spiritually unworthy or inferior in some way -  and that is a shame. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Same-Sex Marraige and the Recent US Supreme Court Ruling

I debated whether or not to write this post and initiate this conversation, but enough people have asked that I have decided to do so.

I am approaching this in a question and answer format, and my only request is that it be a civil conversation and not be approached as a debate. I have no desire whatsoever to argue with anyone about this, and I will not engage in that sort of dialogue. What I would like is an open discussion in which I can explain how I feel about the Supreme Court’s decision regarding same-sex marriage and the reasons I feel that way. Rather than try to list all of those reasons, I have decided to share one (perhaps the most counter-intuitive one) initially. I will respond to any other reasons, for or against, as they are given.

The primary reason I support the Supreme Court’s decision is that I believe in religious freedom, particularly when it comes to issues as sacred as marriage. 

Just as I believe my own denomination should be able to marry whomever it chooses to marry, I believe other religions and denominations should have the same right. I believe in restrictions based on consent, including the legal ability to consent, but I do not believe in legal restrictions based strictly on religious ideology. There now are multiple religions, including Christian denominations, in this country who want to be able to perform marriages for same-sex couples; thus, if I truly believe in religious freedom in the realm of marriage, and if I insist on that right for myself and my religion, I personally must support other denominations’ right to perform marriages mine does not.

I would love it if the government got out of the marriage business altogether and focused solely on civil benefits for civil unions, leaving marriage strictly as a religious practice. Lacking that ideal, which the religious majority in the United States fought for a long time, the only way for the government to provide equal civil benefits was to issue marriage licenses.

The central issue to me is not that the government is issuing marriage licenses, although I would like to see that change; the central issue to me is that religions are performing marriages that provide civil benefits. Up until now, equal civil benefits were not possible for same-sex couples under that structure. It is the tying of civil benefits (with equality under the law as the core foundation) to religious ceremonies (with their inherent and important right to be selective based on doctrine) that is the central issue for me – and if religions were unwilling to allow the government to perform civil unions for same-sex couples (which, again, was the case in the United States), the only alternative to provide civil benefits equally and fairly was to legalize same-sex marriage within the public marriage structure while maintaining the right of religions and denominations to perform and refuse to perform marriages according to their own doctrine and beliefs.

The Supreme Court ruling has done that. Religions and denominations still can refuse to marry inter-racial couples, for example, with no legal ramifications, even though inter-racial marriage has been legal for a long time; same-sex marriage is no different, in that particular respect, with this recent ruling.

Thus, the primary reason I support the Supreme Court ruling is that I believe so passionately in religious freedom.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Every Member Shouldn't Have to Be "Temple Worthy" to Be "Baptism Worthy" or "Worship Worthy"

I believe we have conflated "temple worthiness" with "membership/baptism worthiness" and, going even further, "communal worship" worthiness too much in our modern church culture.

In my ideal world, speaking generally, almost anyone (obvious, very rare exceptions) would be welcome in our chapel doors to worship with us - no strings attached. Anyone who is willing to worship with us respectfully and try to live (or work on learning to live) certain basic principles would be welcome to join us as fellow members (essentially, a repentant heart and not necessarily a fully repentant body, if you will). Those who want to try to live "a higher law" would be encouraged to attend the temple.

By blurring the lines so much between those categories, we essentially have cut the heart out of the middle ground and forced those who can't or don't want to be temple worthy toward the other extreme - complete non-participation or only partial participation.

I also believe we generally are much harder in practical terms on our (inactive) own than on "outsiders", even as the official rhetoric we tend to use for "the world" is harsher - much too harsh, much too often.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Fullness" Includes Both the Beautiful and the Ugly

I have participated in hundreds of formal blessings in my life with the LDS Church - and some of them have been extraordinary.  

I love those experiences, even though they don't happen every time I participate in a blessing. I love the fact that "we" believe in practices like that, where people get together and pray over someone. I love the principle that underlies it and the communal faith-joining it provides. Also, there have been a handful of times over the course of my life when I really do believe the heavens were opened, so to speak, and I caught a glimpse of what being a conduit for pure revelation really means. I really cherish those experiences - but I had to participate in the mundane many to taste those unforgettable few.

Do formal blessings mean anything more than that - and are they possible elsewhere? Maybe, maybe not, but, deep down, I don't care all that much. I just appreciate the opportunity - and the fact that the opportunity is institutionalized in a way that gives me plenty of chances to be there for the special moments when they occur.

There really is a lot of unique beauty in this faith tradition of Mormonism - and the irony is that the more available we are to experience the beautiful, the more exposed we will be to the ugly. When we run away from the ugly, we also are, in a very real sense, rejecting the beautiful and settling for the bland.

Opposition in all things drives some people batty, but I've learned to appreciate the "fullness" of such a journey.  Thus, even though I want it eliminated, the ugly is just as important a piece of my faith as is the beautiful - and experiencing the beautiful makes the ugly bearable. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Rocks and the Stained Glass Windows of Our Faith

A friend once wrote the following, which touched me deeply when I read it.  I have attended two LDS churches that had stained glass windows: Cambridge, MA and Quincy, IL.  I hope what my friend wrote helps someone, somehow, who reads it here:

Yesterday was an upending day. A day I am now grateful for. In the hours of reflection I have come to many clearer thoughts than I held before. I have learned a lot about myself and about others. I have come to some conclusions, one of those revolves around the image of stained glass windows.

Stained glass windows were common adornments in churches, especially cathedrals, but smaller ones had them, too. Even LDS churches have had them. The windows were depictions of sacred events or individuals. As the light fell through them they illuminated the surroundings and drew parishioners eyes to them. They were meant to uplift, to teach, to validate.

Stained glass windows don't exist in many churches any more. Many are not the works they once were. I miss them. But I realized as members of this complex religion, everyone of us carries a stained glass window in our hearts. We each have things that this religion symbolizes to us. We imagine, desire, cling to, and create a theology that answers our yearning. For one person it's the idea of a prophet - a living Moses or Elias. For another it's the links of eternity, keeping all that you cherish bound together. Still others love the covenant rituals performed. For many it's a combination of pieces.

Week by week, day by day, experience by experience we each select the pieces and colors we desire in our window. The process of creating the window is so subtle we don't even notice we are making it. But it means everything to us. Each week as we head to church to worship, we hang up our personal window. It encompasses us. I hear it in people's testimony - or their monthly confession, which ever it is that Sunday. I hear it in their lessons. They teach what they cling to or what rings true to them.

The windows are sacred. Each of us think we all have the same window, but we don't. If we listen and observe carefully they are all different. The reason we think they are the same is because we use the same words in describing them - glass, color, etching - but the product is individual.

Yesterday I threw a rock through some one's window. It was thoughtless. I was more concerned about my window, because mine looks different than hers. Together we will pick up the broken glass of our mutually shattered windows. We will each carefully graft back the images we see.

From now on, though, I will try to remember that the most beautiful edifices are the buildings with multiple different stained glass windows. And I will try hard not to put any rocks through others, because there are already too many broken stained glass windows to begin with.

Friday, July 10, 2015

My Letter to a Mission President re: Mission Success

Having served a mission (in Japan), having a son who served a mission (in the USA) and having a daughter who served a mission (in Germany), I have thought about what I would say to a Mission President about how to measure success as a missionary. I and my children have been fortunate with regard to Mission Presidents, but I know too many missionaries who were not as fortunate. I served immediately following the fiasco of baptism competitions that were epitomized by the term "baseball baptisms", and I know part of the reason why I didn't face intense baptism goal pressure was a direct result of the crackdown at the time. Thus, I have thought about what I would say if I heard of pressure being applied to equate success with baptismal numbers.

The following is what I have drafted as a result of my pondering:

President ___________,

I served a mission in Japan following the crackdown on practices that led to baptism contests within and among missions, quick baptisms of people who were woefully unprepared (and, in some cases, not fully aware of what they were doing) and the inevitably horrible retention rates that followed. Thus, I am sensitive to the way "success" is defined in a mission and the pressures that missionaries can face with regard to goals and, ultimately, things that are outside their control. I understand and appreciate faith and trust in the Lord, but I also understand and honor agency as the foundational gift of mortality - right alongside and part of the Atonement itself.

My only request is that "success" be defined as it is in "Preach My Gospel". That manual is crystal clear that success is not measured by number of baptisms - or any other metric that involves the agency of others. I loved my mission and understand and support completely the need for measurements of missionaries' personal efforts, but I also have friends who had horrible experiences on missions due solely to high pressure sales tactics and success metrics used by their Mission Presidents and, as a result, their AP's and Zone Leaders.

I want people to be converted more than I want people to be baptized, and, again, I want success defined as it is in Preach My Gospel, not strictly numerically. I want missionaries to be faithful, successful missionaries, but I don't want them to feel like they failed if they end up having an Elijah mission and not an Ammon mission. I would love for each of them to have an Ammon mission, but I would be happy if each of them becomes an Elijah if that is what the Lord has in store for them.

There is nothing specific to you that makes me feel uneasy or concerned, so please accept this as nothing more than the desire of my heart for my own children and all others who serve missions. I appreciate deeply your and your wife's sacrifice and dedication in accepting the call to serve as Mission Presidents and in nurturing the missionaries. May God bless you in your own efforts, and may your success be measured in the same way the success of the missionaries you serve is measured - whether you look back and feel like Ammon or Elijah.


Ray DeGraw

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Idea That We Earn Spiritual Grades Is Abhorrent to Me

I have a friend who is bi-polar and who has struggled for years with the tendency to compare herself to others.  "Objective" measures of righteousness (and I use the quotation marks intentionally in phrasing it that way) and discussion of The Plan of Happiness have been brutally hard for her to handle, especially in her depressive stages.  While we talking recently, she mentioned how difficult it was for her to hear a friend say that we earn a spiritual grade and that only those who earn an "A" will reach the Celestial Kingdom.

The following is my response to that belief: 

If that idea works for someone else, fine - but the only standard in the actual theology is doing what we are able to do, with the assurance that the Atonement makes up the difference. I don't like talking about spirituality in terms of grades in school, but I believe if someone is capable of getting a "D" and actually gets that "D" that person will be rewarded to the exact same degree as someone who is capable of getting an "A" and actually gets an "A" - and more than someone who is capable of getting an "A" but gets a "B". I taught school for a while, and I was far prouder of the "Most Improved" student in my classes than I was with the bright students who coasted to straight "A"s without any attempt to stretch themselves.  (The parable of the talents also comes to mind.)
I have twin sisters, a year younger than I.  The other six of us got A's and A-'s, while those two struggled to get B's and an occasional A and C.  I learned later that some of their teachers assumed their B's and C's were the result of lack of effort, since none of their brothers and sisters got those grades.  In reality, my sisters worked MUCH harder than the rest of us in school - and they are two of the hardest workers still to this day whom I know.  To say, in any way, that the rest of us will be rewarded above them is abhorrent to me. 

Nobody knows fully what someone else can do. We don't know fully even what we can do. We just have to try to do our best, whatever that is, and try not to let others' expectations weigh on us - particularly those who are bi-polar or prone to depression of any kind. They need to work on maintaining a handle on that tendency, to the best they can, knowing the hand they were dealt is different than those who talk of earning spiritual grades.

The people who talk about spiritual grades generally care; they just don't understand.

It's important to remember that. They really do care; they just don't understand.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Who Would God Choose to Start a Church or Religion?

I think God would establish a church or a religion through anyone who was a good person at heart and had the type of personality to believe God would talk with them and establish a church or religion through them.

I think just about the only people who have any chance of establishing a church (or any organization) that has the potential to change the world in some way walk a balance beam of sorts - and fall off regularly. I think the main difference is whether they get up - and which side of the beam they walk the most.

When it comes to who we accept as inspired religious leaders, I think it is VERY easy to dismiss Jesus, of Nazareth, as a crackpot and a fraud, if one is so inclined. I'm not comparing Joseph Smith to Jesus in any way that involves divinity by saying that, but I am comparing the two of them to Mohammed, Moses, Luther, Calvin, Confucius, Ghandi, King and others in saying it - and I am comparing them to Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Herod and any number of people who got up and walked primarily or exclusively on the other side of the line. Every one of them had something that set them outside the norm in their field of focus, and every one of them was magnetic for those who followed them. Charismatic leaders are extraordinary - for good and/or bad - sometimes clearly one, but sometimes a difficult mix of both.

I think God understands us far better than we understand ourselves and each other - and I think he works with people we assume naturally he wouldn't, including, often outside our own awareness, us.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On Not Being of the World: Our Rhetoric Can Discourage Living More Christ-Like Lives

I think we work so hard not to be of the world that we forget to be fully in the world - which is where the Gospel is found, in the purest sense.

Jesus certainly lived fully in the world, and our rhetoric too often discourages that sort of involvement.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Home Teaching: Principle vs. Program

I love the principle of Home Teaching, even if the implementation of it into a program gets messed up too often.

I love the idea of helping each other, and I know of many situations where a loving person outside the family was just what someone in the family needed to survive a rough stretch. Also, when done properly, it can be a godsend for single mothers with boys, especially. I like the concept of "it takes a village", and I don't want to try to raise my kids in isolation from other caring adults.

I think the reason Home Teaching doesn't resonate with some people (or even is a negative thing) has much more to do with formulaic, ineffective and/or offensive implementation and other church time demands on families than with the ideal it represents. I think if it was done regularly the way it is supposed to be done (at least, the way it was envisioned originally), there would be few if any people who would have problems with it.

In the name of full disclosure, I say that as someone who has not been a good Home Teacher over the years.

Friday, July 3, 2015

A Quick Note about LDS Activity Rates

LDS activities rates are not nearly where I would like them to be, but they are not as bad as many people claim, especially in comparison to other denominations.  All is not well in Zion, but all isn't terrible, either.  

I've done some research in the past about activity rates among various Christian denominations (in response to some questions at an online forum a few years ago), and it's interesting that the rates for many denominations are fairly consistent - with the LDS Church actually being near the top of the list.

Part of the refocus of a couple of decades ago and the whole idea of "raising the bar" for missionaries was in response to the baseball / soccer baptism fiasco, and the Church has gone much slower in some areas that lack infrastructure than it could have - Africa being a good example.

Also, it's interesting to note that the world-wide membership figures published in the past (perhaps still, but I haven't looked at recent reports) for some Protestant churches reflect people who attended some kind of mass gathering (like a revival) and "accepted Christ" at that gathering. The "activity rates" in those situations are abysmal, since the primary purpose wasn't continued activity but only one-time salvation.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

An Interesting Take on Wives Giving Themselves to Husbands in the Temple

I have read and been in involved in multiple conversations in my life about the wording in the temple where the wife gives herself to her husband and the husband takes her unto himself.   I know quite a few women who don't like that wording - who feel that it is sexist and offensive, since the husband doesn't give himself to his wife, as well.  I would have no problem whatsoever if the wording was changed to a more modern version of how most people view marriage now as a mutual giving and taking, but the following has helped me not be upset in any way about the current wording. 

I am not a young man by any stretch, and I know a woman who I think is old enough to be my grandmother.  I would guess she is in her 90's - which means her parents were born a few years before or after the turn of the century - around 1900. Those parents had grandparents who were alive during the Nauvoo period.

I asked this woman once about the temple wording addressed in this post, and the following is what she said, in my own summary wording:

Back then, they talked about sex in terms of taking and giving. They believed consent couldn't be "taken". Rather, it had to be "given". If a woman wasn't willing to "give herself" to a man, sex with her was not appropriate - since she would have been "taken" without permission. It was a way to put power in the hands of a woman in a physical situation where she most often could have been powerless.

Thus, in order for a marriage to be seen as legitimate, the woman FIRST had to "give herself" to the man BEFORE that man could "take her unto himself".

I thought that was fascinating - that what we tend to see as discriminatory against women was seen by this older woman as a wonderful construct to give her power and protection when she wouldn't have had those things otherwise.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

True Repentance Is Not Always Complete Repentance

In general, we don't handle addictions very well in the Church.

First, it is stigmatized so much that it is hard for many members to admit - and it is easy for those not addicted to over-react.  Second, "true repentance" ("true" as in "pointed in the right direction, like "true north") and "complete repentance" ("complete" as in "finished") are two very different things.

True repentance is a condition of the heart and spirit - a deep desire to be the best "me" possible and faith (hope in the unseen) that I can continue to grow and be better over time, with an acceptance of grace that makes up the difference between what I want to be and what I am - and might always be in this life, like Paul's reference to the thorn of his flesh.

Complete repentance is a condition of the body, where we have stopped doing certain things that keep us from being who we want to be. True repentance can exist "fully" even when complete repentance is not possible (like an addict who tries valiantly to change all his life but stumbles occasionally) - and, I would argue, complete repentance (in terms of Mormon theology) doesn't occur until we are perfected as gods. True repentance, justified by the grace of the Atonement, allows for thorns of the flesh to continue to exist without guilt and punishment in the end.

We teach complete repentance in most cases where we should be teaching true repentance, and the failure to distinguish between the two causes real harm to many people - especially those struggling with an addiction.