Monday, August 31, 2015

Is "The World" Getting Worse? We See from a Vantage Point of Relative Luxury

We often hear references in church talks to how the world is falling apart or declining, and those references often are included with "battle cries" that frame our interaction with "the world" in terms of conflict and war.  Frankly, I don't like how often those themes are stressed, even if they are valid in some cases, and I don't like warfare language in situations I don't see as legitimate, necessary conflicts.  

Yes, the world is worse than it has ever been - except in the cases where it's better; it's better than it has ever been - except in the cases where it's worse.

The difference, and especially the balance, generally is in the perspective of the observer.

Overall, I"m a glass half-full kind of person with regard to this topic.  I would FAR rather live in this day and age than at any other throughout history, especially given the relative luxury of living in the United States.  It's really easy to forget how good we have it, compared to the lives of the vast majority of people who have lived on this earth since its creation. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Grace and Charity: We Hurt Others As Much As Others Hurt Us

We are told that only God can judge our actions based on our understanding, our ability and the intent of our hearts, but that grand grace gets lost in translation at the individual level far too often.

We tend to be hardest in that regard (judging others) on those who are the closest to us, since we think we know them well enough to judge them righteously - and since our expectations are higher for them.

Think about it:

Whose lack of understanding hurts the most - and who is the most hurt by your differences with them?

I'm betting it's family, close friends and fellow congregants. It's easy to love someone, in theory and at the strictly intellectual or emotional level, if they are removed enough to not hurt you.

On the other hand, it's a lot easier to forgive someone for their view of you if you realize how hard it is for them to understand and accept your different views, beliefs and actions.

It's easy to focus on the hurt we feel and forget the hurt we cause others to feel.  I believe recognizing the hurt we inflict, usually unintentionally, is critical to obtaining true charity. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

In the End, What Really Matters?

When all is said and done, I believe what matters most is no more than that we search for and find peace and happiness, that we love and serve others and that we try to be the best people we can be on our life's journey.

We really can't know objectively about things outside our mortal vision (which varies from person to person), so, at the most fundamental level, all we are required to do is live according to the dictates of our own consciences, let us worship how, where or what we may.

The interesting thing is that, when you get to the heart of current Mormon theology (especially when you consider temple theology and vicarious work for the dead), the summary above is a pretty good one to describe the path to "perfection" (completeness, wholeness, full development) we call the Celestial Kingdom - and it's the heart of the Atonement within our theology. Our effort, limited though it is, is enough, through the grace of God and its limitless reach. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

If We Really Are Truly Christian, It Has to Start Here

Marlin K. Jensen, former Church Historian and member of the 70, held a Q&A session a few years ago with a group at Utah State University. He spoke of church leaders needing to provide an “atmosphere of safety and a welcoming place”. He went on to say:

“If we really are truly Christian, it has to start there. Being less judgmental. Being more open and welcoming and inclusive…so, if that environment can be created, and... it should be, but often in the church, when someone comes with a bit of a prickly question, he’ll be met with a bishop who number one, doesn’t know the answer. Number two, he snaps and says, ‘Get in line and don’t question the prophet, and get back and do your home teaching.’ And that isn’t helpful in most cases. So, we need to educate our leaders better, I think, to be sympathetic and empathetic and to draw out of these people where they are coming from and what’s brought them to the point they are at. What have they read, what their thinking is, and try to understand them. Sometimes that alone is enough to help someone through a hard time. But beyond that, I think we really need to figure out a way to live a little bit with people who may never get completely settled.”

Monday, August 24, 2015

God Bless the Humble Bishops of the World

We weren't there from the beginning, but our ward in the Boston area when I was in college was created from parts of three different wards. There were multiple ward-level leaders with the same previous callings in the new ward, as well as two serving Bishops. The ward drew from a poor area, a middle-class area and a relatively rich area - as well as a working-class, relatively uneducated population and a highly educated, consciously intellectual area. The first couple of years were rough.

The man who was called to be the Bishop after the first few years was one of the most humble, loving, gentle men I have ever known. By the time we left that ward, after six years, it was a very united, loving ward. It became an example of what the Church can be at the local level, despite tremendous odds.

God bless the good, humble Bishops in the Church.  They carry burdens that I would not wish on anyone, and they set the tone for the wards in which they serve. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

What Do You Love about Mormonism?

I have been asked the title question often, and the following are the first few things that jump to mind. I would love to get personal input about how anyone who reads this post would answer the question.

1) The core, base, foundational theology: "I am a child of God" is powerful and meaningful to me - because of the eternal growth / progression it teaches. "Becoming" is important to me - far more than traditional, verbal praising. I also LOVE that I can see the theology as far more universalist than many members believe.

2) The focus on strengthening families - even with the corresponding issues that focus can cause. I would like that focus to be expanded to focus on all families, regardless of their composition, but I like the focus.

3) The complexity: I love the fact that I have to think actively in order to build my own faith, but I'm wired that way. Conversely, I like the fact that so many others don't have to struggle actively to find a faith that resonates for them.

4) Generally speaking, the people: Mormons tend to be good, sincere people, and I like being around and with most of them.

5) The Church's welfare system: This one is personal to me, since I have been unemployed and helped more than once in my life.

There is more, but these are the ones that hit me first.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sharing the Gospel vs. Doing Missionary Work: Net Fishing vs. Rifle Hunting

I like to frame sharing the Gospel / missionary work in terms of fishing and hunting.

Think about the last person you shared the Gospel with or invited to a church activity. Why did you talk with that particular person?  When I am leading a lesson discussion, I try to get three or four answers (which almost always center on a shared interest or friendship or determination of readiness), and then I explain the difference between fishing in Jesus' time and hunting in our time.

Jesus didn't bait a hook and cast a line into the water in the exact spot where he thought the fish were most likely to be hiding. Jesus threw out his net and gathered in whatever fish swam into it. He preached to the masses and let people follow him if they chose to do so. On the other hand, we tend to grab our rifles and try to find the perfect target for our message - saving our bullets for the right one and even praying that the right one will walk into our scope sights.

I'm not talking about approaching everyone we see, like a full-time missionary, but rather talking with everyone we meet about whatever normal, everyday thing pops into our minds and seeing where the conversation leads.  I'm talking about casting our lives upon the waters and seeing who swims up to us and wants to talk about our lives. 

My brother was raised in central, rural Utah. The hunting approach was the only possible approach, since each ward had about 500 members and maybe 5-10 non-members living within its boundaries. Thus, every non-member had been shot at multiple times and was adapt at ducking the bullets and/or finding good cover. When he moved to Oklahoma, he told me he was amazed at how naturally and openly everyone talked about church and religion and God. It was done in the course of normal conversation - no conversion motive and not awkwardly, just as part of regular life.

Likewise, my mother couldn't carry on a conversation for more than about 10 minutes without having the discussion include some aspect of the Gospel, since it simply was part of how she viewed life. She never preached to people or overtly even talked about the Church; rather, she simply talked with them - and Gospel principles leaked into the conversation.

To me, that is the heart of pure Gospel sharing - when it just comes up naturally because of who you are as you talk about life.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Monday, August 17, 2015

God Really Does Know Us in Our Individual Circumstances

We got an email from our daughter serving in the Berlin mission after General Conference in October 2013, and I want to share something she wrote - since it's easy to forget that we all have very different experiences, based on the time and condition of our lives at the time. Also, we often have no idea how specific talks hit specific people - or the apparent revelation / guidance that can prompt someone to attend a particular session.

First, because of the time difference in Germany, they don't watch the sessions straight through. They tape the ones that happen during the night and watch them over the course of that weekend and the next one. I won't list their schedule, but I will say that it isn't "common sense", per se. So, when my daughter says the first session and the second session, she means the first ones that were broadcast there, not the first and second ones we watched on Saturday.

I don't pretend to understand the following, and I won't provide commentary. I just want to post it here for your consideration.

Anyway, the following is from her letter:

I just love being a missionary during General Conference. It is just so incredible that someone's talk is given at exactly the right session for when the person could come to conference!


First Session:

This past week, we met with a convert of 16 months, who had some major questions about tithing. He had a question about it and he's been working with us with missionary work because he's just awesome like that. He had a question. Met with him again on Saturday at 3pm (a few hours before Bednar's talk) and we told him EXACTLY what Elder Bednar said. Like practically word for word even. It was sooo cool! This is great because of two reasons:

This member after talking with us felt the Spirit and received his answers he was searching for. He was excited for conference to see if what he had just felt a few hours ago would be confirmed. It was. He came to us afterwards and was like,

"That Elder Bednar. Wow, that was exactly what I needed to hear."

Second Session:

I called a less active member about 5 times Sunday morning, at first trying to get him to come to the Priesthood session. He didn't show up. I called him for the Saturday afternoon session (so 2pm on Sunday for us) about 3 times and I wasn't going to...because that's kind of annoying... haha. Anyway, I felt like I needed to keep calling him. And he came. Afterwards, I asked him which talk helped him the most and he said, "Elder Holland's! You promised me if I came, I would find help and answers!" He suffers from long-term depression, which is why he hadn't showed up to Priesthood session. He was in one of his huge slumps and I had kept calling him to help him come. He came to exactly the session he needed to be at, not the one I thought he needed to attend.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Touching Experience Today in the Temple

I had a wonderful experience as a temple worker today.

1) There was a young woman who was doing an endowment session for the first time - going through for herself. She is 23 years old and is NOT going on a mission or getting married. She simply wanted to go to the temple now. That is happening more and more now (single, non-missionary women being allowed to go much earlier than in the past), and I think that is an excellent thing.

2) Her parents and grandparents were able to participate in the session, and it was heartwarming to see - especially at the veil, as her grandmother helped her on one side and her grandfather helped her on the other side. It really was touching.

3) Her grandfather is quite hard of hearing, so the Temple President stood next to him at the veil, listened, and motioned to him each time his granddaughter said her part on the other side of the veil. He couldn't hear what his granddaughter was whispering, but he was able to be involved in an intimate way that would not have been possible otherwise. Watching that was the highlight of the day for me - and one of my favorite memories so far in the temple that did not involve my own family.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Perhaps the Most Beautiful, Touching, Profound Comment about Faith I Have Ever Read

A dear friend whom I admire greatly shared the following last year in an electronic conversation.  I copied it at the time and decided to post it today.  It is one of the most profound comments on faith I have read - ever - in my entire life: 

Regarding faith, I would point out that faith includes, by very definition, a degree of uncertainty. It is hope in the absence of knowledge.

I would also talk about Exodus 33:18-21. Moses asks to see God's glory. God says He will pass by while obstructing Moses' view but that Moses will see His back. Some translations indicate that it wasn't God's "back" but "where God had been".

I think this is a beautiful description of faith. Few of us see God. But we can see where He has been in our lives, in our world, and in our own hearts.

I've seen the footprints of God beside those labored shuffles of mourning families as they make that difficult trek back to a waiting black car from a graveside service. I've felt the warmth His hands have left on the shoulders of a prison inmate sobbing at the realization of the suffering caused by selfish acts. I've breathed His scent overwhelming the stale air of shantytowns where poverty, disease, and desperation would otherwise choke out goodness and hope. I've felt the cool breeze in His wake as the cleansing morning of forgiveness dawns on a penitent sinner. I've felt the hem of His garment as by their faith He has healed sick bodies and through their illness He has exalted tender souls. I've seen His reflection in the eyes of those who weep for the suffering, those who show compassion for society's outcasts, and those who gently bind up the broken.

Because I can see where God has been, I live in the hope that there is a better world awaiting all those who are willing to follow His footsteps into the forsaken places where He is so actively at work.

Because I can see where God has been, I am unable to turn away from the sick, imprisoned, hungry, thirsty, and naked.

Because I can see where God has been, I walk by faith that my small efforts to shadow His path will eventually bring us face to face.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Suicide is Devastating, but, Every Once in a While, the Heavens Really Do Open

He will find his way home - sctaysom (By Common Consent)

Suicide is devastating.  I am thankful that our LDS theology includes an abiding grace that allows us to see those who end their own lives as still being worthy of love and as not lost to the highest blessings of God. 

This is a powerful post, in and of itself, but there is an additional comment in the thread from a friend of the author that is astounding - and so full of lessons for all of us. 

Arle's comment

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

My Talk on the Atonement: Jesus' Life As the Most Important Element

When we talk about the Atonement, we often use analogies or explanations that make sense to us. For example, we hear about the parable of the bicycle - or the weak student who is going to get whipped for his actions but a stronger student steps in to take his punishment - or someone who is in overwhelming debt who has his debt paid by a rich benefactor - or any number of other examples. We want to understand the Atonement more deeply, so we create these explanations - and we pick whichever one resonates most deeply with our own personalities and experiences.

While I also like to try to understand the mechanics of the Atonement (how it works in practical terms), I think obsessing over exactly which explanation is "true" is an example of something Elder Maxwell said in General Conference in 1988 - that the dimensions of the cross are not as important as what happened on it. Therefore, I am not going to talk about my understanding of the practical details of the Atonement; rather, I am going to talk about what the Atonement means to me - how it resonates most deeply with my own soul.

I start by comparing how the Atonement is addresses within mainstream Christian thought and within Mormon theology.

The traditional belief in Christianity about our ultimate end can be summed up as the wicked or unsaved suffering forever in Hell, while the righteous or saved live forever in the presence of God (generally focused on Jesus). In essence, this belief says that some will be punished with eternal torment, while others will end up in the condition we teach existed in the pre-existence. Framed differently, in Mormon terms and not focusing on the differences in physical condition to the resurrection, mainstream Christianity teaches that all people will end up in either Outer Darkness or the Terrestrial Kingdom. It's not that we reject their concept of Heaven and Hell; it's that we see more eternal conditions than that - and, importantly, we teach that most people will end up being more blessed than what is believed in most other denominations. For example, the generically wicked will be rewarded and blessed with a degree of glory, and those who strive to live the best they understand will be blessed with a much greater reward than the Terrestrial Kingdom, no matter their religious affiliation in this life.

That concept of an "extra reward" is the heart of the difference between how we view the Atonement - and I have to chuckle a little whenever I hear someone say that Mormons believe they are the only ones who will make it to Heaven. They simply don't understand our theology - but I also think it's important to point out that this misunderstanding sometimes occurs because of how we talk about "the world" and "others".

That is part of the intellectual aspect of the Atonement that means a lot to me, but the intellectual is not the most powerful to me. I believe strongly that, in the Church, we so the Atonement a disservice (that we actually devalue it) when we focus exclusively on the Garden of Gethsemane and Golgotha. Those are incredibly important aspects of the Atonement, but the ultimate goal of our existence is NOT to be saved from sin and death and return to a terrestrial existence (equal to the pre-existence, except with a resurrected body). We are told that the purpose and measure of our creation is to become like God - and it is Jesus' LIFE that provides the blueprint for how that can occur. His suffering and death are said to free us to pursue exaltation, but it is his life that teaches us how to "become like God"; thus, his life is an integral part of his Atonement.

To state it differently, someone can lack an intellectual understanding of Jesus and the Atonement (and not even have heard of either in this life) and still become like God, while others can study Jesus and understand intellectually the Atonement and not become anything like God. Understanding Jesus and the Atonement to the best of my ability is important, but actually striving to live like he lived and become like him is FAR more important in the end.

How can we do that?

We can read his words and emulate him. We can read the Sermon on the Mount and strive to acquire the characteristics of blessedness it lists and describes. We can see whom he served and look for ways to serve those same people (the publicans and sinners in our own society). We can stop focusing on serving those whom it is easy to serve (like each other here in this chapel) and reach out to those we naturally would avoid, despise and reject. We can try to love as he loved, knowing all the other commandments hang on love.

Brothers and sister, we need to acknowledge Jesus' suffering and death (and we generally are pretty good at that), but I believe we need to be much more intentional and dedicated to changing the world around us than we generally are. My only New Year's Resolution this year is to find a way to help the publicans and sinners around me - those people who I naturally see as "unclean" - not just to check off something on a to-do list, but to develop more fully the type of character and loving nature that Jesus said in Matthew 5:48 is the full measure of perfection.

I hope we all can do so, together and individually.

Monday, August 10, 2015

My Wife's Talk in Sacrament Meeting: The Atonement in My Own Life

My wife gave this talk early last year, during and in the aftermath of some difficult times.

Dictionary definition:

1. satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.
2. Theology : the doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and humankind, especially as accomplished through the life, suffering, and death of Christ.

The background basics, familiar to most of us:

As descendants of Adam and Eve, all people inherit the effects of the Fall. In our fallen state, we are subject to opposition and temptation. When we give in to temptation, we are alienated from God, and if we continue in sin, we experience spiritual death, being separated from His presence. We are all subject to temporal death, which is the death of the physical body.

The only way for us to be saved is for someone else to rescue us. We need someone who can satisfy the demands of justice—standing in our place to assume the burden of the Fall and to pay the price for our sins. Jesus Christ has always been the only one capable of making such a sacrifice.

Only He had the power to lay down His life and take it up again. From His mortal mother, Mary, He inherited the ability to die. From His immortal Father, He inherited the power to overcome death.

Only He could redeem us from our sins. God the Father gave Him this power. The Savior was able to receive this power and carry out the Atonement because He kept Himself free from sin. Having lived a perfect, sinless life, He was free from the demands of justice. Because He had the power of redemption and because He had no debt to justice, he could extend mercy and pay the debt for those who repent.

Jesus' atoning sacrifice took place in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Calvary. In Gethsemane He submitted to the will of the Father.

“I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; … Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit …” (D&C 19:16,18).

The Savior continued to suffer for our sins when He allowed Himself to be crucified. On the cross, He allowed Himself to die. He was resurrected. Through His death and resurrection, He overcame physical death for us all.

Jesus Christ redeems all people from the effects of the Fall. All people who have ever lived on the earth and who ever will live on the earth will be resurrected and brought back into the presence of God to be judged. Through the Savior's gift of mercy and redeeming grace, we will all receive the gift of immortality.

The atonement is the supreme expression of love given from our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. It is the demonstration of their purpose and desires. Their goal is our continued happiness and development.

“For behold, this is my work and my glory – to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)

As I have thought and prayed about how to prepare this talk, I have returned again and again to the same thoughts. How does the atonement relate to adversity? How do we allow the atonement to change our lives and actions? How can the atonement help us cope with the challenges of life? I can only begin to answer these questions through scripture and personal experience.

“And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance. ( Alma 7:11-13)

The atonement of Jesus Christ covers more than just sin. He suffered for all the weaknesses, pains, and issues of mortality. He intimately understands our suffering and infirmities, and knows how to succor us. He overcame death. Because of our Savior’s reparation in our behalf, we can be reconciled with HF and return to His presence.

In Oct 2012, Linda K. Burton gave a talk “Is Faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ Written in Our Hearts?” She says, “We have faced assorted soul-stretching challenges and adversities. Without an understanding of Heavenly Father’s perfect plan of happiness and the Savior’s Atonement.. these challenges could seem unfair. We all share in the trials of life together. But in faithful hearts is written, ‘All that is unfair about life can be made right through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.’ … Why does the Lord allow suffering and adversity to come to us in this life? Simply put, it is part of the plan for our growth and progress!“

Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught, “Our needed conversions are often achieved more readily by suffering and adversity than by comfort and tranquility.” (quoted in Burton talk)

Elder David A. Bednar said, “It is one thing to know that Jesus Christ came to earth to die for us – that is fundamental and foundational to the doctrine of Christ. But we also need to appreciate that the Lord desires, through His Atonement and by the power of the Holy Ghost, to live in us – not only to direct us but also to empower us.” (Burton talk)

Over the past 6 months, our family has had an abundance of challenges – the major ones being the losses of a job, Ray’s dad, and my dad.

I have asked when things will be made right. I have asked, “Why me? Why now?” I have asked, as did Joseph in Liberty Jail, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?”(D&C 121:1) I have keenly felt the loss of my dads, and even nearly 6 and 4 months later I still can be overwhelmed by a song or joke or picture or quote or memory.
Our family has looked forward to the wedding of our son, Jeff, and Laney for a long time. My parents were serving their 4th mission and Dad was beginning the process of getting permission to leave their mission to be their sealer in a temple other than where he was assigned. After my dad’s stroke and death, I have dreaded, even as I have anticipated, the day we would finally become official in-laws. I am grateful that the Lord compensates for our losses. The sealing was not easy, but it was not nearly as difficult as I expected. I know many of us there felt the presence of my dad, and I am so thankful for my knowledge of the plan. It does not erase the pain, but it does soften it.

I frequently think of Elder Quentin R. Cook’s talk from Oct 2008 “Hope Ya’ Know, We Had a Hard Time.” He reminded us that there must be opposition in all things. He talked of various challenges we face: employment and financial problems, physical and mental health challenges, marital problems, wayward children, loss of loved ones, addictions, heartache. He said,

“Whatever the source of the trials, they cause significant pain and suffering for individuals and those who love them. … Some trials are for our good and are suited for our own personal development. We also know that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. It is also true that every cloud we see doesn’t result in rain. Regardless of the challenges, trials, and hardships we endure, the reassuring doctrine of the Atonement wrought by Jesus Christ [teaches that He will] ‘succor his people according to their infirmities.’ “

I also frequently remind myself of Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin’s talk from Oct 2008 “Come What May, and Love It.” This phrase is advice from his mother. He said,

“How can we love days that are filled with sorrow? We can’t – at least not in the moment. I don’t think my mother was suggesting that we suppress discouragement or deny the reality of pain. I don’t think she was suggesting that we smother unpleasant truths beneath a cloak of pretended happiness. But I do believe that the way we react to adversity can be a major factor in how happy and successful we can be in life. If we approach adversities wisely, our hardest times can be times of greatest growth, which in turn can lead toward times of greatest happiness.”

Elder Wirthlin suggests that we learn to laugh, seek for the eternal, understand the principle of compensation, and trust in the Father and Son. He said,

“Learning to endure times of disappointment, suffering, and sorrow is part of our on-the-job training. These experiences, while often difficult to bear at the time, are precisely the kinds of experiences that stretch our understanding, build our character, and increase our compassion for others. Because Jesus Christ suffered greatly, He understands our suffering. He understands our grief. We experience hard things so that we too may have increased compassion and understanding for others.”

He also stated,

“The Lord compensates the faithful for every loss. That which is taken away from those who love the Lord will be added unto them in His own way. While it may not come at the time we desire, the faithful will know that every tear today will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude. One of the blessings of the gospel is the knowledge that when the curtain of death signals the end of our mortal lives, life will continue on the other side of the veil. There we will be given new opportunities. Not even death can take from us the eternal blessings promised by a loving Heavenly Father.”

This law of compensation has been a comfort to me in dealing with the loss of my dads. It has offered me hope and a measure of peace and acceptance. I know my dads are aware of me and our families, and they are busy participating in the work of the Lord on the other side of the veil, just as they were here in mortality.

These past months are not the first time we have faced extreme challenges. But one of the over-riding and persistent thoughts I have concerning our current situation is the realization of how much better I am coping than I have in the past.

This leads me to ponder what has changed – beyond additional time to grow and mature.

I have come to the conclusion that there are four basic concepts that have made the difference for me: faith, hope, charity, and gratitude. As I continue to develop these characteristics and instill them into my heart and soul, it is easier to believe in who I am, to fulfill my purposes here in mortality, and to remember that life is intended to be a test and an empowering experience. Each of these principles leads me closer to the Savior and increases my appreciation for His atoning sacrifice.

“Ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him.” (Moroni 7:41)

“Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works , being led to glorify God.” (Ether 12:4)

My faith and hope are anchors when life gets tough. They persuade me to perform good works and trust God’s promises. My faith leads to a patient persistence in believing He is aware of us and our needs and desires and issues. From our mortal perspective, we are not always able to clearly see what is best for us. Eternal perspective offers the hope that our trials and learning curves have a purpose and are not in vain. My hope in the eventual outcome, even if some of the resolution happens in the next life, is what helps me continue to put one foot in front of the other, to get out of bed each day, and to carry on in the face of adversity. Charity, or the pure love of Christ, leads us to love others. Helping others, even when it may be inconvenient, brings happiness and peace. Turning away from our own pain and sorrow for a time while in the service of others is a healing balm of Gilead. And the recognition that we have reason to rejoice and be grateful, regardless of the struggles, helps us focus on the blessings in our lives. Gratitude and optimism, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges and sorrows and burdens, make a difference in coping with the roller coaster of mortality.

Over the past 6 years, I have written a weekly blessing list. This has literally changed me from the inside out. I have gone from being a naturally pessimistic and discouraged person to being more naturally optimistic and hopeful. I have learned to trust in the Lord and to begin some semblance of letting go of things I can’t control. I have gained a greater degree of peace and joy. I have experienced emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual healing. I have become more faithful, hopeful, charitable, and grateful. I have become a little better at relying on the mercies and grace of Christ.

Does this mean it is easy to go through trials? No. But it does make it easier. Does this mean I don’t have moments of weakness and frustration, that I don’t have room for improvement? Of course it doesn’t. I have my bad days. I have meltdowns. I have pounded my head against the brick wall of adversity, trying to find my way over or under, around or through the challenges of life. I have ranted and cried. I have wished things could be different. I have my own private Gethsame moments, as we all do.

But I return again and again to the atonement of Jesus Christ. He is our Savior and Redeemer. He saves us from ourselves, our weaknesses and ailments. He redeems us from our sins. He has descended below all things. How can we expect to become like Him if we do not also suffer in some way?

I have felt the reassurance of His compassion in the answer Joseph received in the Liberty Jail,

“My son [or daughter], peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.” (D&C 121:7-8)

God’s response to Joseph’s plea concludes with these comforting words:

“know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:7-8)

A few months ago when I was really struggling, a good friend gave me a copy of this quote by Jeffrey R. Holland:

“If for a while the harder you try, the harder it gets, take heart. So it has been with the best people who ever lived.”

Adversity is not easy, but we are in good company. We have only to open the scriptures to know that every dispensation has had its struggles. We are not alone. The Savior has atoned for our sins, weaknesses, infirmities, and sorrows. When we feel lost and alone, if we will turn our focus away from the blinding pain, we will find He is there beside us, willing to help us carry the burdens, offering hope and peace, allowing His grace to bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be. The blessings of eternity promise that our willingness to leave God’s presence in the pre-mortal world to come to this earth and be tested and tried to prove our faithfulness will be worth every effort and every challenge.

Nephi taught,

“Press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” (2 Nephi 31:20)

I testify that our Savior and Redeemer does indeed heal all wounds and all losses. His endless and perfect love and compassionate sacrifice saves and redeems us from ourselves, from every sin, every sorrow, every infirmity, and every challenge. His atonement will make all things right.

Friday, August 7, 2015

My Son's Talk on the Atonement: Omniscience, Tupac and Making a Change

This is a re-delivery of a talk I gave in the singles branch a couple of weeks ago, since the topic fits the Atonement.

When I first was asked to speak in church, I was told I could talk about anything. My first thought was to rant about how the phrase, "Modest is the hottest," is a linguistic oxymoron and an apostate concept, but I figured that probably wasn't a good idea. Instead, I chose to talk about omniscience.

Pres. Monson often references the arts to illustrate his points, so I'd like to follow his example and borrow his approach. Tupac Shakur was a rapper and actor who spoke a lot about social issues. He was killed in 1996. In his song, "Changes," Bro. Shakur said:

I got love for my brothers, but we can never go nowhere unless we share with each other. We gotta start makin' changes; learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers . . . It's time for us as people to start makin' some changes. Let's change the way we eat; let's change the way we live; let's change the way we treat each other.

So, what does that have to do with omniscience?

(Read Luke 6:37 and D&C 64:10 that say we are commanded not to judge people.)

Why not? Why can't we judge people? It's so easy! This person smells funny; this person talks too much; this person betrayed the Savior for 30 pieces of silver; this person brought a gun to school; this person cuts herself; this person cut me off on the highway . . . It's so easy to pass judgment.

Story time:

1) I know of a situation where a young lady came to a church dance in a dress that was an inch or two above her knees. One of the female leaders, trying to obey the letter of the law, sent her home to change. She never returned. The thing is, the leader didn't realize the girl was a non-member friend of one of the young men, and she had worn the most "modest" dress she had in an attempt to respect her friend's standards. The motivation / intent was good, but the action was judgmental and drove this good young woman away.

2) My best friend in high school came to live with us the last half of our senior year, when he turned 18 and his father kicked him out of the house. He came to Seminary with me, had some amazing experiences, the theology just clicked for him and I had the privilege of baptizing him right before graduation. He then went to college on his own and had a terrible experience in his ward. He was dating a girl, and her mother made her break up with him because he wasn't willing to commit to serve a mission when he turned 19. She told her daughter, who told him, that he wasn't righteous and dedicated enough for their family. What she failed to consider was that he walked about four miles to church each week and couldn't commit to serve a mission at 19 because he had joined the Church at 18 1/2, had no financial support from his family, needed to save money to serve a mission, and wanted to learn more before he decided to serve a mission. He didn't feel like he understood the teachings well enough to go at that time. He left the Church as a result of that rejection and judgment, saying to me that he had one wonderful experience and one horrible one - and that he probably would give it another shot at some point and see which way the balance tipped.

It's not all bad.

3) Another young man came to live with us when he was in 9th Grade. He was 6'7" and dark black. His life prior to that time was really bad, and he was judged by "the world" every day. However, he was accepted and loved by the ward family where we lived, and it made incredible changes in him.

4) I taught a young father on my mission who had an inoperable brain tumor. Living in Washington, he was prescribed medical marijuana to help with his condition. We worried about what would happen when we brought an investigator to church who obviously smelled of pot. It was amazing to see the ward members embrace and accept him and not even ask about the obvious smell. On his second Sunday there, he bore his testimony and mentioned how loving and accepting everyone was - and he said, "This is the type of community in which I want to raise my son." He died shortly thereafter, but the ward continued to care for and love his son like they had cared for and loved him.

So, why are we commanded not to judge?

A) We all are flawed.

We all are "crippled, "invalid children" and "broken things". Our perceptions are just as skewed by our experiences as the perceptions of the people being judged.

B) We aren't omniscient.

We can't know if the man who cut us off in traffic is rushing his sick son to the hospital - or if the kid in smelly clothing has a single mother who works hard but can't put enough food on the table, let alone buy him a new wardrobe.

Those situations won't be true 100% of the time, but they are possible. We should be striving to give others the same benefit of the doubt that we hope they and Heavenly Father will give us.

Unfortunately, we can't judge fully righteously, with all the facts before us - at least not on our own. But, there is a loving, omniscient Heavenly Father who can and will help us. I've never prayed for help loving someone and had the Spirit whisper:

"Don't worry about him. I hate him, too."

(Read 1 Samuel 16:7 and 1 Chronicles 28:9)

God sees our hearts and understands us. He knows and completely comprehends every factor of every choice we make - especially the choices we make when we feel we have no choice. He knows all of that and loves us, anyway. I know he loved me even when I was one of those people who had lost hope and given up.

He also knows it's hard. He knows we will struggle, sometimes even with the simplest of commandments. He understands that, too, and all he asks is that we try. Black/white, gay/straight, male/female: He loves us all and just wants us to try. The Atonement of Jesus Christ makes up the difference in what we want to do and be and what we are able to do and be.

I know that Bro. Tupac might not be an apostolic witness, but he's right:

It's time for us as people to start makin' changes . . . Let's change the way we live; let's change the way we treat each other.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Church Programs: Necessary Crutches, Not Divine Ideals

A friend whom I respect greatly was talking with me about Home and Visiting Teaching recently, and she said something that I want to share here.  It's not new or uniquely profound, but it is powerful, nonetheless. 

My thinking is that if we lived as we ought, we wouldn't need a program to look after one another.

I usually tell a story to illustrate the point. My sister-in-law had three little girls when her fourth was born with down's syndrome. There was no forewarning of the abnormality and she found out when the nurse laid the baby in her arms. It was a shock that began a period of constant adversity. Unlike her other children, this newborn would not sleep. She had trouble feeding. She cried almost round the clock for the entire first year. One morning, as my sister-in-law sat in her pajamas crying because she had reached her wit's end, the phone rang. A sweet voice on the other end said, your name came to me when I prayed today. How can I help you? And help she did. She swooped in and gave my sister-in-law a much needed reprieve. No formal calling necessary.

And one from my own life. Our family was going through a soul-crushing period of adversity. I was home with our children. My husband was away. I was at my breaking point. It was Monday evening and I was skyping my sister. Feeling utterly alone and abandoned by God, my feelings spilled out as I tearfully wrote, "I give up. I don't think God even knows my address anymore." I signed off to go downstairs and make dinner for the children. As I exited Skype the doorbell rang. It was my bishop. "I had a feeling as I was leaving work that I needed to stop by tonight. Is that okay? My family is out of town. Can I have Family Home Evening with you? I brought ice cream." He held out the carton and I smiled wryly at God's impeccable sense of timing. He didn't just know my address, He knew my broken heart. This good brother had a calling but that's not how he ended up at my door. This was the most humble, genuinely charitable, and concerned bishop I've ever known.

I wish I were half as inspired. I need a program, like a crutch, to keep me upright and moving forward. But I hope I never make the mistake of confusing the hobbling I do aided by a poor prosthetic with running full speed with two good legs to be the Lord's hand and feet in this world.

Our programs are so much less than our potential.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Nature of Worship and Cultural Influences on It

"And the Oscar Goes to . . . Jesus!" -  Melody (By Common Consent)

The post linked above is interesting, with a lot of profound points.  I recommend the comment section, as well - and I don't say that about a lot of comment sections. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Evolution of Gender Role Responsibilities in Marriage within the LDS Church

Back in October 2008, I wrote two posts, on consecutive days, that generated the most comments in the history of my blog.  They were focused on The Family: A Proclamation to the World and what it said about presiding in the home.  If anyone wants to read them after finishing this post, they are at the following links:

"Fathers Are to Preside" and "Presiding: An Evolution of Definition"

I came across those posts today, and I want to share another commentary on the section in question - worded as a response to something I read in a group forum from a Mormon man who was defending the traditional division of labor within marriage as the one and only righteous model.  He was defending traditional gender roles in marriage and society at large by emphasizing what was said to Adam and Eve when they left the Garden of Eden.  There is a lot more I could say about that approach, but I want to focus this post on the aspect of the LDS Church's current position concerning how spouses are to construct the performance of their parental responsibilities. 

The following is what I said to him - and what I would say to anyone who tried to insist that the traditional delineation still is in place as the requirement to be considered faithful for Mormons:

Have you read, carefully, the section in the Proclamation to the World that describes the Church’s *current” stance on gender roles within marriage – or have you, like so many other members, glossed over that section by assuming it says exactly what you were taught in your formative years, simply because it uses much of the traditional terminology in some places?

The following is a close, tight reading [with commentary, to make an important point] of the actual words: 

“In these sacred responsibilities [all of the responsibilities listed previously in the paragraph, importantly without disclaimers or exceptions], fathers and mothers are obligated [strong word choice] to help one another [not insist that the other perform the traditional responsibilities alone] as equal partners [which means "preside in the home" is being defined very differently than it was in the past and, in practical terms, is merely honorific in the best marriages]. Disability, death, or other circumstances [again, no qualifications or limitations in this wording] may necessitate individual adaptation [change to the traditional norm initiated by the spouses themselves with no need to seek permission from anyone else].” 

There absolutely is room in this statement for the traditional allocation of parental responsibilities (and I believe nearly all of the top leadership still believes that is the ideal, where possible), but there is NO room in it for insisting that those responsibilities are the sole domain of either spouse, ordained by God to be exclusive and definitional. If a man insists that he must provide and his wife must nurture by divine command simply because of their biological sex difference (and neither is obligated or excused in participating in the other spouse’s domain), for example, that man is acting in opposition to the Church’s stated position in the Proclamation. If a man refuses to consider doing dishes or changing a diaper or reading to his children, for example, simply because he is the man and those tasks are not part of his responsibilities – or if a woman refuses to consider working for compensation outside the home simply because she is the woman and that assignment is not part of her responsibilities – in that situation each of the individuals is not in line with the Church’s current counsel regarding marriage. The published standard no longer is about each person individually and separately; it now is about the couple as one, understanding the overall responsibilities of parenthood and figuring out how to make it work so their own marriage can provide what it is supposed to provide – together, helping each other, being equal partners

Too many members don’t understand, but this isn’t the LDS Church of my youth and early adulthood.  The Proclamation doesn’t say what Pres. Benson once said. It’s time members let go of his former counsel and embrace what is quoted above and being taught now. 

As long as a couple is sharing parental responsibilities by helping each other as equal partners, their own individual adaptation of the traditional roles is in line with the current, published standard – and everyone else needs to get out of their home and stop judging them for their righteous exercise of agency – no matter how they structure their marriage differently than anyone else would structure theirs