Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Who is Joseph Smith?

 I know a lot of people might answer that question a lot of different ways; here's the Jeopardy "answer" from Dec. 20th last week.  (Category was "Prophets")

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Heretical Beliefs and Feeling Welcome in the Church

There is a great story on pages 55-56 in “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” in which Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee were moving to excommunicate Sterling McMurrin for his unorthodox beliefs. When President McKay heard about it, he phoned McMurrin and asked for a private meeting.  In that meeting, McKay was never critical nor disapproving. He told McMurrin: “They cannot do this to you! They cannot put you on trial!” and that if they did, he (the President of the Church) would be McMurrin’s “first witness”.

McMurrin said: “I should have been censured for being such a heretic, and here President McKay wasn’t even interested in raising a single question about my beliefs, but simply insisted that a man in this Church had a right to believe as he pleased. And he stressed that in several ways… It was really a quite remarkable experience, to have the President of the Church talking in such genuinely liberal terms.”

I love that story. It makes me really love and respect President McKay. Would that we could have more members like him today.

Author Greg Prince later elaborated on that experience on a Mormon Stories podcast.  He said that during that same visit with Sterling McMurrin, President McKay asked a series of rhetorical questions such as “What is it that a man must believe to be a member of the church? Or what is it that a man is not allowed to believe to stay a member of the Church?”  

He didn’t answer either question, but they’re good rhetorical questions. This was in 1954 when McMurrin told McKay that it looked like they were going to try to throw him out of the Church. McKay said that if they do “I will be the first witness in your defense”, and when word of this got out the excommunication charges were dropped.  That’s some serious compassion from the President of the Church. And apparently he was as tolerant of those on the far conservative side as he was of those, like McMurrin, on the liberal side. Very cool example of pitching a big tent and welcoming everyone in.

"BYU blew it"

From the Eugene Register-Guard's "Ask a Duck: Mark Asper":
Q: As a Mormon, how did you end up at Oregon rather than BYU? — @c_drew 
A: BYU blew it. They dropped the ball. (Laughs) At first they didn’t offer me a scholarship until somebody else did. They were like, “Ah, you’re a big LDS kid, you’ll just walk on.” As soon as Oregon and some other schools showed interest, they were like, “Hey, yeah, we want you too!” Then they said they needed to know right away, but I said I hadn’t figured it all out yet, and so they said they were going to give the scholarship to somebody else. Then they called me back, and visited my high school the next day, and basically told me I’d be a bad Mormon if I didn’t go to BYU. I was like, “Jeez, great, that really makes me want to come!” They just blew it. They did a terrible job of recruiting me. And Oregon didn’t. Oregon did a great job.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Unrelated (but still really great!) Thoughts

I glanced this week at the new Teachings manual for George Albert Smith we'll "study" next year.  My knowledge about the man is probably superficial, although I do know and find it notable that he was the first non-polygamist president of the Church.  (I doubt that's mentioned in the actual manual.)  Crazy that the run of polygamist presidents didn't end until 1945 (although by the time Heber J. Grant actually became church president I think he was by then down to just one wife--but once a polygamist always a polygamist!)

Speaking of Heber J. Grant, I read just a few short months ago a great little piece of historical writing by Ronald Walker about Emily Wells, Grant's second wife ("A Mormon 'Widow' in Colorado: The Exile of Emily Wells Grant").  Fascinating history, but like Annie Clark Tanner's autobiography ("A Mormon Mother") it made me grateful to not have polygamy a part of my life.  (Although I guess it's still kinda a part of my life in the sense that it's a part of our Mormon history and also in the sense that I enjoy watching "Sister Wives").  :)

This week I also related to a post by jmb275 called "Reining in the Analyst".  In many ways it describes my church experience in the past couple of years:
...Life seemed simpler before the events in my life caused me to question everything. Going to church was something I anticipated, and it felt like welcome relief. General Conference was a charging of my spiritual batteries, and I derived great comfort from things like the Ensign. It’s not so much that I was ignorant of the problems in the church, nor did I understand or believe every aspect of the Gospel.  There were doctrinal struggles, even then. But I derived happiness from my certainty, from my feeling, from my intuition, or from the Spirit (whatever that might mean). It’s also not that I now constantly bicker with church leaders, or criticize each talk and lesson when I go to church. Indeed, at church I usually don’t say much, but listen carefully to try and learn. It’s really about what’s going on in my mind, the nagging voice that feels the urge to constantly correct, analyze, and thoroughly dissect each idea, sentence, and thought. 
In short, I no longer feel when I go to church, I only think. And that, I’m afraid, sums up the problem when the analyst is the only one who shows up. And yet, I really do want to go to church and so I continue to go and slog through the analysis. I know what is possible there. I remember the feelings, the certainty, the truth. And still, even though I know (and don’t want) that certainty anymore, even though I’m happy with my outlook on life now, I believe I can allow myself to experience the feelings that were there if I can remind myself what it’s like to feel rather than analyze them....

I'm learning I "feel" best at church when I focus on what I call "edifying engagement"--and Sunday teachers seem to mean it when they keep telling me how much they appreciate my questions/comments which help spark that engagement.  Naturally, thinking and feeling are not mutually exclusive, so his post resonated with me as one trying to maintain balance.

Reading more of his posts led me to some other thoughts I can relate to, such as his (and my) desire to treat each other first and foremost as an individual rather than labeling and lumping someone into a group.  Although one label he and I don't mind embracing is "buffet Mormon"; jmb275 writes:  "I am a 100%, dyed in the wool, Buffet Mormon. Yep, I pick and choose what I like, and what I don’t like. I have separated my spiritual growth from the LDS church, and view the LDS church as a tool to help me obtain that growth."

BCC's Mark Brown once pointed out that to some degree every Mormon's a cafeteria Mormon and Dave put it this way: "We're All Middle-Way Mormons".

That's all for now.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

His Prayer Is My Prayer

Lately I've become a bit more selective of when I say "amen".  (It's not a passive thing to me--I want it to mean something and not be taken for granted).  Here is a prayer to which I have no reservations saying amen--meaning, this is my prayer also:

"My prayer is that the Lord will give me discernment; that He will bless me to be honest, frank, and courageous when those are required, and to be discreet, understanding, and sensitive when those qualities are appropriate." --Leonard Arrington, p. 94 of "Adventures of a Church Historian"

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why The Priesthood Ban Matters

I highly recommend Margaret Blair Young's 3 part series at By Common Consent:
"All God's Critters:  Some Thoughts on the Priesthood Restriction and Differing Opinions"

In part two she writes:

"But why should the origin of the ban matter at all, given that the LDS Church was part of a racist nation and that most religions in the 19th Century had some racialist policies? Isn’t all that history merely a sad footnote in the LDS story which was resolved in 1978?
I would say that it is a mere footnote. The central tenet of our faith is the atonement, and nothing else compares in significance. But that footnote does matter because it still affects us, our missionary efforts, and the retention of converts. The folklore which undergirded the philosophy has lingered. As recently as 2009, an African missionary in the Congo had his Anglo companion ask Elder Holland, who was dedicating the country of Cameroon, if it was true that blacks had been “less valiant” than others in the pre-existence. Elder Holland denounced the idea with characteristic boldness, and said that everyone on Earth was valiant in the pre-mortal world—or they wouldn’t be here. Other families of African lineage, or parents of adopted black children, have also felt the sting of the folklore, and continue to deal with a view which casts them as cursed. There are still Mormons who believe such things, which leads them to unthinkingly denigrate people of color (many colors), and to behave in a way which President Hinckley called antithetical to being “a true disciple of Christ” (April Conference 2006). That’s why it matters."

Part one is here
Part two is here
Part three is here

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ethan Allen: Jehovah's Witness

Context:  Teaching about the Revolutionary War and how Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British:

Teacher (me):  "In rushing up the stairs to the officer's quarters, Ethan Allen banged on the door and demanded the surrender of the fort.  The British captain was awakened and demanded to know by what authority the fort was being attacked.  Allen replied "In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!".

8th grade male student:  "What was he, a Jehovah's Witness or something?"

Me:  "What?"

Student:  "Well, you know, knocking on the door and talking about Jehovah..."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Letter to Local Journalist Who Wrote About Mormonism

Good afternoon Mr. Levy.  As a local San Antonio reader of the Express-News I noticed your front page article "GOP race has put the spotlight on Mormonism" Sunday morning.  However, I felt there was one line in particular which obfuscates what Mormons believe and might give a false impression to your readers.  While most people probably couldn't care less, I consider myself a very ecumenically minded Mormon and thus know that many do care, and therefore think a clarification is in order.

I refer to these two sentences: "The doctrine also breaks from the standard Christian belief that Jesus always was God.  He began as a spirit child, perfecting himself later into becoming God in a process also available to humanity in the hereafter."

There is actually quite a nuanced diversity within Mormon thought concerning the three points you mentioned in those two sentences above, and I write to you because I (as a Mormon) certainly don't wish to be lumped into an unnecessary stereotype that confuses what I believe (even if some Mormons believe it), but also because if I were you I would appreciate being notified where my writing could be stronger.  The three unsettled points in Mormon thought are listed below:

1. Whether Jesus has always been God or at some point zillions of years ago became God.  (I'm one of many Mormons who believes Jesus was always God, and thus strongly object anytime people say it's a "doctrine" or tenet of our faith that it's otherwise.  The truth is, there's much speculation that sometimes gets confused as standard doctrine (both within and without the church).  There's always room for interpretation, but it is indeed a fact that the title page of The Book of Mormon states that "Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God".  http://lds.org/scriptures/bofm/bofm-title?lang=eng

2.  Whether we were born/created as spirit children or whether we were uncreated/pre-existing spirits adopted by God.  See, for example, "God, Self, and Spiritual Birth: Two Perspectives" http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2011/01/god-self-and-spiritual-birth-two-perspectives/
Many Mormons thus believe that Jesus was uncreated and thus didn't "beg[i]n as a spirit child".

3.  What the process of theosis/exaltation means, in terms of becoming LIKE God (or a god) or "becoming God".  There are huge ramifications here.  Mormons do not (or at least should not) believe that they will somehow supplant God as if we are on the same track as God.  While some might believe that, Mormons more often speak of becoming "one" with God.  There is not a well defined doctrine, but rather a wide spectrum of Mormon thought in regards to what it means to become "gods" (with a lowercase g)  because God (the one and only uppercase "G") through his grace has the power to exalt His children.  Clearly, there is a difference between future exalted beings and the Exalted One we will always worship.   One helpful clarification about the idea that we can become like God was given by the Church in response to an interview by Fox News during the last election season:

"We believe that the apostle Peter's biblical reference to partaking of the divine nature and the apostle Paul's reference to being 'joint heirs with Christ' reflect the intent that children of God should strive to emulate their Heavenly Father in every way. Throughout the eternities, Mormons believe, they will reverence and worship God the Father and Jesus Christ. The goal is not to equal them or to achieve parity with them but to imitate and someday acquire their perfect goodness, love and other divine attributes."

I hope this helps sheds light on some of the nuances that are often missed when reporting on Mormonism, so that people don't assume all Mormons believe many of these tangential (and oft-debated) ideas are core elements of our faith.  (See, for example, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine" on the Church website:  http://newsroom.lds.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

Prophetic Expectations

Next to the atonement of Jesus Christ, the claim of having a living prophet gets right to the heart of Mormonism. Expectations about prophets are all over the place, and my sense is that sometimes our expectations (and our rhetoric) outpace reality.

I am one of many who have undergone a slow evolution over the past few years in terms of how I view prophets. [More on my faith transition here.] Perhaps as a kid I might have believed that the prophet could do no wrong, but as a kid I was also naive. Unresolved questions and examples of prophets being wrong on doctrinal matters never even entered the radar.

I go on as a Mormon appreciating what I can, not hesitating to take personal responsibility for what I personally believe rather than what "the institution" says I believe. I once shared my prophet/parent analogy, but at the same time I recognize that there are a lot of great parents in the world. Yet Latter-day Saints expect that there's something unique about the prophet. Some Mormons use rhetoric such as "mouthpiece of the Lord" and that "God speaks to a modern day Moses". Naturally, that kind of rhetoric can lead to high expectations. And naturally, there is also a wide diversity of belief about how literally to take that. (I've shared some of my feelings about overdoing the mantra to "follow the prophet" here and here and here.)

Aaron B. once shared his experience teaching Sunday School about the Priesthood ban and subsequent 1978 revelation. In "Teaching OD-2" he articulated some important points concerning prophets: "As the hour drew to a close, the conversation turned to the nature of prophets, how to trust prophets if they are partly products of their time (capable of giving us erroneous instruction), the role of personal spiritual confirmation in evaluating truth claims (even when they come from prophets), and the limitations of this approach as well. This was an inevitable turn in the conversation, and for some, a potentially troubling one. I refused to give everyone easy answers where there are none."

Upholding a certain mystique about how (and how often) God actually speaks is probably to the advantage of our "prophets, seers, and revelators". I think this was illustrated when apostle Howard W. Hunter met with new Church Historian Leonard Arrington, shortly after Arrington was called and Hunter was made his advisor. Hunter "said that he felt the church was mature enough that our history should be honest. Our faith should not overpower our collective memories and documented experiences."
He did not believe in suppressing information, hiding documents, or concealing or withholding minutes for 'screening.' He thought we should publish the documents of our history. Why should we withhold things that are a part of our history? He thought it in our best interest to encourage scholars--to help and cooperate with them in doing honest research. Nevertheless, Hunter counseled me to keep in mind that church members reverenced leaders and their policies. To investigate too closely the private lives of leaders and the circumstances that led to their decisions might remove some of the aura that sanctified church policies and procedures. If the daylight of historical research should shine too brightly upon prophets and their policies, he cautioned, it might devitalize the charisma that dedicated leadership inspires. I accepted Hunter's counsel as a mandate for free and honest scholarly pursuit, with a warning that we must be discreet."("Adventures of a Church Historian" by Leonard Arrington, p. 84)

I do believe Hunter knew what he was talking about. In my case, learning about our history has actually changed the way I view prophets and their policies. While I respect and sustain our prophet leaders, I no longer feel the same reverence or mystique I did even just a few years ago. As I've adjusted expectations I've also had to let go of that aura--some of that Mormon mystique which surrounds those holding apostolic positions. I have come to identify with what Mormon historian Richard Poll once said: "History tells me that leading any organized religion is more of a priestly rather than a prophetic function."

In an article by Peggy Fletcher Stack published just days before the last spring General Conference (Infallible? Mormons told to ‘follow the prophet’ in the Salt Lake Tribune and Mormon president can do no wrong to religion's members in the USA Today), John Fowles spoke of those whose faith is sometimes shakened because of “unrealistic and unnecessary expectations” for our prophets. I agree 100% with what John said. But I still wonder what realistic and proper expectations of our prophets should look like.

Philip Barlow, Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, was also quoted by Peggy Fletcher Stack in the same article. He said that disillusionment with LDS leaders "would evaporate if people saw the church not as essentially divine, marred only by the weaknesses of human administrators, but rather … [as made up] entirely of human beings — with all of their limitations—who are trying to respond to the divine with which they have (in faith) been touched.”

He best articulated my view of the Church. (This is also why I no longer prefer to conflate the Church with "the Kingdom of God on earth" and necessary to separate the Church from the Gospel). Not everyone shares the same experiences or arrives at the same place when it comes to learning about Church history, the way things work, or even their level of religious enthusiasm/commitment. Some might have once sang "We Thank Thee Oh God For a Prophet" with zeal but now feel a bit more restrained. Others have felt the need to lower their expectations of a prophet in order to still maintain a connection to the Mormon prophetic tradition. Those with reasonable expectations of prophets can even feel out of place when attending church with members who still have expectations that go through the roof--including those who believe that the prophet literally speaks directly with God in a way the rest of us cannot/have not, or those who think that when the prophet speaks the thinking is done.

While I personally have no insight into the perfect or ideal set of prophetic expectations, Adam Miller does. And I do agree with John Fowles in the sense that "unrealistic expectations" exist and may make people ripe for a faith crisis.  Ironically, by wanting to tell only the "faith promoting", as if everything prophets do is inspired, leaders can further perpetuate the "unrealistic expectations" that set people up for a faith crisis. Like a balloon going high in the sky, those expectations might just end up popping--or simply deflating. Would that we could just embrace all truth from the get go, not just the comfortable truth.

Andrew S. (a thoughtful self-described atheist and "cultural Mormon") probably had those once-overly-inflated-the-point-of-popping people in mind when he remarked: "For some people [it] isn’t that “the grass will be greener” outside [of the Church], but rather, for a church that claims divine revelation, the true gospel, inspired leaders, it’s surprising that the lawn *is* just the same as everyone else’s, if not quirkier in some areas (while other lawns are have quirks in other areas.)" Or in other words, "If we are taught that the church’s grass is superior, restored, and full, then shouldn’t finding out that the church grass is just on par with everyone else’s grass be a great let down?"

Ultimately, we Latter-day Saints sustain our leaders as prophets, seers, and revelators, although the meaning given to those very words vary according to each believer. And as Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote, "Mormons have to decide for themselves how much deference to give the words of their leaders and deal with the consequences of their choices." It can indeed be a sausage maker's faith.

Some may question the benefit in having a prophet "to guide us in these latter days" if we as individual agents must ultimately rely on our own combination of "inspiration and perspiration". However, the prophet's role is not for us to rely on him, notwithstanding the rhetoric, but to point/guide people to Christ, and to rely on "the merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah". Placing faith in Him--our ultimate "Prophet, Priest, and King"--means that we'll always have expectations that will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rethinking Modesty

Putting a spotlight on what should be required LDS reading:

Perverting Modesty

(By Tracy M--http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/07/09/perverting-modesty/)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Church Signs: Second Edition

Ever since I took a picture of my favorite church sign, I've been on the look out for others I can capture and share.  Here are a few that have caught my eye recently for one reason or another:

I really like this one from a local United Methodist Church, (although not likely to show up in front of an LDS Church):

On the other hand, here are a couple that would fit in quite well at an LDS church, especially the sign as you leave the parking lot of the local John Calvin Presbyterian Church ("You are now entering the mission field"):

Another LDS type sign, since we know how much LDS folk love focussing on "self-improvement":

A little sign caught my eye inside the kitchen of the Stake Center where I attend (definitely NOT one of my favorites):

Still haven't found one to rival my favorite sign, but I've enjoyed snapping the pictures none the less.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Improving Our Sacrament Meetings

Several months ago our bishop started off a combined 5th Sunday (3rd hour) meeting showing a PowerPoint of data his counselor had crunched. Sacrament meeting attendance (along with home teaching and other statistics) has been trending down ever since our ward was created over a year ago.

The bishop, who isn't known for his sense of humor (or warmth, for that matter), asked: "What does this mean?" I quietly leaned towards my wife and jokingly said: "Time to fire the bishopric". Thankfully only the couple in front of me heard, and I'm glad they laughed because it truly was a joke--obviously it's not all the bishops fault. Yet at the same time, while sacrament meeting "worship" is largely a personal experience, I do feel more can be done to improve the quality of the group "worship" experience during our sacrament meetings (and consequently improve the attendance at those meetings).

The bishop then asked us all why we thought this downward trend was happening. A few answers were given, none of which seemed to resonate with anyone, including the bishop. He went on to speak about "rescuing" and how we need to "rescue" others so that they come to church--which struck me as the wrong answer simply because they're not falling overboard--they're jumping ship. People have come to expect lifeless and sub-par sacrament meetings and don't seem to miss much of a spiritual experience when they're not present. As the bishop continued, he mentioned that it's his responsibility to oversee gospel teaching in the ward, and I agreed and raised my hand. Here was my chance to say what I was thinking by piggybacking on his comment.  I said:

"I think you've hit the nail on the head with the importance of teaching. Too often we content ourselves with boring and lifeless meetings rather than fill them with meaning and making them truly edifying. I'm reminded of the quote by President Kimball where he said that "We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come".

I recited it by heart because I had just barely looked it up on my smart phone to make sure I got it right. But the full quote would have been great too:

"Stake presidents, bishops, and branch presidents, please take a particular interest in improving the quality of teaching in the Church. The Savior has told us to feed his sheep (see John 21:15-17). I fear that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or meeting, and they then return home having been largely uninformed [Elder Holland uses the word uninspired]. It is especially unfortunate when this happens at a time when they may be entering a period of stress, temptation, or crisis. We all need to be touched and nurtured by the Spirit, and effective teaching is one of the most important ways this can happen. We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come." ~ Spencer W. Kimball, "Ministering to the Needs of Members," Ensign, Nov 1980, 45.

In response to my comment, the ward clerk (who admits to being a grumpy kind of guy--"I don't smile") states from his seat up on the stand a familiar platitude, something like: "It's our fault if the meeting is boring, because it's an individual responsibility to get something out of the meeting".

I secretly roll my eyes and wait for him to finish before offering a rejoinder:  "I agree with you but only up to a point.  I do believe I have a personal responsibility to worship and get the most out of a meeting--yes. But if I were sick and go to a doctor, the doctor isn't going to tell me 'well, it's your responsibility to get well. Come on--what's wrong with you?!' There is a TWO way relationship and responsibility there. And sometimes I think the sentiment you expressed is used as a cop out to go ahead and be content with boring meetings."

Thankfully another sister, whose husband is not a member but attends sacrament meeting with her, spoke up and agreed with me (although she put things much nicer and far less bluntly)--mentioning that her husband can't possibly be expected to know how to "get something out" of a sub-par meeting by himself and feel the spirit on his own.

Apparently it took my speaking out to break the ice. A friend and former counselor in the pre-ward-split bishopric then spoke out and shared something with the large group he had shared with me before privately. "I personally feel, Bishop, that I'm getting that spiritual nourishment in our Sunday school class. [He's told this to my wife before too because she was the teacher of the class]. But I've been struggling with our sacrament meetings".

Felt good that I wasn't alone.  Another stalwart sister in the ward, who also happens to teach some popular institute classes in our stake, chimed in to say probably the one positive thing she could: "I do feel that this ward does an excellent job, better than any ward I've ever been a part of, of having a very reverent passing of the sacrament. It's always so quiet and reverent during that special time". (What she didn't say is that it often feels like a funeral the rest of the time.) But after the meeting she quickly came up to me, shook my hand, and simply said "THANK YOU". It felt good to have her validate my comment.

My point in sharing all this is that I sense there is much room for improvement in our sacrament meetings. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way, for in that very discussion...well, out of the mouths of two or three witnesses.

And just this past Sunday during a dinner conversation with some new members in our ward, they began talking about the great Sunday School class they had attended, which up through that very day was taught by my wife (she was a magnificent gospel doctrine teacher for all the right reasons but after church on that particular Sunday accepted another calling), and how the atmosphere was exactly what teaching improvement coordinators had aspired to.  I decided to ask the question: "How can we get our sacrament meetings to be more like that?"

I was thrilled to hear this new ward member (who had served in a bishopric in Louisiana prior to moving to Texas) tell me that in his previous stake, the stake presidency and bishoprics had begun receiving training from their area presidency on how to improve the talks in sacrament meeting. Apparently they were using Gene R. Cook's excellent book/CD "Teaching by the Spirit" and focusing on changing the culture of sacrament meeting talks so that people more often share how a particular gospel principle has affected their life rather than just present some research compiled on the particular topic (and which is quite impersonal and boring).

I thought this sounded like a step in the right direction, and was glad that any area presidency would be trying to emphasize this important approach in the stakes and wards throughout the church. I'd like to know if that was just a local area emphasis or if it might also be receiving more widespread attention throughout the Church.  While it's a good start to emphasize this first to stake presidencies and bishoprics, I'm not quite clear on how bishoprics are to then transfer that perspective and train the members in the ward who'll be speaking.  Perhaps a sacrament meeting improvement class could serve a need similar to the "teaching improvement coordinator" concept of yesteryear. Whatever the case, I'm sure smart people can think of something. Obviously this isn't a "new" idea, but about now I'm open to ANY ideas and approaches that might make our meetings more edifying, nourishing, vibrant, and worthwhile--as they should be.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Set Your DVR's for TONIGHT!

Premiering on the Documentary Channel (channel 197 on Dish network) tonight is the award-winning film Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.
A stunning examination of racial issues within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons traces the history and experiences of African Americans in the Mormon church from the church's beginnings in 1830, through the Civil Rights Movement, to the present day.  At the heart of the debate lies the churches denial of the priesthood and most sacred privileges of the faith to its African American members – denials that were reversed in 1978 with a historic "priesthood revelation".

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

History and an Open Future--According to Plan?

On the Fourth of July I decided to re-read David McCullough's masterful speech entitled "The Glorious Cause of America". The full speech is worth a read, but something in his opening thoughts (which I appreciate) made me ponder. He opens by stating:

"One of the hardest, and I think the most important, realities of history to convey to students or readers of books or viewers of television documentaries is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Any great past event could have gone off in any number of different directions for any number of different reasons. We should understand that history was never on a track. It was never preordained that it would turn out as it did.

Very often we are taught history as if it were predetermined, and if that way of teaching begins early enough and is sustained through our education, we begin to think that it had to have happened as it did. We think that there had to have been a Revolutionary War, that there had to have been a Declaration of Independence, that there had to have been a Constitution, but never was that so. In history, chance plays a part again and again. Character counts over and over. Personality is often the determining factor in why things turn out the way they do."

My question arises by juxtaposing this idea (that history isn't preordained, that it didn't HAVE to happen the way it did, that there didn't HAVE to be a Constitution, etc.) with the LDS belief that God perhaps foreordained or at least "raised up" the founders to do what they did, that Nephi saw some of this continents' history in vision, and that the American Revolution was a prerequisite in order to prepare the way for the Restoration (as though it were on a track, which McCullough explicitly rejects because history involves chance).

How should a Latter-day Saint reconcile these seemingly contradictory ideas? Naturally, there is an important nuance between "foreordination" and "predestination", but how much of the "plan" has stayed on plan or has gone off plan? (Parenthetically, was "Plan B" concerning the 116 lost pages of the Book of Mormon because God knew what was going to happen or because He knew what was possible?)

Moving beyond history, it's an intriguing question to think about whether the future is truly open or already "fixed"--especially when prophecy is thrown in to complicate the picture. Sometimes Latter-day Saints start sounding like Calvinists (or maybe just fans of "The Adjustment Bureau"?) when they speak of God knowing the future as though it were predetermined, rather than allowing for real agency (not just the illusion of agency) and an open future.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stupid Arguments Are Just Stupid

"A Vote for Romney Is a Vote for the LDS Church"

That's the first stupid thing stated in this Patheos article by Warren Cole Smith--and that's just the title.

I'm really not a pugnacious person. So why bother even mentioning this? Because I can politely disagree. And every once in awhile I don't care to be polite. Just because an imperious author gets published doesn't mean he's not still full of it. Case in point:

"Certain qualifications make a candidate unfit to serve. I believe a candidate who either by intent or effect promotes a false and dangerous religion is unfit to serve. Mitt Romney has said it is not his intent to promote Mormonism. Yet there can be little doubt that the effect of his candidacy—whether or not this is his intent—will be to promote Mormonism. A Romney presidency would have the effect of actively promoting a false religion in the world. If you have any regard for the Gospel of Christ, you should care. A false religion should not prosper with the support of Christians. The salvation of souls is at stake.

For me, that alone disqualifies him from my vote. Because Mormons believe in continuing revelation, it is possible that in the future the LDS church will renounce its heretical beliefs and come fully into the fold of orthodox Christianity. Many theologians and church historians believe the church is on such a trajectory. But if that happens, it is an event still well in the future. The Mormon Church of today is, by the lights of biblical evangelical Christianity, a false religion. If Mitt Romney believes what the Mormon Church teaches about the world and how it operates, then he is unfit to serve. We make him our President at great peril to the intellectual and spiritual health of our nation."

Whether one thinks that believing in some or all aspects of Mormonism (or any other religious preference) is dangerous or silly is one thing, but disqualifying an American from service because your perception of their religion is warped is just stupid. It's also unconstitutional--"no religious test"--and ironically un-American.

Romney is not the first Mormon to seek or hold public office. The world still spins and people still believe what they want to believe. A president's religion doesn't change any of that.

The whole argument is ridiculous--especially the implication that it's his Christian duty to oppose Mitt Romney. If you don't like Romney, fine. If you don't like Mormonism, fine. But opposing someone just because of their religion (and saying his/her election determines the salvation of souls) is not only bigoted--it's stupid. Someone ought to kindly inform the author that he's being obtuse.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The 2nd Coming's Coming

Taken from my phone on highway close to home

It's hard enough planning for my wife's birthday (May 21st) on normal years, but this is really going to crimp my plans.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shine On

Now that I've finished my masters degree (commencement is this Saturday), I feel like I can finally breath (this semester's "exit paper" has been grueling) and take notice of the world around me. Today at lunch I happened to look up. I was surprised to see this dark ring around the sun--I've never seen anything like it before.

I'm sure it's not the first of many things I've failed to notice in life by failing to look outside of myself--whether looking around me or up. And maybe its the primary chorister calling I have, but reflecting on this picture of the sun (I snapped it on my phone) made me think of the little song, "Shine On":

1. My light is but a little one,
My light of faith and prayer;
But lo! it glows like God’s great sun,
For it was lighted there.

2. I may not hide my little light;
The Lord has told me so.
’Tis given me to keep in sight,
That all may see it glow.

Shine on, shine on, shine on bright and clear;
Shine on, shine on now the day is here.

Truth is, I haven't particularly felt much like shining lately. My "light of faith and prayer" has diminished somewhat in recent months. There hasn't been any sudden crisis of faith, just an ongoing transition in matters of faith in which things no longer shine as bright and clear as they seemed to in the past. I guess I can relate to that dark ring around the sun. More than ever, I recognize how much I see "through a glass darkly". At least I can still see the light from the darkness.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

ALL Families Are Valuable

"What I think I wish, and this is just an idea taking form, is that the 'value of the traditional family' was replaced with 'the value of all families'. I feel like a footnote when I get told, after a talk about family roles, that 'Oh, but you’re okay too!' ALL families are valuable. We are all likely working towards the same goals- namely an environment where those we care for, including ourselves, can grow and learn in love, happiness and safety."

Amen, Tracy M. Amen.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Uncomfortably negative for some, insufficiently critical for others"

A friend of mine and fellow blogger recently shared with me an interesting book review of "Adventures of a Church Historian". One line of the review summarizes Leonard Arrington's memoir thusly: "Uncomfortably negative for some, insufficiently critical for others, the book remains a valuable yet single viewpoint."

I enjoyed the review and immediately felt a great desire to read the book. Thanks to the interlibrary loan, I've now been enjoying it the past few days. There's just something about me that simply appreciates candor. While some may view it as "negative" and others as "insufficiently critical", I simply call it refreshing.

Like Leonard Arrington, who tried in his memoir to be "both circumspect and honest", many of us Mormon bloggers try and do the same in our posts. Some take more risks than others, but all in all I find the bloggernacle (for the most part) refreshing. Of course we all know that not everyone has an appetite for frankness.

A close relative of mine recently related to me why he isn't quite a fan of the Mormon blogging scene. His view was that there is too much of negativity and bitterness prevalent within the bloggernacle. While his concern is legit, he did concede that not everything one might view as negative is negative to another. And he also agreed with my suggestion that it's possible sometimes critical thinking is mistaken for negativity.

It's difficult to find the right balance between "spiritualizing the intellectual" and "intellectualizing the spiritual". Because of this, it seems likely that the bloggernacle itself will likewise continue to be viewed as "uncomfortably negative for some, insufficiently critical for others".

Granted, we all come from different places, have different experiences, and thus different viewpoints. The way we each live and experience the gospel is not quite the same as any other. Yet across the broad tapestry of "Mormon" bloggers I see a common thread--each of us is committed to "truth" as we understand it--even as our understanding of "truth" is evolving.

Which brings me back to Arrington's "Adventures of a Church Historian". In his introduction he states:
"I believe 'the truth' can be both constructive and therapeutic. My fellow church members have a right to an understanding of the matters I discuss. I do not wish to do harm to anyone or any good cause. Above all, I believe that Latter-day Saint readers, as well as my children and close friends, have a right to this personal recital of their father's, friend's, and leader's experience in a key post in the kingdom of God. I hope that readers will be reassured by the words in 2 Nephi 9:40: 'The words of truth [may be] hard...; but the righteous fear them not, for they love the truth and are not shaken" (p. 6).
Arrington took unique inspiration for his approach from the writers of scripture, as he states in the introduction:
"Biblical writers had an insistent tendency to avoid hiding or concealing the sins and misdeeds of the persons they wrote about, whether they were the chosen people of Israel or individual prophets, patriarchs, and apostles. Moses, the greatest character in the Old Testament, and Peter, the apostle of Jesus, are three-dimensional persons, capable of both error and wondrous uprightness. Even Jesus once lost his temper with a fig tree (Matt. 21:19); but he also remembered that a little girl, when she recovered from a fever, would be extremely hungry (Mark 5:38-42)."

"...their approach [that of scriptural authors] suggests that salvation comes from the Lord, not from divinely appointed leaders..."

"Nor did Book of Mormon prophets hesitate to find fault with the church of their day. Nephi, for example, charged that those inclined to proclaim uncritically 'all is well in Zion' (2 Nephi 28:21-29) were following the precepts of men. As we write we must 'behold our weakness' (Ether 12:25) and write with integrity to ourselves and to God. Or, as Will Rogers said, 'It's great to be great, but it's greater to be human.' In any case, I have endeavored, as did the Apostle Paul, to 'speak the truth in love' (Eph. 4:15)."
THIS is the kind of perspective I crave. While it may be easier to gloss over weaknesses and mistakes of church leaders, I believe there is much to be learned from those too. As Arrington wrote, "We may not be edified by every move they made, but we are warmed by their humanity." I don't want a caricature, but neither do I want an idealistic-only view that ignores reality. I want the "nitty gritty". I appreciate objectivity and honesty. This is why I love biographies like Rough Stone Rolling, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, and Lengthen Your Stride: the Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball.

Finally, from the introduction to "Adventures of a Church Historian":
"General authorities of the church and general church officers, for reasons of policy or personal preference, have chosen not to leave autobiographical public records of their dealings and associations with each other, so that church members have no way of knowing what goes on inside church headquarters. Do general authorities ever disagree? What are they like as human beings when they shed their official status as prophets, seers, and revelators? Along with their significant strengths are there also weaknesses--or at least misunderstandings? This book seeks to give some glimpses of the spiritual and organizational aspects of Mormon history and historiography that may add another dimension to understanding LDS life and leadership"...

..."When he wrote the authorized biography of J. Reuben Clark Jr., Frank Fox was advised by Clark's literary executor, Marion G. Romney, as related in the book's forward: 'Any biographer of President Clark must write the truth about him; to tell more than or less than the truth would violate a governing principle of his life. When I first met with those who are writing his biography, I explained that I did not want them to produce a mere collection of uplifting experiences about President Clark (although I knew that numerous such stories could be told), nor did I want a detailed defense of his beliefs. I wanted a biography of the man himself, as he was, written with the same kind of courage, honesty, and frankness that J. Reuben Clark himself would have shown. An account of his life should tell of his decisions and indecisions, sorrows and joys, regrets and aspirations, reverses and accomplishments, and above all, his constant striving to overcome any and all obstacles.'"
Here's to more of this balanced approach to writing history. Surly some on the far right will continue to view it as "negative" and others on the far left might view it "insufficiently critical", but I cast my vote for (and voice my appreciation for) a moderate approach that strives for balance.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Salvation by Grace, Obedience, and the Parable of the Pie

As the ward primary chorister I teach the children to sing the article of faith songs; this month it's the third article of faith. While I primarily teach the gospel through music, there are many times when I feel the need to clarify what they're actually singing about so that they don't misunderstand. I fear that many within (as well as outside) the Mormon faith do this all too easily when they read the third article of faith. It states: "We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel."

My concern lies in taking three words out of context--saved by obedience--and getting a distorted picture of how this whole salvation thing is supposed to work. Thankfully the language in the third article of faith (“all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel”) is clarified in the fourth article of faith: “We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, second, Repentance, third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.” Then to those who obey these principles God gives the gift of the Holy Spirit ("fourth, laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”).

But since we don't sing the fourth article of faith until next month, I'll try to make sure those kids don't miss the most sublime and important point--the Atonement of Christ saves. The only crucial "laws and principles" for which our obedience is of upmost importance is having faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repenting. Those two principles represent the real good news--Christ has us covered (see 2nd Nephi 2: 6-7, Alma 12: 33-34). I feel dismayed at how many people get stuck on a "do it yourself" salvation mentality--as if they can work out their own salvation if they're just obedient enough. (Let me know how that goes!)

When we sing "I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me, confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me", I would hope that no Mormon would ever be confused about grace as though it were a foreign concept. Rather, I would hope we're all amazed and confused at how all emcompasing that amazing grace truly is, especially being applied to mortals like us who don't deserve it.

With that said, I'd like to share my current favorite analogy here--The Parable of the Pie. I was first introduced to the parable here, but its author (Pyschochemiker) recently wrote it out in greater detail here. I quote it below, with some minor edits:


If I bake a pie (imagine your favorite, mine’s definitely blackberry), and invite you over, even when you don’t deserve it, cut a piece out, hand you a fork, and put some ice cream on top. Now there’s a choice, you could sit there and talk about how nice it was for me to make the pie, and talk about how good of a baker I am, or how awesome I am to not require you to do anything to get the pie. But until you choose to actually eat any of the pie, you won’t really know how good it tastes. Would you have gained from the pie without having eaten it, no. Yet, would you really claim boasting rights, or consider it an achievement that you actually ate the pie. Of course not.

From the Mormon point of view, eating the pie is the equivalent of [having faith in Christ, repentance], submitting to baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost...[followed by] a life of discipleship. That is how you “come unto Christ.” That’s how you partake of His grace. But just like we didn’t earn the pie, we also don’t enjoy it unless we eat it.

[One might ask]: “Have I not then become, in a sense, a co-savior with Christ?”
And I would answer: “Not unless you also become a co-baker with me for eating my pie.”

The pie is the salvation that Christ has prepared for us, but we MUST choose to follow him, yet we don’t earn the salvation. He moved first, He provides, He saves, but we must react positively and obediently to His message. “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, if ye do not the things which I say unto you.”

Now it’s true Christ doesn’t cut the slice out for everyone, and doesn’t hand the fork to everyone, but He has made the pie for everyone, and invited everyone to come and have some. Those who know the sweetness of that pie, know that Christ is the Baker thereof, and we [wouldn't trade it for any other substitute]."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Interrogating My Faith: "Fulness" of the Gospel?

"You could say that I was born Mormon and will likely die Mormon. Why then am I always interrogating my own faith? I am always asking why I believe. What do my beliefs mean? How can they be explained and justified? I have sympathy for questioners because I am a questioner too. Settled as faith is in my own life, I understand why people doubt. I see in questioning something deeply religious as well as deeply human..." --Richard Bushman, Mormon Scholars Testify

In that same spirit of asking/interrogation, I'd like to throw out a question and open it up to evaluation. What is the essence of "fulness" in the oft heard phrase "Fulness of the Gospel"?

The (non-canonical) Introduction to the Book of Mormon states that the book "contains, as does the Bible, the fulness of the everlasting gospel." If both the Bible and Book of Mormon have it, doesn't that sound a little like saying "You are special. Just like everybody else"? I'm not going to make an argument either way, but does the Book of Mormon have it exclusively? Does the Bible have it independently? By "it" I of course mean "the fulness" of the gospel.

First, let's define our terms. My understanding of "the gospel" is "the good news of Jesus Christ". In fact, in 3 Nephi 27:13-19, Jesus defines "the gospel" himself.

Robert Millet takes a stab at the Bible question: "While Latter-day Saints do not believe that one can derive divine authority to perform the saving ordinances from the scriptures, we do say that the Bible contains the fulness of the gospel in the sense that (1) it teaches of groups of people in the past who enjoyed the full blessings of the everlasting gospel; and (2) it teaches (especially the New Testament) the good news or glad tidings of redemption in Christ through the Atonement (3 Nephi 27:13-21; D&C 76:40-42)."

Naturally the primary message of the gospel--the "good news" of Jesus Christ--is that he has atoned for our sins and makes way for the salvation of all mankind. This is the message of Christianity in general. So what is the "fulness" that's so unique to the Latter-day Saints? Is it solely the exclusive authority claim?

I know a lot of people would jump at the chance to say that the "fulness" entails temple ordinances. Problem is that the Book of Mormon would have already contained the "fulness" before Joseph Smith instituted a temple building program. That all came later. When Moroni first told Joseph about a book hidden in a hill, he said that the "fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants" (Joseph Smith History 1-34).

So what exactly constitutes the "fulness of the gospel" which had to be restored? Or does a fulness speak more to the quality of our gospel centered life--and not necessarily a "restoration"? More than just getting stuck on semantics, it's a question that ought to have some compelling answers. Even though some LDS sometimes use these interchangeably, the "fulness of the gospel" is not the same as the "restored gospel".

One attempt is problematic:
"The fullness of the gospel, then, means that God’s prophets are on the earth, allowing us to sort truth from the teachings of men, and helping us to prepare for the triumphant return of the Savior, and for our own return to God’s presence."

Unfortunately, the last time I checked, having a prophet wasn't a panacea for sorting out the truth (ex: Brigham Young and "Adam God").

Perhaps the Book of Mormon introduction is just wrong? Regardless, one can use the book itself to argue that the intro should be changed. After all, "when [the Bible] proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord, of whom the Twelve apostles bear record...[but over time] many parts which are plain and most precious [were taken out]; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away," which seems to suggest that the fulness of the gospel was lost (1 Ne. 13:24-29). If so, why maintain in the intro that it's still there?

President Ezra Taft Benson wrote: "The Book of Mormon contains the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ (D&C 20:9). That does not mean it contains every teaching, every doctrine ever revealed. Rather, it means that in the Book of Mormon we will find the fulness of those doctrines required for our salvation. And they are taught plainly and simply so that even children can learn the ways of salvation and exaltation".

Yet, what part of the essential gospel does the Book of Mormon have that the Bible doesn't have? If one only expresses that it contains a more lucid description of the gospel, then one is making a subjective statement but admitting that the content (while expressed differently) remains essentially the same. (I'm not talking about the separate issue of "gospel" versus "gospel doctrines". In other words, the question of whether the Book of Mormon contains the 'fulness of the gospel' when it doesn't contain a number of unique LDS doctrines is not the point and is irrelevant.)

Dictionaries tell us that "fulness"= (1) "the state of being filled to capacity", (2) "the state of being complete or whole", (3) "richness or intensity of flavor, sound, or color". I must admit that if we Mormons ever had this third definition then perhaps we've now lost it in favor of blandness.

Any talk of being full or complete just seems wrong anyway. Can we be complete if we don't have all the answers, and if we expect more [institutional] revelation in the future--even if only a trickle every generation? And can we be "complete" or "filled to capacity" when we clearly do not possess all truth?

Before Mormon.org had its facelift, it contained the following explanation: [My commentary in brackets] "Although many good people believed in Christ and tried to understand and teach His gospel, they did not have the fulness of truth [nor do we] or the priesthood authority to baptize and perform other saving ordinances at that time [while we claim priesthood, I'm not a fan of the "saving ordinances" language simply because ordinances don't save; the Savior saves] . They had inherited a state of apostasy, as each generation was influenced by what the previous one passed on, including changes in the doctrines and in ordinances, such as baptism". [This last statement is the most problematic in my opinion, as we too have had plenty of doctrinal changes, we're also influenced by what our LDS predecessors have passed on to us, and we've even changed ordinances (ex: temple).]

I'm beginning to wonder if a foolproof explanation (at least from the LDS viewpoint) of "fulness of the gospel" even exists. Of course ultimately that completeness/wholeness comes only in and through Jesus Christ--by being "in Christ" or "perfect in Christ". Thus, I have to say that I like how President Stephen M. Veazey of the Community of Christ puts it: "In the most fundamental sense, Jesus Christ is the fullness of the gospel!"

Monday, January 31, 2011

Favorite Forwards

We all get forwards--sometimes too many--and rarely are they even worth the time to read. For me, it's even less likely I'd pass them along. But here's one I actually liked:

Urgent Warning:

Aliens are coming to Earth on Friday and their mission is to abduct all the good looking and sexy people.

You will be safe, but I'm just emailing you to say goodbye.

Feel free to share your favorite forwards (or jokes) below:

Friday, January 14, 2011

What Would Eugene England Do?

Last summer while visiting Washington D.C. I went to the Jefferson memorial for the first time. I was struck not only by its size, but by the words of Jefferson engraved upon the walls. Most prominent are the words inscribed around the dome:

"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

I loved the quote--another bold declaration of independence, if you will, from control over individual beliefs, thoughts, and freedom of speech/expression.

I thought about that quote while writing my last post, "Let them worship how, where, or what they may", and of times when Latter-day Saints haven't been quite as tolerant of divergent beliefs/thoughts among their own. I remembered a specific experience Eugene England had with Bruce R. McConkie in which Gene showed such grace (when hostility would have been so natural) after being confronted with authoritarianism. As for myself, I'm not sure how I would have responded if it had been me. Perhaps that's the reason I'd like to spotlight a post that raises some of those same introspective questions (and gives more of the backstory):

Spotlighting WWEED? What Would Eugene England Do? by the Narrator.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Let them worship how, where, or what they may"

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

According to the 11th Article of Faith, it seems to me that Latter-day Saints are typically quite generous (or at least ought to be) in our allowance (or tolerance) of the religious beliefs of those not of our faith. But must letting "them worship" differently only refer to people in other faiths? Or can "them" also refer to fellow Mormons in terms of how they worship? My question isn't original (see "Should we apply the 11th article of faith internally?"), but it's nonetheless a question I've had on my mind lately.

There may have been a time when I read this particular article of faith only in the direction of "us" and "them"--Mormon and non-Mormon. Now I read it and apply it in all directions, including within Mormonism. How tolerant are we with "allowing" variances within our own faith as opposed to simply being tolerant with "others"? How generous are we with each other in recognizing that we must each individually follow "the dictates of our own conscience"? What should be said (if at all) about the limits to divergence of our personal choices of worship (or lack thereof) inside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?