Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Setting Is as Important as the Words We Say: Two Specific Examples

I can say lots of things without negative effect that others couldn't say, largely because I have learned over nearly forty years how to do so in a way that is absolutely non-threatening - and because I respect deeply the limits of setting.

For example, if I was to address the quote in the Doctrine and Covenants about Joseph Smith being second to Jesus in terms of impact on humanity, I could say that I love Joseph and understand such a statement in a eulogy by a grieving friend (and in the context of restoring sealing ordinances for the dead), but I also could add that I look at Abraham, Moses, Paul, etc. as people who, thus far, have had a broader impact on the living than Joseph did. I also could say that I know how others can hear that quote and think we worship Joseph, so I personally don't use it outside of the internal discussions with other members when talking about the restoration of temple ordinances.

I've said that in church meetings, and people have understood and not objected - but it has been because they know me and aren't threatened by the way I say things. Again, I've spent decades refining how I talk about things, so I have an advantage that will come to many others only by "enduring to the end", if you will.

A personal example of the importance of setting: 

I was in a small group setting some time ago, including a local leader and a couple who had served in many local leadership callings in their lives - including multiple missionary experiences. Every person in that group was a fully active, dedicated, long-time, leadership-level, believing member of the LDS Church.

At one point, one of the women mentioned that she had a son who simply couldn't accept polygamy - and he also said, "Mom, Brigham Young was a racist!" She mentioned that she has never struggled with polygamy and made a joke about it that I can't remember accurately. However, she said she had never been able to understand or accept the Priesthood Ban and was overjoyed when it was lifted. The local leader said, "Your son isn't the first person to struggle with polygamy. I know I could never live it." I told her, "Brigham Young was racist, but that doesn't mean automatically that he wasn't a prophet. All of the prophets who have lived have believed, taught or done something we don't accept."

The conversation continued normally after that, and it didn't come up again in any conversation I had with any of them afterward. I certainly wouldn't have said what I did in a lot of different settings, and neither would the others who commented, even though there was nothing wrong with anything that was said in that conversation.

The setting was just as important (and, really, even more important) than the words themselves.

Monday, May 25, 2015

My Favorite Definition of Religion

Religion is a structured imposition of what can be comprehended and/or imagined on top of the unknowable and mysterious.

In other words, religion is our best understanding of what cannot be understood fully.

In other words, we see through a glass, darkly - and religion is our attempt to explain what we see, darkly.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

My Sacrament Meeting Talk on Grace

Here is the summary of my talk last Sunday. The assigned topic was "Saving Grace".

1) "I Stand All Amazed":

I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me - confused by the grace that so FULLY he profers me.

I love that line, because I am a History teacher by original profession, a social scientist by nature and a lover of comparative religion. Grace has been a debated topic for thousands of years, and it truly has caused much confusion throughout history. In our own church history, I am old enough to have seen a time when we didn't talk about grace very much - and I am glad we talk about it more now than in the past. Today, I am not going to try to give a discourse about that debate over time; rather, I am going to talk specifically about the place of grace within Mormon theology and why I believe the Mormon concept of grace is even more powerful than we tend to realize.

2) Definition of grace:

Grace means favor - as in being seen as favorable / worthy of being favored. It also connotes giving something without requirement, as in bestowing a favor on someone. In this light, it is a gift that does not require a matching gift in return. It is NOT a loan, since it cannot be paid back.

2) Overview of the pre-existence and its foundational relationship to Mormonism's unique view of grace:

We had two choices: to accept HF's plan and suffer many things in mortality, including a fall from grace (favored status of parent-child relationship) and an atonement (a return to a higher favored status of equality) or to accept Lucifer's alternate plan, which was no fall from grace, no atonement and return in the same condition as we had prior to mortality. The first plan included pain and suffering and anguish and grief and weakness and transgression and sin and guilt and disability and everything else we experience in this life that allows us to learn and grow; the second plan was pain-free and growth-less.

We teach that the atonement was promised to all who would accept HF's plan. In essence, HF said to all of us:

[quote]Trust me. I will not fail you. If you choose to accept what I am offering, my grace will cover everything you experience as a result of mortality, and you will be saved from the natural consequences of that life.[/quote]

So, when I am asked by a friend if and when I have been saved, I answer:

[quote]Yes, I have been saved - before I was born by my acceptance of Jesus as my Savior and Redeemer. So have you - and so has every other child of God. Paul said, "For as in Adam ALL die, so in Christ shall ALL be made alive." I believe him.[/quote]

Brothers and sisters, we have been saved by the grace of God already - so why is it so hard for us to accept that?

3) Before I talk about the biggest reason I think we struggle to accept that, I want to highlight one of the most fascinating and least understood verses in the Bible, then add an interesting insight from the Doctrine & Covenants.

Luke 2 tells of Jesus' life from birth until the age of 12. The last verse in that chapter (verse 52) gives a summary of the next 18 years. It says:

[quote]And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.[/quote]

Remember, grace means to be favored, so, in a real way, this verse says that Jesus increased in grace. D&C 93:13 puts it this way:

[quote]And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness.[/quote]

This places grace, in its fullest sense, as the empowerment that moves us through a process of growth - and it frames grace in terms of growth and progression, rather than in terms of a one-time offering. In other words, as my son said, we are not saved from something; rather, we are saved continually to or toward something. Yes, we have been saved - but we also are being saved. If even Jesus, of Nazareth, went through this process, why do we tend to insist that we be perfect now?

4) The Gospel and life are full of paradoxes, and perhaps the most central paradox of all is that we are acceptable to God just as we are but we also are commanded to be perfect, as Matthew 5:48 says. Our teaching of this need for perfection, I believe, is the biggest stumbling block to an acceptance of the grace that so fully he profers us - not that we believe in perfection but that we don't teach it the way it was meant by Jesus in that verse. We tend to accept the Mosaic Law view of perfection - a view that equates perfection with being mistake-free (like a test that requires 100% to be given a passing grade). For that reason, whenever we make a mistake, large or small, we feel guilty and worthless and unworthy and not acceptable to God. Often, this occurs even when our mistakes are the direct result of things we inherited from just being born.

However, the footnote for Matthew 5:48 frames perfection very differently. It says that to be perfect is to be "complete, whole, fully developed" - and, interestingly, that Jesus was NOT an example of that when it was given. Notice that ONLY Heavenly Father is listed as an example of perfection in that verse.

It also is difficult to accept grace when we are focused on not letting others see our weaknesses and struggles. Pres. Uchtdorf also compared the church to a showroom for cars and a repair shop. He said church meetings aren't supposed to be a showroom; they are supposed to be a repair shop. My father used to say that warts only can be healed if they are exposed and treated - if we let other people see them. I believe in wearing nice clothing to church to show respect, but when we put on our Sunday best and carefully apply makeup before we go, others only see us as if we were in a showroom - and they never see our warts - and they think they are the only people in church who have warts - and they feel guilty and worthless - and the perfection cycle continues.

5) This brings me to the way we tend to explain things in terms of parables. In "Believing Christ", Stephen Robinson gives the parable of the bicycle - in which a girl asks her dad if she can have a bike. He tells her that she can have a bike if she saves every penny she earns until she can afford one. She returns after some time with 61 cents and says she has saved all of her money and asks, again, if she can have a bike. Her father takes pity on her and buys the bike for her, even though her money doesn't not come close to covering the actual cost.

I appreciate the point Brother Robinson makes that God will give us the bike even if we can't pay for it on our own, but I like a different parable. I believe he provided a vehicle for us (a way to go where he wants us to go) in his first plan before we were born and simply asks us to accept it and do our best to learn to operate it - to try to drive where he wants to take us. The vehicle is free, as is the license to drive it; all that is required of us is to get behind the wheel and drive. When we get into an accident, he asks us to learn from the experience, get back behind the wheel and continue to drive. He doesn't care how many accidents we have (or, even, as the parable of the workers says, when we start driving); he only cares that we accept the gift of the vehicle and drive. I believe he will let us drive until we reach our final destination, no matter how long that takes. After all, he has time and all eternity to be patient and extend his love.

Truly, even after all we can do, it still is by grace that we are saved.

6) I want to spend the last few minutes talking about how, in order to be full participants in divine grace, we need to extend to others the same grace we receive from HF and Jesus.

We are invited to become like God, and being gracious is perhaps the ultimate goal in that process. I am concerned that we are not as accepting and loving toward others as God is toward us. If he offers his grace to ALL of his children, and if Jesus spent his ministry serving the people who were rejected and shunned by the religious people of his day, I am convinced we should be more like him and less like the leaders who avoided the sinners and the sick and the despised. If we are full of grace, we will not turn anyone away; we will embrace all and love them actively and fervently, no matter what mistakes we believe they are making; we will help them on our collective journey through life; we will ride with them, together, side-by-side. If someone stumbles into our Sacrament Meeting, reeking of alcohol - or wearing what we deem to be totally inappropriate clothing - or holding hands with someone we think they should not love in that way - or any other image that comes naturally to our minds when we picture a sinner- in those situations, I pray we can be grace-filled and thank God they found us rather than ask why they are here. We judge too much, too quickly, too harshly and too stereotypically - and I believe Jesus would say, simply:

I loved and served them when nobody else would. Why won't you do the same? They have my grace; why can't they have yours? Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Brothers and sisters, may we be gracious to all around us, as God is gracious to us, is my prayer.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Why I Love the Temple in Less than 100 Words

I believe strongly the temple is meant to be for the living to internalize a connection to all humanity (to have our hearts sealed to all of God's children) and not primarily for the salvation of the dead. That will happen at some point, if it has to happen.

I find great meaning in and love the temple and its symbolism, even though I don't believe in any literal saving through the ordinances themselves.

I also like a place of peace where I can let my mind roam without any distractions - and, having attended for almost 30 years, I include the play itself in that description of distraction most of the time.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why Do Committees in the Church Often Fail to Make a Difference?

God so loved the world that He did not send a committee. 

I was asked once to lead the Melchizedek Priesthood Missionary Committee in my ward, and I accepted only after telling the leaders that they would have to accept my unorthodox view on the committees and my unorthodox approach.

In the first meeting (the last 15 minutes of the third hour meeting), I started by saying to everyone:

Why are these committees generally such a failure?

After getting the initial stunned looks and a few comments, I told them that I thought it was because we didn't spend enough time on them (because we didn't have enough time in the first place), we tried to tackle too many things (given how busy everyone was with other responsibilities), we came up with grandiose plans (or, in the case of the Missionary Committee, we simply acted as a wing of the Ward Mission and ended up doing administrative things for the Ward Mission Leader) and we didn't establish any unique things to do that were simple enough to accomplish. Therefore, my focus would be on nothing but community service, not for the sake of conversion, but simply for the sake of service. I told them the Ward Mission Leader could focus on "missionary work"; we would be focusing on sharing the Gospel - that he could build the kingdom of God and we could work to establish Zion. Service was something we could do without any angst, without a huge time commitment and without feeling like failures.

Volunteers generally want to do something fairly simple that makes them happy without creating more burdens and responsibilities in their already busy lives. Conversely, many leaders want to change the world or, at least, have a major, visible impact - and it isn't always ego-driven or a bad thing in any way. They just have a bigger vision, if you will, and more confidence in their ability to enact a bigger vision, than the other people do. They also tend to forget that worker bees still need to fly all over the place for most of their available time to gather the honey they need to survive.

My advice when it comes to a leader working within a volunteer organization is not complex:

Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

Take longer to do what you envision doing.

Respect volunteers as volunteers.  
Find tasks can be done and, through being done well, provide feelings and experiences of success.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Can Conflicting Impressions Both Be Inspired?

I've served in enough callings that include impressions about who to ask to do things to understand that there can be equally valid but competing impressions that can be inspired and appropriate.  

1) When I was serving in a Stake Mission Presidency many years ago, I had a very strong impression to talk with a particular person about being the Ward Mission Leader. I didn't know anyone in the ward, so I said a prayer, looked through the ward directly and couldn't move my eyes past one particular name. Interestingly, his last name was one I actually did recognize, but I didn't know him at all.

When I sat down in his home to talk with him about the potential calling, he told me there was no way he could accept it - since he was completely inactive at the time. He then said that he had been thinking about returning to church activity but hadn't been able to do it, largely because he was sure there wasn't a place for him anymore. He said that he knew he had the ability to function in the calling and that he interpreted my impression as God telling him that there was a place for him - as soon as he got his act together and felt he could accept a calling like that. He thanked me for talking with him about it and politely declined the calling due to his own "competing impression".

My question had been, "Whom should I ask to accept this calling?" I believe the answer I got was inspired, even though he didn't accept the calling due to equally valid personal inspiration.

2) When my wife was in the Primary Presidency, they prayed about who to ask for in a teaching position - asking who would be best for that particular class. I was in the Bishopric at the time, if I remember correctly (or maybe I just gave her some input from my previous times in Bishoprics), and their request wasn't approved by the Bishop. He ended up asking the person to serve somewhere else in the ward.

Both my wife (and the presidency) and the Bishop were certain their answers to prayer had been inspired - and I believe both competing answers were valid and appropriate. The Primary Presidency received an answer that was correct concerning who would be the best person to suggest, while the Bishop received an answer that was correct concerning which calling would be best use of that person for the ward as a whole. Two correct but competing impressions.

3) My parents submitted mission papers based on an answer to prayer that they should serve at Cove Fort in Utah. Their Bishop prayed about it and agreed. Their papers were sent to SLC with explicit reasons why Cove Fort would be an appropriate call and why a regular mission would not be possible. They were called on a regular mission to South Carolina - an impossibility at the time. They accepted the assignment and left home to drive to South Carolina, knowing it would be impossible to complete the assignment. They completed the assignment, and it was one of the highlights of their lives. Two competing answers and impressions - both valid and appropriate.

 (If you want to read the fuller account, it is in the following post: "Exercising Faith and Seeing the Hand of God".)

I know it might seem paradoxical, but I've seen and experienced correct but contrasting impressions happen so many times that I have to accept it as inspiration, even when it is not understood at the time - or even when it causes consternation.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What's Wrong with Being #2 (or lower)?

I really dislike ranking people in most respects, for lots of reasons.  Primary among those reasons is that in order for there to be a #1 there simply must be a #2 - and every number lower.  

Second, many times the true #1 in a field is an absolute SOB and incredibly egomaniacal. For example, I once worked with a woman who had first-hand knowledge of Michael Jordan's view of beautiful women - and, to put it mildly, it was disgusting. Seriously, it was simply appalling.  Being #1 (or, more accurately, striving to be seen as #1) can be a very damaging mindset. 

On a more personal note, this question is near to my heart, since I have twin sisters, one year younger than I, who struggled in school to get their B's and C's - and an occasional A. They were average students who worked hard to succeed, but they had more than one teacher who accused them of being lazy - since the other six kids in the family all had A's with only an occasional B. In academic terms, they were #'s 7 & 8 out of 8 in my family - and there was absolutely nothing wrong with that. Nothing. It wasn't their actual rank that mattered; it was their accomplishments relative to their ability.

By that measure, they probably were ahead of me (since they worked a whole lot harder than I usually did) - but I was the one who was seen as #1 by everyone who ranked us, consciously or subconsciously.

It isn't right, and it's a natural tendency against which we ought to fight.

Monday, May 18, 2015

We Are Adolescent Gods

I see "God" as a condition of perfection (being whole, complete, fully developed) - "godhood", to say it in Mormon terms. I don't see God as one entity, apart from his children.  Thus, the "condition of being" we call "godhood" is being everything it is possible to be.

More importantly, I also believe we are gods / godly when we are everything we can be at any given moment (as perfect as we can be) - and I believe we understand both our strengths so poorly and our natural limitations so clearly that we have a hard time realizing we really are gods in a powerful and important way even with our weaknesses and imperfect states. As I've said in previous posts, we see our caterpillar selves and fail to realize those caterpillars are developing butterflies.  Butterflies and caterpillars are NOT different species, anymore than a kitten is a different species than an adult cat.  A butterfly simply is an adult caterpillar; a caterpillar simply is an adolescent butterfly. 

I believe we are "adolescent gods" much more than "future gods".

Friday, May 15, 2015

Our Leaders are Not Infallible, and We Don't Need to Believe They Are

I have heard too many members talk as if our prophets and apostles are infallible.  They admit imperfection when asked about it, but, in practical terms, they act as if everything our leaders say should be accepted and followed unquestioningly as if it was God's own voice - and some of them extend that down to the local level, as well.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, in our scriptures or any statement by any prophet or apostle ever recorded says that - even the ones that people often cite when making the claim.  

If people who don't believe in prophetic infallibility had to stop attending the temple, there would be relatively few people in the temples - and never any of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or the First Presidency.  They know better than anyone else that they aren't infallible. 

Just saying.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Joseph Smith Was Not a Uniquely Egregious Sinner

Over the years, I have heard a lot of critics of the LDS Church say that Joseph Smith was a uniquely egregious sinner - that his actions make it obvious he wasn't a prophet of God.  I understand how someone could look at only his weaknesses and reach that last conclusion, but I also understand that calling him a uniquely egregious sinner and, thus, not a prophet generally displays either a lack of understanding of history or, at the very least, a complete rejection of the concept of prophets. 

There is no indication that Joseph sinned more than any other prophet throughout history - or even sinned in uniquely egregious ways. Assuming our ancient scriptures are accurate, just for the sake of comparison, and removing justifications of divine command, there are multiple murderers / death-enablers who are accepted as prophets (Moses, Elijah, Nephi, Paul, etc.); Joshua committed genocide; Samson had incontrovertible proof that Delilah was trying to betray and get him captured (more than once), and he still allowed her to make it happen - either because he loved her or because the sex was so good; Hosea got a woman pregnant who wasn't his wife; Jonah tried to run away from the Lord, openly defying him, and then grieved when people repented; Gandhi was a deeply flawed man, with multiple serious issues; Martin Luther King, Jr. was a serial adulterer; Jesus of Nazareth was killed for blasphemy - and all we have of his life are records that were written explicitly by believers to place him in the position of the [theologically revamped] Messiah when, by all objective, non-believing standards of the day, he simply was another failed Messiah figure; and the list continues. (and, it's important to point out that David never was a prophet - but his "fall with one woman" was the result of arranging the murder of her husband)

I'm not trying to hold up Joseph as a model of perfectly virtuous behavior (since I don't see him that way), but I am saying the standard we (collectively) tend to demand of our prophets and apostles (particularly in the case of Joseph, who can be seen, I believe, more in the role of an Old Testament prophet than any other type) simply is not consistent with history and our own scriptural canon. The majority of exceedingly extraordinary people throughout history have carried baggage on the other side of their "greatness", as well. I don't see the disconnect between who they were and how we tend to view them as their fault (even as I see their actions as their fault); I see that disconnect as our fault, and I include leadership in that statement just as much as general membership - since some leaders have condoned and even encouraged that unrealistic view.

As I've said in other posts here and elsewhere, I don't see how anyone who accepts the Biblical prophets can reject Joseph as a prophet based on his weaknesses and mistakes. I can see how that person can reject him for other reasons, but to say his actions disqualify him . . . I just don't see it.