Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Modesty: There are So Many Lessons in This Picture

I have said often that I am not comfortable with the idea that women are responsible for the thoughts men have when looking at women.  I believe in the concept and principle of modesty in dress for men and women, but I believe the responsibility for one's thoughts ultimately lies with each person - not the person on whom the thoughts are focused. 

The picture in the link below is perhaps the best example of why I feel that way:

"A picture is worth 1,000 words" (Patheos)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"In the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is no place for ridicule, bullying, or bigotry."

The Savior taught us to love not only our friends but also those who disagree with us—and even those who repudiate us. He said: “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? … And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?”

The Prophet Joseph Smith warned us to “beware of self-righteousness” and to enlarge our hearts toward all men and women until we feel “to take them upon our shoulders.” In the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is no place for ridicule, bullying, or bigotry. 

Neil L. Andersen (April 2014 General Conference)

Monday, September 15, 2014

I Value My Wife-String as Much as My Me-Kite

I like Louis L'Amour books as brain candy. They probably are my favorite guilty pleasure. Most of them have the same basic plot structure, but I like the profound insights he throws into the stories as the simple plot progresses.

One thing he says in multiple books is that leaving the eastern cities and moving west across the plains had an enormously different effect on different people. It empowered some, by freeing them of the constraints in which they lived previously; it crushed some, who couldn't handle the endless expanse and never-changing scenery; it strengthened some who had never had to care for themselves and others; it drove some crazy out of constant fear of attack and the lack of law and order.

People need what people need, and people tend to construct their lives to provide them what they need - and want.

Being open-minded to me means, in the context of L'Amour's stories, not demanding that settlers be explorers - even as the typical settler mind-set is to be wary of and restrain the explorers. Often, explorers can explore in confidence largely because they know there always will be settlers waiting to welcome, feed, praise and provide security for a season when they return from their explorations.

Remember, also:  

A kite is not just the thing that flies through the wind; it also is the string that keeps it safely grounded.

I value my wife-string as much as my me-kite.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: The "What" and "Why" of Commandments; or, Often, We Emphasize the Wrong Thing

Last Sunday was the first lesson about commandments, the topic for this month.  To lay the groundwork for the rest of the month, we focused on two important questions:

What are commandments?

Why do we keep the commandments?  

I told the students that these questions sound like simple, Primary questions but that we were going to go a lot deeper and try to see them in their broadest, most powerful terms.  I then asked everyone to tell me what the word "command" means.  The responses included the following:

direction; order; advice; counsel; guideline; requirement 

I divided the list into two groups and asked them to tell me the difference between the groups:

order; requirement 

direction; advice; counsel; guideline 

They saw immediately that the first group described things that must be done (things that were harsher or might even include an element of force or strong expectation), while the second group described things that were more like suggestions (things that were softer and carried no hint of absolute necessity - things that were much more up to personal choice to accept or ignore).  Given that fundamental difference, the first group ("order; requirement") is the only group that fits "command". 

To emphasize the difference, I explained how "Let there be light" is translated in English and in Japanese (which is translated from German).  In English, as worded above, there is a feeling of almost benevolence and gentleness (of direction; advice; counsel; guideline) - as if God had said, "I will allow there to be light."  In Japanese, the wording is, "Hikare ga are" - which translates as an unyielding command that light exist, as if God had said, "There is going to be light, because I am God and command it to exist."  The follow-up statement that God "saw the light, that it was good" also carries an element of supervision - that God oversaw the process to ensure that the result was what he had commanded. 

I then asked the students who they should follow completely - in whom should they invest the ability to command them and their actions.  They immediately focused on God and understood when asked that obeying anyone else completely as a "commander" is "relying on the arm of flesh" and giving up individual agency.  We talked again, as we have in the past, about Lucifer's plan - about how the ONLY difference in the plan's was the focus on forced obedience vs. individual agency free of coercion (and the consequences of that difference).  That difference is encapsulated in our 11th Article of Faith, which says:

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.  

I simply pointed out that "all men" means "all people" - and that includes members of the LDS Church, as well.  Yes, we sustain and support our leaders and give deference to them and what they ask of us - but we do NOT obey any mortal leader as if s/he was God.  We always have to rely on our own consciences and ask ourselves, whenever any mortal asks or tells us to do something, whether or not what is being asked of us is in line with or opposed to our own conscience and what we believe God would command.  What mortals ask of us is "direction; advice; counsel; guideline", not "order; requirement; command".  Without that distinction, we risk putting mortals in the place of Lucifer and obeying for no other reason than we are told to obey.  That makes us no different than animals - or, in Mormon-speak, confined to our "natural (wo)man". 

We then focused on the "why" of keeping commandments.   The students gave the following answers to that question:

to be protected; to gain help and strength; to be happy 

I asked the students to name some commandments that protect us, and they mentioned the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity.  Given the complexity of the discussion I wanted to have about why we keep the commandments, I stopped them there, and we focused on those two commandments.  

I took them through a discussion of how those two commandments could be taught: either through a focus on being protected or through a focus on gaining help and strength - and how each approach influences how we talk about being happy. 

With the Word of Wisdom, focusing on protection emphasizes the "don't" statements (strong drinks, tobacco, hot drinks, meat, etc.), while focusing on gaining help and strength emphasizes the "do" statements (wholesome herbs, grains, fruits, meat, etc.).  The "consequences" of obedience are "receiv(ing) health in their navel and marrow to their bones," "find(ing) wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures," "run(ning) and not be(ing) weary," "walk(ing) and not faint(ing)" and, ultimately, being passed over by the destroying angel.  I simply pointed out that there is NO distinction in the revelation between the "don't" and the "do" statements (nothing to indicate one is more important than the other) - and that when we focus solely on what we should not do and skip what we should do we are not keeping this commandment fully.  We focus on the "don't" verses primarily in an attempt to gain protection, but ignoring the "do" verses robs us of an important element of gaining help and strength and being happy. 

With the Law of Chastity, this difference is even more stark.  

We talked about the ways obeying the Law of Chastity protects us (avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, emotional harm, betrayal, etc.), and then I asked them why that just isn't enough in our modern world.  They didn't get it at first, so I asked them how our world now is different than it was in the past relative to the consequences of sex.  One of them said, simply, "protection" - so we talked about how birth control, contraception, abortion, etc. are so readily available now that many people might blow off the idea of keeping the Law of Chastity as a means of protection.  To avoid the obvious, natural consequences, they can say they are being protected even if they have sex.  (Obviously, that isn't 100% accurate, but people can and do make that claim - especially teenagers and young adults.)  Given that reality, I asked them how keeping the Law of Chastity provides help, strength and happiness.  

We were almost out of time, so we focused the discussion on self-control, trust, emotional stability and, ultimately, how all of those benefits and more help us become like God and become less animalistic or "natural".  We talked about how the Law of Chastity is "unnatural" and, therefore, must include blessings and benefits beyond just physical protection.  

To end the discussion, I pointed out how both the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity can be taught positively (focused on benefits, now and in the future) or negatively (focused on fear and/or punishment, now and in the future).  I told them that people respond to different motivations, so I understand why both a negative and positive approach are used - but, personally, I am motivated much more by the idea of actively gaining strength and help to protect myself than I am by being protected by inaction while living in a cocoon of fear.  I don't like to obey commandments passively (meaning simply not doing things because I'm told not to do things); I prefer to obey commandments actively (meaning doing things for reasons that are important to me).

Friday, September 12, 2014

When You Just Can't Find the Words to Explain Your Testimony

It's hard, and sometimes impossible, for someone who has seen the "far blue mountains" to describe them adequately to others who have lived their entire lives in a city or on a vast, unchanging plain.

Some things, some times, only can be kept and pondered in our hearts - until the time comes when mortal sight limitations are removed and everyone can see the mountains, cities and plains clearly and fully.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Seek Diligently for Truth, No Matter Where It Is Found

I believe deeply in finding truth in everything.  I think that outlook is a fundamental part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (see Moroni 7: 5-19, especially) and Joseph Smith's philosophy that animated the Restoration and his role as a prophet.

I was asked once if organized religion loses potency when it admits there is truth in everything - that a religion doesn't posses or even understand all truth and that "the fulness of the Gospel" doesn't include an understanding of all truth. My response was that it does not, according to Joseph Smith - or the notion of a process called the "restoration of all things" through on-going / continuing revelation.

Part of the grandeur I see in pure Mormonism is the audacity to believe that all truth can be circumscribed into one whole - and that striving to comprehend that whole is worth the effort. Limiting that whole to what we know now, and denying that there still is truth outside our current understanding to be included in the circumscription process (including things that others know of which we are not aware), goes against the very core of the Restoration.

A good friend of mine once wrote the following when he was asked about believing there is truth in every religion, denomination, faith tradition, science, etc.

1. If something is proven to be true, or beyond reasonable doubt, it's simply part of the gospel. As we study the creation, and the processes whereby creation occurred, I come to be in awe of the creator. Scientific discovery does not diminish my regard for god, it enhances my understanding of the absolute miracle of god's inherent power: nature. That god works entirely through nature is part of what Joseph Smith said, at least, in section 88, one of his most important and thoughtful revelations.

2. If something true is in conflict with scripture, then we need to re-evaluate our literal understanding of the scripture. I have to recognize how scripture was written in the mind and heart of the revelator, and thus, it's going to include the revelator's worldview. Obviously, this is controversial to those who believe that scripture is literally and forever true. Scripture is the milk -- it is not the meat of the gospel. As we grow up in our understanding, we sometimes need to set aside childish things.

3. There are a host of things that cannot be proven, and we need to take an attitude of suspended judgment for these things. I don't know if we pre-existed. I think it's a very useful model as part of the Plan of Salvation, but I simply don't know. Is it imperative for me to say "I know we lived with god before this life"? I believe it, I trust in it, but I cannot explain it. I don't know how it works.

4. I should never be afraid of truth. If Joseph Smith and Brigham Young did some pretty whacked out things, then I think it important to understand their humanity. I'm not afraid of it. I can understand how once you know that JS did a number of questionable things, that it's hard to believe that he was also a 'prophet', but I don't have a problem with it. I'm sure some people think I'm intellectually dishonest as a result. Whatever; truth is truth. Judgment is entirely another matter. I think it's true that Joseph did some pretty human things. My judgment is not affected by it -- he's still a prophet. He still facilitated the restoration. I find truth in the restoration, and therefore I can only conclude that God uses imperfect humans to do his work. This should be obvious from scripture. 

In summary, going back to my first thoughts in this post, as I am exposed to the thoughts, beliefs, discoveries, etc. of others, I try hard to make sure my initial response is:

What truth can I learn from this - no matter the source? 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Faith: We All Need to Decide in What We Have Faith

Faith is the substance of things hoped for (and the subsequent actions that manifest an attempt to realize those hopes) - and living without hope is a terrible thing. Therefore, faith is necessary - but the "in what" is the key.

Every person on earth needs to define her own hopes and "exercise faith" in them, whether that be related to a post-mortal life or whether it be focused on family, friends and this life - or both

Monday, September 8, 2014

Analyzing Scripture: Alma 56:47 - "God Would Deliver Them"

Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.

In Alma 56:47, all we are told is that the Anti-Nephi-Lehite mothers “taught” their sons that “if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.” From what, we are not told. We only assume it was from physical death in war because of the situation that caused them to relate it to Helaman (war and their preservation in it).

In other words, the immediate context surrounding the statement (war) influences the readers to assume this context fully defines what is said - by translating what they were taught into, “You won’t die in war.” However, given that we are not told from what God would deliver them, it is legitimate to look at the rest of the context and realize that there might be other, more comprehensive, legitimate meanings for “God would deliver them” – that their mothers’ words might have been valid even if some of them had died in battle

They had been “taught” – not “told”. This might be a one time occurrence as they were leaving home for war, as is the standard assumption. However, it seems like these young men had been “taught” dedication and obedience and exactness all their lives. Individuals might change in an instant, but it is unlikely that an entire group of 2,000+ young men would become ultra-obedient and diligent overnight. It is much more likely that they had been “taught” all their lives that God would deliver them (from anything that might threaten their spiritual, eternal well-being) than that their mothers simply pulled them aside on the way out the door and promised them they wouldn’t be killed in war.

Remember, those mothers had seen many of their friends (and perhaps some fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and husbands) slaughtered by other Lamanites – killed in the act of calling upon God even though they “did not doubt”. Those mothers knew full well that God didn’t always deliver His people from physical death, but they were convinced that He could deliver them from their natural and fallen and sinful and lost state – from spiritual death. (Alma 24:27 – “thus we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people.”)

Alma 53: 20-21 makes it obvious that these young men had been taught all their lives the reward for perfect faithfulness and obedience and dedication – the same reward their own “pioneers” had received, even those who had been killed for their faith and dedication and lack of doubt. I think it’s fairly safe to say, as a parent myself, that their mothers reiterated what they had been taught all their lives as they were heading off to war – that if they did not doubt and obeyed every command with exactness that “God would deliver them”, no matter the physical outcome.

There is another clue that this was not a one-time, war-specific statement. Remember, this was Helaman who was reporting about these young men. He was as close to them as any Nephite – ever. Yet, apparently, he did not know the specifics about what their mothers had taught them until they told him about it in the field of battle. He had been there when the parents had decided to fight; he was the one who had talked them out of it by invoking their sacred promise; he had been chosen as their sons’ military leader because they trusted him as a religious leader. He was intimately involved in the decision of their sons to fight in place of their parents. Perhaps “taught” simply can mean “told” – but I tend to believe that Helaman would have been there for the great send off when all the mothers collectively told all the sons that they would not die in battle – that he would have known about it and not have had to be told after the fact.

Having said all that, I do not discount the idea that the Lord might have promised the parents that He would preserve their sons in battle like He had preserved the sons of Mosiah on their missions – that it was couched in terms of, “You’ve sacrificed enough lives to follow me. I won’t require that you sacrifice your sons.” Even if that really is all it was, that’s enough for me, since it makes it an incredibly powerful story of the rewards of deep and difficult sacrifice and dedication.

Am I saying that this is the correct view of the statement, “God would deliver them”? No; I don’t know that. It might simply have been, “Stay valiant and none of you will be killed.” All I’m saying is that when you parse the text then consider the overall context, there is more than one possible meaning for that phrase ("God would deliver them.") – and assuming it simply meant “they will not die in battle” actually cheapens what I believe is taught in this story.

Are there other legitimate interpretations of this statement? If we “do not doubt”, will God “deliver” us? If so, how – and from what? Are there parallels with this statement that can apply to modern Mormonism in some real and unique way – ways to liken this unto ourselves?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

We Shouldn't Judge Ourselves or Others for the Thorns of Our Flesh

And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.  (2 Corinthians 12:7) 

The assertion that “wanting to repent of it” is all that is required to be able to change one's weaknesses and repent fully is problematic for those who struggle to overcome deeply ingrained inclinations and never totally conquer them in this life - and, to some degree, in some way, that applies to each and every one of us. For example, I know quite a few people who want badly to react differently to their children in stressful situations but can’t conquer their current reactions totally - and I would never claim that their desire to repent simply isn’t strong enough.  There are things about my own "natural man" that I am not sure I will be able to eliminate in this life.  The conclusion is simple but profound:

Some things are thorns of the flesh that will go away only in the resurrection.  If Paul, the apostle, and Nephi could write what they wrote about this issue, it's important to cut ourselves and others some slack and not insist that everything is fixable if only we really want to repent. 

That is not a blanket excuse for any action that the Church deems to be sin. It merely points out the danger in blaming one’s inability to control perfectly one’s deeply ingrained impulses and inclinations on an inadequate desire to change. The beauty of the Atonement, in my opinion, is not just that we can receive strength to change in the here and now, but also that we can receive grace for our efforts even when we cannot change in the here and now.  To even imply that not being able to conquer something completely is a matter of lack of faith or desire to repent denies the Atonement in a very real, practical way.  

I think that points to the need for those who find they struggle (or even are unable to) live a command completely at least to strive to live as close to the ideal as possible. It might not be the ideal, but all of us are commanded to try to live as closely to the ideal as we individually are able - trusting that the Lord in His infinite wisdom will understand our hearts and make up the difference. I’m not going to be judged against any other individual, and I’m not going to be judged against a universal, Mosaic Law-like standard; I’m going to be judged against myself - what I did with what I was given. Since I have enough problem understanding myself fully and have no idea the exact extent of any other person’s struggle to deal with his/her own thorns, I try to preach the ideal but not hold anyone to that ideal - trusting God to know all of our hearts and, in the end, be merciful, loving and long-suffering with his children.