Monday, July 6, 2015

Home Teaching: Principle vs. Program

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 3, 2015

A Quick Note about LDS Activity Rates

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

True Repentance Is Not Always Complete Repentance

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

We Aren't As Elect As We Think We Are

I personally don't believe in a "Judgment Day" - where each person stands before a judge in a court room and hears a verdict about their life. I believe "The Final Judgment" is nothing more than the natural end of our progression and growth - that point where we no longer learn and grow. I also believe that point is FAR further out into the future than most people assume, and I think FAR more people reach "godhood" or "perfection" (a state of wholeness, completion and full development) than most people assume.

I think God's grace, mercy and charity (long-suffering patience, especially) are as universal and expansive as is possible, and I think lots of people will be shocked in the end as they look around and finally realize they aren't as "elect" as they thought they were.

Monday, June 29, 2015

"WWJD" and the Word of Wisdom

"What would Jesus do?" is a stupid question in lots of situations.

Jesus drank wine, and so did the early Mormon leaders, but that is irrelevant to whether or not we should do so now.

I believe Jesus also wouldn't have voted Republican or Democrat, probably even if either option had been available to him. I have no doubt Jesus would have drunk tea if it had been available to him - unless he didn't like the taste or smell - but I don't know if he would have drunk coffee, for multiple reasons. I can't stand the smell of coffee, and, my religion aside, I would never have started drinking it due to how horribly I react to the smell alone.

"Strong drinks" have been ramped up significantly in the last century or so. Wine and beer both are good examples of this, as are energy drinks. In and of themselves, I don't think drinking wine and beer in moderation is objective and eternal sin (and mild barley drinks were allowed in the original revelation), but "conspiring men" certainly have done a number in the area of strong drinks in our modern times. There is no doubt in my mind that addiction peddling has been expanded in ways that were unimaginable to most people hundreds of years ago and more. I see the beginning verses in D&C 89 as absolutely prophetic in that regard, regardless of what Jesus and Joseph Smith drank.  

Friday, June 26, 2015

Some Complaints about the Book of Mormon Are Stupid

The following is perhaps the best example of how far some people will go to criticize the Book of Mormon: 

"The Book of Mormon is made up because Joseph Smith wrote that Jesus was born in Jerusalem."  

The early books in the Book of Mormon talk of "the land of Jerusalem". Likewise, I lived in a suburb of Cincinnati for years, but we often told people we lived in Cincinnati. I was raised 20 miles south of Provo and 60 miles south of SLC, but I often told people in college that was born and raised "in the Salt Lake City area" - and I often tell people I lived in Boston while I attended college there, even though I lived in Medford, Somerville and Woburn (and actually attended college in Cambridge). If someone is speaking to a group of people who have never been to the region being described, it is totally natural for them to use a nearby, well-known city as an approximate substitute.

Joseph Smith knew that Jesus was supposed to have been born in Bethlehem, so there is no logical reason for him to have written Jerusalem if it meant within the actual city limits.

This is one case where I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the passage in question, and I actually believe it bolsters authenticity more than it decreases authenticity (or, at least, is completely neutral). In other words, I would expect a record like the Book of Mormon reference Jesus' birth being "the land of Jerusalem" in that way. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Going Beyond the Church Handbook of Instructions

I want to make a simple, short point in this post, after talking with a friend whose Bishop imposed his own view and interpretation in a temple recommend interview (dealing with caffeinated sodas) and, as a result, my friend lost his recommend when he was fully worthy to have one.

There are lots of instances where problems would disappear if local leaders simply understood what the handbook says and didn't enforce personal rules that are stricter than the handbook. I'm not saying the handbook is perfect, but, at the very least, we shouldn't impose stricter standards than it contains. 

Note: I updated the information above as a result of the first comment below. This was not a case of a violation of the Word of Wisdom; it was a case of a leader imposing a stricter standard than what the Church itself requires - both in the handbook and in official statements issued recently about the exact issue in question.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Parable of the Unjust Steward: A Profound Message that Gets Butchered Often

The parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-8) is one that many people have a hard time understanding and accepting.  I've heard lots of arguments over the decades trying to explain why Jesus  couldn't have said it - that it just has to be something that was written into the record by someone else - or that there has to be some deeper symbolism that isn't obvious in the parable itself.  I don't agree with those arguments, since I think it's a pretty straightforward story with a fairly simple meaning.  In the spirit of parsing, to which everyone knows I'm inclined, here is how I see this parable:

1 And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.

The "steward" is a manager - someone who has stewardship over (responsibility for) something. This manager had been given control over the handling of some of the rich man's goods - and had failed miserably. In fact, it appears he had lost everything with which he had been entrusted - since the goods had been "wasted".

2 And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.

In other words, the rich man said, "Tell me what you've done with my goods. You're in danger of being fired."

3 Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.

This wasn't a "poor man" naturally; he wasn't even necessarily a poor man until he was threatened with being fired. (It appears he had no other marketable skill and relatively little physical strength - and he also was a proud man. It also is implied that he knew there was no way he could keep his job, since he knew "my lord taketh away from me the stewardship".)

4 I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.

He said, essentially, "There is no doubt I will be fired, so I better ingratiate myself into the good graces of those who owed money to the rich man while I can (before I am fired officially and still have the authority to make a deal)."

5 So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord?

6 And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty.

7 Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.

These verses simply say that he cut deals with the debtors, so they would appreciate him and be more likely to hire him when we was fired.

8 And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

There is nothing in this verse whatsoever that even implies the man kept his job with the rich man. There is nothing in this verse that says anything the steward did was "right" or "good" from a moral standpoint. There is nothing in this verse that says the rich man approved of the steward himself (since he still called him "unjust") or that the rich man kept the steward on as an employee (that isn't stated anywhere). All it says is that the rich man "commended" the "unjust" steward for doing wisely - BUT it doesn't say toward what the commendation for doing wisely was directed. In other words, it doesn't say WHY the rich man commended the steward, other than that there was something "wise" about his actions.

My take is quite simple - though not short (*grin*):

When he heard about the wasted goods, the rich man knew what kind of man the steward was. He also knew that, given the way the steward had "wasted" the goods, he was unlikely to get much, if anything, from his debtors once the steward was fired. (Again, "wasted" carries that connotation - that there appeared to be no getting anything of worth out of them.) So, even as the rich man fired the steward he commended him for at least getting as much as possible out of an otherwise wasted situation - for minimizing his losses and putting himself in a position to get work once he left the rich man's service, even if such an approach was "unjust" - which simply means "not in accord with a normal understanding of what is right or lawful". In other words, the unjust steward didn't demand justice, but rather, in order to get what he could, he extended mercy - thus getting more by being merciful than he could have by sticking strictly to the letter of the law.

(Contrast this parable to the one where the man who owed his master money threw people in jail who couldn't pay him what they owed him in order to get out of his own debt. That man was condemned for being totally "just" - while this "unjust steward" was commended for not adhering strictly to the demands he could have made. Those "just" demands would have put others in jail, not done the rich man any good in the process and reduced the steward himself to death - since he had no other option, given his unwillingness to beg.)

The steward apparently learned an important lesson from his previous failure and successfully carried out a plan to minimize the damage to both himself and his "lord". He started to turn his life around (by being merciful, getting the most out of a bad situation and positioning himself to have another shot at it with someone else) and gave himself an opportunity to do somewhere else what he had been tasked to do in the first place.

I don't think there's a "higher" moral to this story than the obvious one - that it's better to tackle mistakes and bad judgments head-on and try to change your future in the here and now than to leave yourself unable to function in the world as a result of past mistakes (or to rely on the mercy of someone whose "goods" you've wasted). I think the point is simply:

Do the best you can to make the past and the future right - even if you've wasted your stewardship up to this point. Get out of the clutches of those who have claims over you and start fresh with a clean slate - and do a better job with your second chance than you did with the first.

or:

Repent and be merciful toward others, and God will commend you for your efforts.

I don't have to believe this parable actually was taught (although I do believe that), and I don't have to believe it's message is divine in some way. However, I think there are lessons that can be taken from it without "wresting" it in any way.

I think there are two main issues that have to be addressed in order to do so:

1) I think we modern people get hung up on the word "unjust" - and I don't see the steward's actions in the parable as "unethical" in any way. The dictionary definitions of "unjust" are:

a) not just; lacking in justice or fairness;

b) unfaithful or dishonest.

I found this definition enlightening, when viewed in the context of this parable:

not in accordance with accepted standards of fairness or justice

In this parable, one person paid 50% of what he owed, while the second person paid 80% of what he owed. (My guess is the difference was due to the ability of each person to repay the debt immediately - that the steward got as much from each person as was possible in a lump sum at the time.) The steward wasn't being "fair" - since he wasn't applying the same terms of repayment - or "just" or "faithful" - since he wasn't collecting for his boss what was owed to the boss - but he also wasn't being "dishonest" in any way. (See point #2 below for more about that.)

That's smart money management, IF the purpose is to get as much NOW as possible - for whatever reason. That was the steward's objective. Lenders do it all the time, now and all throughout history. If they have lent money and face the real probability that the borrower won't be able to pay it back in full, they work out a compromise, partial payment - and the terms often are "everything you can pay". It's not "unethical" at all - but, technically, it is "unjust". We don't bat an eye at the "unjustness" of it (especially if we are the beneficiaries) - and we generally commend the lenders who understand and try to work out alternate payment options. On the other hand, we generally castigate lenders who don't even try to understand exceptional circumstances and work with borrowers who need to rework their debt payments.

2) It's easy to forget that the steward still was responsible for the distribution of the rich man's goods and the payments for them. That was his job. He did a lousy job of it, but it still was his job. He hadn't been fired yet at the time the parable relates. He had the authority to do whatever he wanted to collect his lord's debts - and he chose to exercise that authority in an "unjust" but totally "ethical" way. He got the rich man as much as could be expected before he was fired, so the rich man understandably commended him for that - even though (I think) he still was fired for wasting his lord's goods.

I don't know exactly what the original point was for this parable, but I can see very good lessons that can be taken from it about repentance and duty.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Exaltation Is a Core Biblical Teaching

Exaltation is the Mormon equivalent of theosis, and the core of theosis is ancient and exists within and beyond Christianity.

It is the same general concept as the Eastern idea of the final state of being after a complete reincarnative existence. In Christianity, it is centered in the Biblical verses and passages that say we can become one with God - and I see that theme running from Genesis through Revelations. It was championed by early church leaders, and it still is taught in the Eastern Orthodox Church - which is my favorite Christian religion outside of Mormonism, for what that's worth. As I mentioned in the post last Thursday about what constitutes "the Gospel", I see Jesus of Nazareth as having preached the concept of theosis as central to his "good news" - and it is found in passages throughout nearly all of the epistles of the New Testament. The Intercessory prayer in John 17 is perhaps the best example.

Frankly, if anyone reads the Bible without theological preconceptions, I think it is very hard not to reach the conclusion that becoming like God is a major thread running through the entire compilation (although it isn't as explicit in the Old Testament as in the New Testament) - and, interestingly, it is not a thread at all in the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith came to believe it passionately (and even radically, I would say), but that belief developed as he focused on his Bible translation efforts, not before or during the publication of the Book of Mormon. I think that's one of the strongest reasons he once said that the main difference between Mormons and other Christians is that we believe the Bible, and they don't. (not "in the Bible", but what the Bible actually teaches)