Monday, July 28, 2014

Analyzing Scripture: Joseph Smith History 1:19 - "They Were All Wrong"

[NOTE: This post is longer than normal, since I am commenting on multiple phrases and words throughout the verse in question. Please pardon the length; I couldn't shorten it any more than I did - except to delete this disclaimer.]

Perhaps the most reviled verse among non-Mormon Christians in the entire Mormon scriptural canon is Joseph Smith History 1:19 – the words of Jesus to Joseph Smith at the beginning of the First Vision regarding why he should not join any church. This single verse encapsulates the reason why many call Mormonism arrogant and offensive and blind – and the misinterpretations of this verse by Mormons themselves only add fuel to this fire. So, in this post I am breaking out my parser’s pen and dissecting what Jesus actually said and did not say: word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, concept-by-concept. It was a fascinating endeavor when I first undertook it, and it changed my perspective on The Restoration greatly.

First, the actual question Joesph asked (in verse 18) is:
I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right . . . and which I should join.

The entire passage (in verse 19) says:
I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.

Now, let’s break this down concept-by-concept and focus on the key words in each concept, focusing on what the words themselves actually mean AT THEIR MOST BASIC LEVEL – rather than secondary definitions and other interpretations that have been postulated (both within and without the LDS Church):

“I was answered that I (Joseph) must join none of them,”

Joseph prayed explicitly about the Protestant sects of his area and which one HE should join. Perhaps this appears to be a minor point, but I believe it is important to put the prayer in context. Joseph was working from the core assumption that he should join a Protestant sect, and, looking back, it is clear from a faithful Mormon perspective that Joseph had a specific mission to perform in mortality within Christianity. Other religions weren’t a part of the equation, at all – and neither was Catholicism, according to his own writings. I wonder what response a Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim would get with that exact same prayer – or if others might have specific missions to perform in mortality and receive different answers that will help them fulfill those missions, perhaps like Mother Teresa performing a wonderful work among the poor of Calcutta that would have been impossible as a Mormon. I don’t know, but parsing the text leads to interesting questions like these.

“for they were all wrong;”

At its most basic level, “wrong” simply means not right” / “not correct” – or “out of order; awry; amiss. Also, like with school tests, it often applies to answers that contain one or more elements that are not correct – even when most elements are correct. Thus “wrong” can mean 100% wrong or 1% wrong – or everything between those extremes. What “wrong” DOES NOT mean is “bad, evil, terrible, worthy of scorn, useless, etc.

“and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds

A “creed” is “an authoritative, formulated statement of the chief articles of Christian belief.” The most common creeds referenced by those discussing this verse are the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, but these creeds essentially were the Catholic Creeds of the early centuries. The Athanasian Creed had a strong impact on much of the Protestant theology that existed in Joseph Smith’s time, but there were other “Protestant creeds” (like the Westminster Confession of Faith) that rarely are considered in the context of this verse – and those Protestant creeds are every bit as relevant as the early Catholic Creeds. (I believe, more so) [The closest thing in Mormonism to "creeds" are The Articles of Faith.] What “creeds” DOES NOT mean is “general teachings, statements, beliefs, general principles, etc.This means that much of what actually is taught in other sects is not addressed in this verse, only “their creeds”.

“were an abomination in his sight

Abomination means “anything greatly disliked, abhorred or loathed”. It is this word that is most “abominable, abhorred or loathed” by other Christians. However, when focused on the “creeds” [particularly in statements like the Westminster Confession], it is much easier to understand. Just a few examples are: hardcore Calvinist pre-destination that eliminates agency in all practical ways, the complete elimination of the Father as a separate being from Jesus, the incorporeal nature of God that led to a real and harmful loathing of the body and all things physical, the loss of all concept of eternal progression and exaltation, etc. There are more examples of creeds that truly would be abominable when viewed by Jesus ["in his sight"]. What this DOES NOT say is that everything taught by the other sects was an abomination. It leaves the door wide open for truth and beauty and goodness to be taught.

[Just as an aside, I find it fascinating to watch mainstream Protestantism move inexorably away from many of these creeds that were so strongly taught in Joseph's day toward what is taught in Mormonism - and the natural tendency of some Mormons to want creedal certainty.]

“that THOSE professors” 

 “Professors” means “those who profess” – nothing more and nothing less. “Profess” means “claim, allege, purport, avow” – and there is a strong association with making claims as part of a “profession” from a position of authority. The critical distinction in this verse, however, is that “professors” is tied directly to the “creeds” – NOT even implicitly to other teachings that are not creedal. What this means is that “those professors” DOES NOT mean ALLministers, preachers, pastors, priests, members, believers, etc.” Rather, it means anyone who “professes those creeds” – who teaches the creeds from a position of authority – who teaches things that are abominations in Jesus’ sight – who teaches them as “creeds” [as unalterable, immutable, unquestionable]. It places as much weight on the intractability of the profession as it does on what is being professed – meaning it focuses on those who are closed to continuing revelation and stuck on abominable creeds of the past.

[In a very real way, but not exactly analogous due to not being "creeds", it is like those who continue to espouse views from past Mormon leaders that have been abandoned or refuted by current leaders - like the justifications for the Priesthood ban that were repudiated by Elder McConkie shortly after the 1978 revelation lifting the ban or the continued practice of polygamy in the 21st Century.]

“were all corrupt;”

At its most basic level, corrupt simply means “tainted; not pure”. If someone professes abominable creeds, those creeds inevitably will taint those who profess them. To me, this is perhaps the most logical assertion of all the statements in this verse. What this DOES NOT say is that these people are “evil, bad, insincere, conniving, manipulative, worthy of scorn, etc.” It actually says nothing about their motivation or desires; it only addresses the inherent stain of abominable creeds.


The following statements are the only ones that are attributed as a quote directly to Jesus – rather than Joseph’s summary in the first part of the verse.

they draw near to me with their lips,” 

“They” refers back to the “professors of the creeds”, who speak of Jesus. There is no other implication and no insult, condemnation or criticism inherent in this phrase.

“but their hearts are far from me,” 

This is a painful statement for many, but “heart” in this case does not mean the actual physical organ – and it does not have to mean “intent or desire”. The “heart” in this context is defined as the “vital or essential part” of something – what lies at the very core. In other words, the “essential part” of the “professors of the creeds” is far from Jesus. For example, the essential parts of the creeds melds Jesus into the Father, prays to Jesus (instead of to the Father in the name of the Son), refuses to accept His oft-repeated request to show their love through their acceptance of His commandments (“by their fruits”) and rejects individual agency and will by preaching predestination, etc. In summary, they use and preach his name but don’t promulgate his teachings. What this DOES NOT say is that ALL Christians fit this description. It is pointed ONLY at those who profess the creeds, and it is pointed only at their “hearts” [what they believe deep down as bedrock doctrine], not their lips [much of what they say and teach].

they teach for doctrines the commandments of men,”

This phrase equates those who profess the creeds with those who substitute human commands for doctrine. It DOES NOT apply to regular members of other sects, at all – OR to ministers, preachers, pastors or priests who teach doctrine from the scriptures themselves and don’t preach the creeds.

“having a form of godliness,”

“Form” means “structure, appearance, shape, etc.” Thus, those who profess the creeds teach something that is shaped like and appears to be godly.

“but they deny the power thereof.”

This is the clinching argument against the creeds – that they reject the power of godliness. That phrase alone deserves its own post, but suffice it to say here that the creed professors are not accused of denying Jesus; rather, they are accused of denying His power – what He, through his Atonement, is capable of doing. They are accused of claiming that He can’t do what He has said He will do, which is the most basic abomination of all.

In summary, JSH 1:19 is a direct attack on the creeds of Joseph’s day (more so the newer Protestant ones than the older Catholic ones), defining the primary reason why he was told not to join any of them as being their profession of those creeds. The only people who are mentioned directly in any way are those who profess those creeds, and even these people are only described in terms of their acceptance of those creeds by which they are tainted. It says absolutely nothing about anyone or anything else, and it says nothing about the salvation of even the professors whose creeds it condemns.

At the most basic level, this verse has one message and only one message:

“The Protestant CREEDS are an abomination, and they taint all those who profess them.”

That certainly is harsh to those who profess the creeds, but it also says much, much, less than too many Mormons (and others) assume.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Guest Participation in Mormon Sunday School Podcast: The Influence of Wicked and Righteous Leaders

I participated last week in Jared Anderson's Mormon Sunday School podcast based on Lesson 27 (1 Kings 12; 13; 14; 2 Chronicles 10:7; 17; 20).  The lesson theme was "The influence of wicked and righteous leaders," and the discussion in Sections 2 and 3 focused on leadership in the LDS Church.  My participation starts at the second section - around 29:30 to the end

I normally don't post on Sundays, but I want to share the podcast and ask everyone who reads my blog to let me know what they thought.  

The Influence of Wicked and Righteous Leaders

(The audio link is at the bottom of the summary text, directly below the "resources" section.)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: Sacrament Covenant - Repentance; A Deeper, Fresh View

Yesterday, we focused on the lesson outline: "How can I make the sacrament more meaningful to me?" We had talked the first week about the sacrament and the covenants associated with it, but I really like the way the opening paragraph of the outline is worded, so I used that paragraph as the foundation of a deeper look at how to maximize the concept of the sacrament in practical terms in our lives.

The lesson outline starts with the following:

During the sacrament each week, we should examine our lives, ponder the Savior’s Atonement, and consider what we need to do to repent of our sins. We do not need to be perfect in order to partake of the sacrament, but we should have a spirit of humility and repentance in our hearts. The sacrament can become a source of strength and an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to living the gospel.

I started by reminding everyone of a lesson we had last year about repentance - particularly how we only understand half of the concept of repentance when we focus solely on remembering our sins / mistakes and vowing not to repeat them. (If anyone wants a fuller look at that concept before continuing with this lesson summary, read the following post from January 2008, since our discussion was based on that post: "A Fresh View of Repentance".)

I asked everyone what "repent" means, and they remembered that it simply means "change". I explained that we were going to talk about two ways to try to repent: 1) the traditional focus on recognizing past sins and committing to not repeat them; 2) changing our very nature by developing characteristics that will help us not feel and act in the same way we naturally would.

I mentioned that the first approach (the traditional steps of repentance method) is necessary for "hardcore" sinners (similar to what addicts might have to do because they might struggle with a temptation all their lives but simply have to commit to a sheer force of will no matter how long it takes, along with other strategies), but that, for most people, just suppressing an inclination generally results in that inclination eventually erupting through built-up pressure - which, as one student said, leads to a vicious cycle of failed attempts and self-criticism. I call this reactive repentance, and I stressed that the ONLY focus of this sort of repentance is to remain as good as we are at any given point - to not let our "badness" overcome our goodness, so to speak. There is no real "growth" in that approach; rather, it is much more of a fight to remain stationary.

The second approach is to recognize a weakness and work to develop a characteristic that will eliminate the inclination / weakness / undesired action. This also is focused on "change", so it is "repentance" every bit as much as the other approach. I call this approach proactive repentance. 

I asked the students if any of them had ever lost their temper and acted toward someone in a way that they regretted. (I picked a fairly generic issue in order to make it personal for all of them but avoid embarrassing anyone.) They all grinned and raised their hands. I asked them how they could change that - how they could go about trying to not do it anymore - other than simply committing not to do it. I asked them to think about exactly what they could do to tackle that particular issue. Eventually, we came up with the following:

1) Develop more patience;

2) Learn to understand the other person better - both their view/perspective and what things in their life might lead them to say and/or do something that bothered the students enough to get upset and lose their temper.

We talked about patience being the "lower" standard and understanding being the "higher" goal. One of the students in the class has Asperger's Syndrome and occasionally says something inappropriate or off the wall. He said it was okay to use him as an example, so we talked about why everyone else didn't get mad at him and lose their tempers when he said or did something that might make them mad if someone else said or did it. They all said they understand and love him - and, beside being a wonderfully tender moment, it helped them see what I meant about repentance being more than just not doing things. It also can mean doing something to improve one's self and change actions as a result, in this case by understanding someone enough to love them no matter what they say or do.

One student said he would like to read the scriptures more, so we talked about how repentance also can apply to things that aren't seen as sin but are strictly things we want to do better - things we want to change. For this discussion, I focused on the idea of needing to examine one's life and make "repentance" a very practical exercise. We talked about needing to think about themselves and when they are most alert - to look at their real-life schedule and choose a time that will work to read the scriptures - to actually calendar the time so it becomes habitual - to perhaps let others know so they can remind us of the commitment - etc. There were seven people in the room, and we came up with at least four approaches that would be best for someone.

This highlighted that repentance is an individual thing - that there is no one-size-fits-all, universally right approach - that nobody ought to try to force someone else to repent in the same way that person does.

Finally, I returned to the sacrament and pointed out that the ideal is not just to "think about Jesus" but rather to have faith in the Atonement enough to examine our lives and use the sacrament as a way to recommit to a practical examination and plan to change - to move from a warm fuzzy spiritual contemplation to a difficult, reflective, practical exercise founded on a spiritual hope.

I left them with the request to pick something that they want to improve about themselves and start focusing on doing so, if only one thing at a time for a limited time and if only to make some limited improvement during that time (rather than trying to overcome it completely and be "perfect" [whole, complete, fully developed] at it in the short-term).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Judge Not: Laman and Lemuel

I try to read the scriptures with a focus on trying to understand the people in them and the "background story" behind the accounts.  I understand that is a subjective process and that some of my conclusions might be incorrect, but it's important to me to try to get to know the people themselves as well as possible and not just read the stories shallowly.  

In that light: 

If you want an interesting experience, read 1 Nephi from the perspective of Laman and Lemuel constantly hearing their father rag on them.

Read how Nephi describes it and see if "the words of a tender parent" feel tender to the person on the receiving end of the sermons.

It was easy for Nephi, I think, to agree that his father was being a loving, concerned parent - but I can't imagine that Laman and Lemuel felt anything except constant criticism and negative comparison to their "perfect little brother, the spoiled brat".

Lehi, I'm certain, loved all of his children, but he "exhorted" those whose lives were different than his goals for them. His family, in my mind, was very dysfunctional - and I'm sure some of it was a result of internal family dynamics and unrealistic expectations.

My point for this post?

In our own lives, we should strive not to react like Laman or Lemuel, even if some people act like Lehi.  However, knowing how brutally hard that is in many situations, we should strive just as diligently to avoid judging people in the way we tend to judge Laman and Lemuel - especially in situations we probably understand no better than theirs due to our relative lack of information about dynamics we can't see and/or understand fully.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Falling, Losing, Failing, Transgression and Sin Are the Path Back Home

“It seems that in the spiritual world, we do not really find something until we first lose it, ignore it, miss it, long for it, choose it, and personally find it again—but now on a new level. Three of the parables of Jesus are about losing something, searching for it anew with some effort, finding it, and in each case throwing a big party afterwards . . . . Falling, losing, failing, transgression, and sin are the pattern, I am sorry to report. Yet they all lead toward home.” (Richard Rohr, "Falling Upward", 66-67)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

It's Not about Jesus; It's about You and Me

Jesus, from the view of a hardcore non-believer, was a complete failure. Some of his followers perpetrated some truly horrific, evil things.

Jesus, from the view of a hardcore believer, was a complete success. Some of his followers have done remarkable, marvelous, great things.

What separates a "faithful" torturer during the Inquisition from Mother Teresa? After all, both of them claimed to be doing the will of God, via Jesus.

It's not really Jesus that is the key, in any real, material, practical way. It's the specifics of the devotion of the different followers - the path each took in crafting their devotion, if you will. It's not the founder; it's the follower. In other words, at the most practical level, it isn't the "founder" of the religion that is paramount; rather, it's what followers individually and collectively make of the founding in their own lives.

There is plenty in Mormonism for someone to make himself be damned - but there's plenty in Mormonism for someone to be given exaltation.

One of my favorite questions when it comes to discussions of culture, practice, doctrine, etc. is:

"Lord, is it I?"

"We" are "The Church" - in every way that matters, and, I believe, it is up to each of us (as an individual "I am" within the collective "we are") to own that question - not to "outsource our sin" by blaming others for what "we are" but to model the devotion we hope to see from others. It really isn't about Joseph Smith, since there are good and bad "Mormons" sharing his heritage; it's about me - so I need to ask myself regularly:

"Lord, is it I?"

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We Need to Move Beyond "Church Approved" to Live Meaningful Lives

"We need to develop the capacity to form judgments of our own about the value of ideas, opportunities, or people who may come into our lives.

We won’t always have the security of knowing whether a certain idea is “Church approved,” because new ideas don’t always come along with little tags attached to them saying whether they have been reviewed at Church headquarters.

Whether in the form of music, books, friends, or opportunities to serve, there is much that is lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy that is not the subject of detailed discussion in Church manuals or courses of instruction.

Those who will not risk exposure to experiences that are not obviously related to some Church word or program will, I believe, live less abundant and meaningful lives than the Lord intends.

We must develop sufficient independence of judgment and maturity of perspective that we are prepared to handle the shafts and whirlwinds of adversity and contradiction that may come to us.

When those times come, we cannot be living on borrowed light. We should not be deceived by the clear-cut labels others may use to describe circumstances that are, in fact, not so clear.
Our encounters with reality and disappointment are, actually, vital stages in the development of our maturity and understanding.” (Elder Bruce Hafen, “On Dealing with Uncertainty”, Ensign, July 1979)

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Beautiful Talk about Inclusion Despite Fundamental Differences, even Marriage and Sexual Orientation

A friend of mine gave the following talk yesterday in church.  It is a difficult talk to address in Sacrament Meeting, but it is message that we all should understand, accept and internalize. 
Good Morning Brothers and Sisters,

Let me share with you the message from the Stake Presidency about our speaking topic this month:

“Brethren, this month’s topic is one that will need to be approached with sensitivity and prayerful consideration. We have provided for your preparation several different talks on the topic of Same Sex Attraction, Inclusion, and The Eternal Nature of Marriage. Our desire is for you to review these topics and prayerfully develop a talk that incorporates each into a single message. Your goal is to help those within our stake understand the position of the church as it relates to the eternal nature of marriage as outlined in The Proclamation to the Family while still maintaining an attitude of loving kindness and acceptance of all as brothers and sisters in The Lord.”

As I mentioned to a friend what I would be talking about this month, his reply was something about walking into a “mine field.” Perhaps, but I think we will be uplifted together as we discuss the true essence of the gospel.

To start, here is the Church’s position on marriage and same sex marriage: This is taken from the Topics session on and this document is titled: Addressing Same Sex Attraction

“The Church’s doctrinal position is clear: Sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married. However, that should never be used as justification for unkindness. Jesus Christ, whom we follow, was clear in His condemnation of sexual immorality, but never cruel. His interest was always to lift the individual, never to tear down.
In short, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms the centrality of doctrines relating to human sexuality and gender as well as the sanctity and significance of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. However, the Church firmly believes that all people are equally beloved children of God and deserve to be treated with love and respect. Church apostle Elder Quentin L. Cook stated, “As a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach. Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender.”

And from the church’s website Mormons and

“The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

And again from the previous document:

“Accordingly, the Church favors measures that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. However, “protecting marriage between a man and a woman does not remove Church members’ Christian obligations of love, kindness and humanity toward all people.”

So let me make re-clarify a few points:
• The Church teaches that the family is ordained of God
• The church’s position is that sexual activity should only occur between a man and woman who are married.
• The church’s position is that marriage is the lawful union of a man and a woman
• Many individuals do not choose same sex attraction
• Regardless of the church’s stance on marriage, we are obligated as Christians to love, be kind, and understanding to all people.

These are the official positions of the church.

Are some members going to have different opinions than the official church position? Yes. We are a big church. We cast a wide net. People will have different viewpoints and feelings about certain topics.

In a statement by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve published on June 28th they said:

“We understand that from time to time Church members will have questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding. We feel special concern, however, for members who distance themselves from Church doctrine or practice and, by advocacy, encourage others to follow them.
Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.”

We are encouraged to seek understanding. D&C 107 vs. 7 says:

And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith;

Whatever our feelings on the doctrines I have discussed, we can advocate for tolerance, kindness, and good will with those of differing viewpoints. Inquiry, debate, and free expression of ideas are hallmarks of a free society; coercion is acted out when losing the battle of ideas, and thwarting free expression through authoritarianism. For those that preach tolerance, it must be a two-way street, and we are completely within our right to ask for such. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks has observed:

“Tolerance does not require abandoning one’s standards or one’s opinions on political or public policy choices. Tolerance is a way of reacting to diversity, not a command to insulate it from examination.”

Let us error on the side of kindness but always fight for the freedom to discuss, think, and advocate for ideas and policies that we deem valuable.

Let me spend a few minutes talking about the importance of families:

Throughout time strong families have served as essential institutions to teach and convey knowledge to future generations about morals, ethics, traditions and values that are vital to robust and free civilizations.

Marriage, in a civil sense, is an affirmation of a couples love for each other, a contract to work together, provide for each other and their children which comes with legally binding obligations. Marriage and the rearing of children within the obligations of marriage is the most optimal institution in a world governed by agency. Unless we believe that authoritarianism is the best relay point to transfer the necessary knowledge to the next generation, the family is the best alternative.

The Proclamation on the Family says:

“Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. . . . The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.”

This is a theological and spiritual view on marriage with temporal implications. From a secular perspective, the data on marriage also tells an interesting story. The creation and sustainment of marriage provides the best opportunity for children, not only in an eternal sense, but for temporal growth and personal fulfillment.

Over the last decades there has been an erosion of intact families.

“In 2012, 40% of all births in the United States were to unwed mothers. More than 50% of births to mothers under age 30 were out of wedlock. Further, the marriage rate has been declining since the 1980s. These trends do not bode well for the development of the rising generation.”

A study found on says:

Children raised by single parents have lower levels of social and academic well-being, and more behavior problems than those from intact families. "…adolescents who have lived apart from one of their parents during some period of childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age twenty, and one and a half times as likely to be 'idle' - out of school or out of work - in their late teens and early twenties."

Charles Murray, in his book Coming Apart, wrote an in-depth analysis comparing different survey and data trends. In one observation based on his analysis he says:

“The raw material that makes community even possible has diminished so much in some parts of the country that the situation may be beyond retrieval. That raw material is social trust-not trust in a particular neighbor who happens to be your friend, but a generalized expectation that people around you will do the right thing.”

We can help reverse these trends by advocating for strong familial relationships, helping those in our community, and working to make our marriages and families to be places of happiness, learning, growth, and faith. One of the most important things that we can do as members of the church is to create as Celestial a marriage as possible.

The Proclamation of the Family states:

“Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities…In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.”

As couples we are obligated to help each other as equal partners and to decide as a family what will work best for us; whether that be more traditional roles, or whether that be a working mom and stay-at-home dad, or somewhere in between. We have the ability to receive our own personal revelation of what will work best for our family. And any relationships that are built on forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, teamwork, and wholesome recreational activities are bound to last for the eternities.

To cite Charles Murray again he notes:

“The relationship of marriage to happiness is simple as can be. There’s hardly anything better than a good marriage for promoting happiness and nothing worse than a bad one.”

The ideals of the LDS Church around family formation and the eternal nature of families can work really well for a lot of people. But it can be a very difficult concept and idea for others. What happens if someone’s situation falls outside this neat little box? What if we were sealed in the temple but now our husband or wife is no longer active in the church? What if our children have chosen different theological, personal, or spiritual paths than our own? What if we have family members, children, friends who are attracted to members of the same sex?

For many of us, we feel left holding a bag of disappointments, burdened by our inability to reconcile a God of agency and unmet promises of obedience. I have no easy answers for you, only a willingness to stand with those in need of comfort and faith and hope in an expansive view of the mercy of our Creator.

Chieko Okazaki, former first counselor in General Relief Society Presidency said:

"I don't want anyone to misunderstand what I'm going to say next. The First Presidency has made its opposition to same-sex marriages very clear; as a member of the church I support them in their position. But I want to stress that we can be opposed to a piece of legislation or to a practice and still behave with courtesy and decency toward those who hold other opinions. I would not want anyone to use the First Presidency's stand as an excuse for being hateful or disrespectful toward others..... It is very likely that every person in the Church knows someone - a family member or a friend - who is gay, lesbian or bisexual…I think there is much we do not understand about how such conditions come to be, or what resources are truly helpful. In the meantime, nothing has suspended the commandment of Jesus to love one another and to bear one another's burdens."

In my view it's understandable that the depression and suicide rates among gay people, in general, and in the LDS Church are significantly higher than in the general population. Many of our brothers and sisters feel alone, isolated, different, and in pain. Really loving someone who is different, in any way, isn't just a nice idea or a good concept; in many cases, it might bring a measure of joy to someone who has precious little happiness and, literally, help save lives.

I remember one particular service activity as a youth when we lived in South Florida. Our activity was to help clean up a hospice center where people who had contracted HIV and AIDS lived for a while before they passed away. This was during the early 90’s when AIDS was relatively new to the public and was wreaking havoc among the male homosexual population. I remember feeling conflicted during our service project. Many of the people who had inhabited the hospice were there because of choices that were not in agreement with the doctrines of our church and so why should we be spending our time at that particular place. On the ride home I expressed this conflict to my father and in his wisdom affirmed the centrality of the gospel message to me. His reply, and I am paraphrasing a bit here, was, 

“Son, we are all sons and daughters of God. As such we are all deserving of His love and it doesn’t much matter what choices others have made, we should serve and love everyone.”

I know that many of us can feel out of place, unsure of how to assimilate into such a performance based culture. Many of us are at different points on the spectrum in our faith journey, our life experiences, and the growing pains of mortality.

I find comfort in Elder Wirthlin’s words:

“Some are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. Perhaps because they are different, they find themselves slipping away from the flock. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed.
Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.
This variety of creation itself is a testament of how the Lord values all His children. He does not esteem one flesh above another, but He “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God.””

Our message as members of the church should echo the message of Elder Uchtdorf in the October 2013 General Conference. He said:

"To those who have separated themselves from the Church, I say, my dear friends, there is yet a place for you here. Come and add your talents, gifts, and energies to ours. We will all become better as a result."

And to those of you with doubts:

"It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters—my dear friends—please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ."

I love that line: "We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner." Wherever we are at with our faith, let us act on the things we do believe. If all you believe to be true is that we should be charitable with each other, that sounds awesome! Act on that. Don’t let the other things hold you back from helping and serving others. If all you believe to be true is that we are a part of a great cosmic unity, then let that belief flow into action of viewing others as a part of that journey and loving your neighbor.

And he addresses those who worry about living up to the standards:

"All the more reason to come! The Church is designed to nourish the imperfect, the struggling, and the exhausted. It is filled with people who desire with all their heart to keep the commandments, even if they haven’t mastered them yet."

I interpret that to mean, no problem. We come to church to work on our relationship with God and to work on being better. Don’t worry about what other members think, your journey is yours. It’s not our place to judge. And if we are being judgmental, call us out on it. And for heaven's sakes, let's cut ourselves and each other a break.

More from Elder Uchtdorf:
"Some might say, “I know a member of your Church who is a hypocrite. I could never join a church that had someone like him as a member.”
If you define hypocrite as someone who fails to live up perfectly to what he or she believes, then we are all hypocrites. None of us is quite as Christlike as we know we should be. But we earnestly desire to overcome our faults and the tendency to sin. With our heart and soul we yearn to become better with the help of the Atonement of Jesus Christ."

And this!

"If these are your desires, then regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church. Come, join with us! If you seek truth, meaning, and a way to transform faith into action; if you are looking for a place of belonging: Come, join with us!...If you are tempted to give up: Stay yet a little longer. There is room for you here.”

Elder Orson F. Whitney, former member of the Quorum of the Twelve said this:

“…The Shepherd will find his sheep. They were his before they were yours-long before he entrusted them to your care; and you cannot begin to love them as he loves them... Our Heavenly Father is far more merciful, infinitely more charitable, than even the best of his servants, and the Everlasting Gospel is mightier in power to save than our narrow finite minds can comprehend.
The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. … Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.”

I believe as C.S. Lewis that:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”

I believe we are eternal and as such we have an obligation to treat others as Christ has instructed us to do, and to love regardless of others personal choices. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with others choices, but we must love as best we can. The gospel of Christ is one of faith and hope, charity and love, experience and progression. Let us remember the example of Christ in our interactions with others.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: Baptismal Covenants; or, Serving Only "Our Own" Is Not Following Jesus

Last Sunday, we talked about only one aspect of ordinances and covenants: the baptismal covenant to bear one another's burdens, mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need to comfort.

We spent the entire lesson talking about: 1) the fact that the Gospels detail a LOT more time spent serving people than time spent preaching; 2) exactly whom Jesus served during his mortal ministry (lepers, the sick and afflicted, the unclean, the despised, the poor, the powerless, etc. - his "kingdom of nobodies", as a friend of mine once wrote) and whom he did NOT serve (the religious leadership, the rich and famous and influential, etc.); 3) whom he might serve if he was born and ministered now; 4) how all of that relates to our own baptismal commitment to bear, mourn and comfort and, overall, to take Jesus' name upon us and become more Christ-like.

The list of whom he might serve now was created by the students and included: the sick, the poor, unwed teenage mothers, alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, the homeless (especially those who are mentally disabled). I pressed them to keep adding to the list, asking them to consider those who are marginalized specifically by our current Mormon culture and not already on the list, and they added homosexuals and the divorced. I personally added church members who see things differently than a locally dominant culture, struggle with aspects of faith and remain silent in order not to feel rejected in their congregations.

We talked about how natural it is to try to avoid becoming unclean or hurt (and how, in some cases, that is an unfortunate necessity) and how that translates inter-personally and socially into avoiding people who we see as unclean and/or dangerous - either physically or spiritually. We talked about how doing so is diametrically opposed to becoming Christ-like (except in the extreme cases when it is necessary), since he spent his entire ministry interacting with, serving and physically touching the people whom everyone else labeled as unclean and avoided in order to remain clean.

To end the lesson, I quoted my oldest daughter after she went through the temple for the first time. She said:

Dad, we spend so much time trying to build up the kingdom of God on earth that we forget to establish Zion.

I told them that we aren't really fulfilling our baptismal covenants if we aren't serving people who live outside our comfort zone - if we aren't helping people in a deeply personal, individual way who are rejected by other people, even people within our own church circles. I mentioned how much we construct our service projects around helping "our own" and too often ignore the people around us who are carrying the heaviest burdens, mourning alone and need comfort the most desperately. I asked them to think about the people on the list we created and look for ways to reach out to SOMEONE - actively and directly - who would be on that list. I told them that such an effort was vital to being a true disciple ("follower") of Christ - since, to do so, we have to be willing to go where he went and serve whom he served.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why Can "Outsiders" Sometimes See the Beauty Among Us Better than We Can?

I was participating in a group discussion once in which one of the people asked the following question, and my response follows the question:

Why does it take a non-member sometimes to remind us of why Mormonism is so wonderful?

Because a non-member can admire Mormonism from (somewhat) afar without having to work in the trenches amid the tension between the ideal and the real.

He can be the observer; we are the farmers - working in the mud and the muck and the manure trying to grow something beautiful and sweet. We need the observers, but we need the farmers just as much, if not more. Without the farmers, the observers would have nothing to observe.

I also loved the focus on "pure Mormonism" in his article. Yes, it gets messy in the trenches, when "The Church" (the collective "We actually are") doesn't match the ideal for which we long - but the underlying grandeur and mind-blowing expansiveness of the core, pure theology shines through our pitiful attempts to understand and live it when the light hits the diamonds just right, so to speak. Even after all these years, I still get blinded by the light when I step back a bit and let it shine.

To change analogies, it's even more brilliant when the full orchestral sound washes around me and penetrates my soul (body and spirit combined) - when I experience those moments of communal harmony that make my heart-strings hum and vibrate in tune with it all.

I wish so badly that the entire Church was like that - even if only somewhat regularly. I wish each ward and branch and stake had those moments on a somewhat regular basis - when Zion emerges and flows inward and outward - when the concept and the principle of the City of Enoch (another grand allegory and symbol, in my opinion) comes into focus a bit more clearly and I actually can understand what it might be like to be caught up into heaven with people I love and who love me. I know it's not like that fully, even in my own ward that really is wonderful in so many ways - and I understand why others get disheartened when they never experience it week after soul-numbing week - but I have seen it, can see it and know it's possible - and "pure Mormonism" is why I have seen it, can see it and know it's possible.

It's easy to forget our own positive experiences in the middle of other, more difficult experiences, and, sometimes, it takes an observation by someone not immersed in those difficulties to remind us of why it's all worth it.