Friday, September 30, 2016

Why I Don't Want Full-time, Paid Bishops (or Other Local Leaders)

If Bishops were paid, they could devote their time to being a full-time Bishop.
I have a friend who said the above a few years ago, while we were talking about the stipends for full-time service at higher levels in the LDS Church. This post is a brief response to his statement - not full and complete, but enough to provide a decent outline of my feelings about this issue.

Personally, I don't want full-time Bishops working in that position as a career - and it would have to be as a career, since it would be cruel to ask someone to quit a job, work for 5 years or so as a Bishop, and then make them try to return to the work they did when they quit to become a Bishop. (Their service wouldn't be valued by most employers outside the Inter-Mountain West Mormon corridor, and it actually would hurt their employment opportunities in some geographic areas.) I don't want career ministers, even though there are some wonderful benefits in lots of cases. Part of my reason is philosophical, but part of it is practical.

First, I oppose making people get college degrees to qualify as ministers, and there would have to be some way to "qualify" Bishops and Stake Presidents if they were paid as full-time employees. The debt alone it wrong, in my opinion, for the purpose - as is the elitism I have viewed in many situations, including while taking a few classes at the Harvard Divinity School.

Second, I've seen too many examples of abuse, conceit, extravagance, etc. in congregations of non-Mormon friends to want it happening in the LDS Church (when the leader feels unaccountable to the membership), and I also have seen wholesale abandonment of doctrine in other cases (where the leader feels beholden to preach only what the majority of the membership - or even only a few highly influential members and families - want to hear).

Third, if we decided to pay our Bishops and Stake Presidents, what about their counselors - and the Relief Society Presidents, Elders Quorum Presidents, High Priests Group Leaders, Ward Mission Leaders, Young Women and Men Presidents, High Council, etc? Some of them put in almost as much time as Stake Presidents and Bishops, especially the ones who are retired. How do we determine who gets paid and how much they receive?

Fourth, paying local leaders would lead inevitably, I believe, to larger and larger congregations, in order to reduce payroll expenses - and I am not a fan at all of a mega-church model.

(If we ever decide to pay local leaders, I would favor a small stipend - perhaps the equivalent of minimum wage for 10-20 hours/week, although I haven't thought through that. Seriously, I haven't thought about it in depth, so take it with a huge grain of salt.)

Finally, I can hear critics (inside and outside the Church) wailing about how that money should have been spent helping the poor and for humanitarian aid - and I think it would be a legitimate discussion, at least.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

What about Doubts and Questions?

Now, the next issue. What about doubts and questions in principle? How do you find out that the gospel is true? Is it all right to have questions about the Church or its doctrine?

My dear young friends, we are a question-asking people. We have always been, because we know that inquiry leads to truth. That is how the Church got its start, from a young man who had questions. In fact, I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions. In the scriptures you will rarely discover a revelation that didn’t come in response to a question.

Whenever a question arose and Joseph Smith wasn’t sure of the answer he approached the Lord. And the results are the wonderful revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. Often the knowledge Joseph received extended far beyond the original question. That is because not only can the Lord answer the questions we ask, but even more importantly, He can give us answers to questions we should have asked.

Let us listen to those answers. The missionary effort of the Church is founded upon honest investigators asking heartfelt questions. Inquiry is the birth place of testimony.

Some might feel embarrassed or unworthy because they have searching questions regarding the gospel, but they needn’t feel that way. Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a precursor of growth.

God commands us to seek answers to our questions and asks only that we seek with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ. When we do so, the truth of all things can be manifest to us by the power of the Holy Ghost. Fear not. Ask questions. Be curious. 
- Pres. Uchtdorf, "The Reflection in the Water", CES Fireside, Nov. 1, 2009

Friday, September 23, 2016

When God Is Our Only Physician

I know a man who is from South America. He and most of the people he knew growing up were truly, objectively poor.

I was amazed once when he told me about all of the healing blessings in which he had participated throughout his life. A few were jaw-dropping in their nature and result, but many were for conditions that are commonplace to us - things for which we wouldn't think of asking for a blessing. Initially, I was a bit bemused and almost dismissive of how "commonly" they relied on blessings, and I asked him why it was so commonplace and not more special.

His response humbled me, but it also opened my eyes to my own assumptions and what I take for granted. He said:

"You can take some aspirin or go to a doctor and get a prescription. Your health insurance makes it cost next to nothing. We didn't have that option. God was our only physician, so we went to him."

I will never stop using the resources I have available to me, but I also will not ridicule or even question people who go / went to God in their lack of things I take for granted. I hope I can take advantage of ALL of my resources, and I hope that never stops including God - even if that varies in degree from others on either side of the spectrum from me. 

I also think there is a powerful message in this story about those things which medication (and even faith) cannot heal. Sometimes, even in abundance, God might be our only physician.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Measure of our Christian Conversion: How We Treat Others

At this time of extreme contention and lack of civility, particularly in our political and religious discourse, I find the following quote enlightening and the final paragraph important to consider:

It seems interesting that the first principles the Lord Jesus Christ chose to teach His newly called Apostles were those that center around the way we treat each other. And then, what did He emphasize during the brief period He spent with the Nephites on this continent? Basically the same message. Could this be because the way we treat each other is the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ?  
During an informal fireside address held with a group of adult Latter-day Saints, the leader directing the discussion invited participation by asking the question: “How can you tell if someone is converted to Jesus Christ?” For forty-five minutes those in attendance made numerous suggestions in response to this question, and the leader carefully wrote down each answer on a large blackboard. All of the comments were thoughtful and appropriate. But after a time, this great teacher erased everything he had written. Then, acknowledging that all of the comments had been worthwhile and appreciated, he taught a vital principle: “The best and most clear indicator that we are progressing spiritually and coming unto Christ is the way we treat other people.”  
Would you consider this idea for a moment—that the way we treat the members of our families, our friends, those with whom we work each day is as important as are some of the more noticeable gospel principles we sometimes emphasize.  
- Marvin J. Ashton (The Tongue Can Be a Sharp Sword) 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Prison of Other People's Opinions

A friend with whom I graduated from high school is Buddhist, and he posts regularly on Facebook about thigns for which he is grateful. I enjoy those posts greatly. 

Recently, he posted a link to a short article about being constrained by other people's opinions. It is beautiful, and I am sharing the link, without commentary, in the hope that it will resonate with those who read it and, hopefully, help someone break free from this particular prison. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Letting Go of "Should"

At some point, you just have to let go of what you thought should happen and live in what is happening. - Anonymous 

I love this, because you can live fully in what is happening and still work to change what you can, where you can. In Buddhist terms, it is called being fully present - not wallowing in the past and not obsessing about the future. One can be aware of both past and future, and use that awareness to guide the present, but, in the end, now is all that is real and true for each individual.

I love the concepts I learned in my youth that all is present unto God and that time is measured only unto mankind. A huge part of my peace has come through allowing myself to live in what is happening, not in the future or the past.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

My Friend Just Baptized Jesus: An Astounding, Beautiful Reflection on the Atonement

I wrote something once that addressed how much I love having paradoxes in life, which included the following statement: 

Living in and embracing a world of paradox is hard work. I believe, however, it is worth the effort - especially since our theology teaches such an embrace is a necessary, fundamental aspect of becoming like a Father-God who allows and values such paradox. It is the only way I know to walk one's one way within the Church and allow others the same privilege, let them walk however they may.

A friend responded with one of the most beautiful, touching treatise on grace and the Atonement I have ever read. I get tears in my eyes every time I read it. I hope it touches everyone who reads it the same way it touches me. 

He said: 

I agree with you.  A paradox can be a great opportunity for discovery.  
A few weeks ago, I was able to baptize my daughter.  I moved into a new ward in May, and I've been working with my new bishop with the goal of baptizing her.  He knows fully that I don't believe fully in the doctrines of temples, polygamy, "the one true church", the restoration, the Book of Mormon, etc.  He's a lawyer and knows how to ask questions! But, I've been grateful for the way that he probes in our discussions, because it has given him a very clear picture of where I stand with the church.  
I told him that I'd like to baptize my daughter, but I also would feel like a bit of a hypocrite baptizing her into a church that I don't fully support.  I do believe in the doctrine of baptism, so my goal was really to provide that baptism, but with the mindset that she's baptized as Christ was, to fulfill all righteousness, and not because it's a required ritual to join our church.  
The bishop has been very understanding and supportive.  He said that I probably wouldn't be able to give her the gift of the Holy Ghost (which I was okay with), but that I could stand in the circle when that was done, but he encouraged me to baptize my daughter.  Knowing where I stand, and that it's been a long time since I've taken the sacrament (my decision), worn garments, studied the Book of Moron, etc., he still encouraged me to baptize her.  
So, on the day of her baptism, I found myself in the font, with this sweet little innocent 8 year old stepping down into the font to join me, a flawed and imperfect scoundrel, who was now supposed to perform this baptism.  It made me think of how John the Baptist must have been feeling when Christ came to him to get baptized, and he felt like Christ should be the one baptizing him.  
That little paradox helped me get a little glimpse of the mercy that the real gospel offers. An imperfect person, like myself, is allowed to have flaws and faults.  But, as long as I'm trying to be the best person that I can be, I could still join my innocent little girl in that ordinance.  Pretty cool stuff.  
It's really easy to get weighed down with all of the policies and practices that have been implemented by the church.  But when we strip away 'the church,' and just focus on the gospel, the simplicity and beauty of it really is incredible.  Hey, there's another paradox...the church and the gospel.  They are supposed to go hand-in-hand, but it often feels like they're at odds with each other.
That's okay, too.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Self-Respect Is Manifested Individually

Today's Vocabulary Lesson: 
Self-respect means acting in a way that allows you to respect yourself. It has been expressed in religious terms as living "according to the dictates of (your) own conscience". 
Self-respect does not mean acting in a way that allows others to respect you - or that conforms to others' view of self-respect. It has not been termed as living "according to the dictates of (others') conscience". 
Too many people mistake their own view of self-respect with a universal definition. If there is anything obvious in even a cursory understanding of history, it is that there is no universal norm that represents an objective manifestation through actions of self-respect upon which everyone will agree. 
Hence, the term is SELF-respect.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

My Favorite View of the Garden of Eden Narrative

I love the idea that the garden narrative is an allegorical telling of the pre-existent war in heaven between Jehovah and Lucifer. I know that is a very Mormon reading of it that probably is not consistent with the original purpose of its recording, but I don't mind, since I like the concept of likening all things unto ourselves.

The very short summary:

God's children had to choose between remaining in a state of never-ending stagnation, luxury, and ease (Eden) or leaving God's presence (as couples, not individually) by following Satan into a world of turmoil, strife, hard work, sin . . . and eternal progression.

In this view, the competing commandments were nothing more than the only options: commandments simply because they had to choose one or the other. They weren't commanded to to both; they were commanded to choose one or the other.

I also think it is fascinating and instructive that, in the garden narrative, they had to be tricked into choosing the right one (and that Adam only agreed in the end because he knew that staying with his wife was more important than staying alone with God) - that their "nature" (and prior experiences) leaned toward ease and unchallenging bliss. There is a deep lesson in that part of the narrative.

I love the Garden of Eden story - but only if I take it completely as an allegory / grand creation myth from which I can draw conceptual meaning. I don't believe at all that it is historically accurate.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Pornography: My Personal Story; A Plea to Change the Conversation

I was exposed to pornography for the first time when I was a young teenager. 

It was minor, in comparison to what it could have been, but it is important to understand what happened and what I have learned from it.

I am sharing more details in this post than I have shared with anyone previously, since all of the people involved back then have passed away - and because I want my children and their children to understand why I despise three things regarding pornography: the industry itself, what it produces, and, just as importantly, how badly we have messed up our conversations regarding it within our religious culture. 

Of these three things, I am focusing most in this post on the final one: the way we converse about and deal with it in our culture. This post is an attempt to explain why, without writing the novel that would be required to address all three. It is not an attempt to be comprehensive, as I am not dedicating weeks to the task of writing this post. 

With that introductory explanation: 

My first "real job" (not delivering newspapers or doing manual labor tasks for a few dollars) was at an elementary school in the neighboring town helping the custodian over the summer. My father, a custodian at another elementary school in that town, arranged for me to get the job. For someone raised in poverty, it was a blessing.

The custodian with whom I worked was an extremely good man - a Stake President with a family he loved dearly and a rock solid, genuine testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He also was a regular consumer of pornography. It wasn't visual, as far as I knew, although it might have included magazines and/or movies of which I could not have been aware. 

My first exposure occurred one day when I was ready for my break, went into his office to clock out for that break, and saw a partially covered book on his desk. I liked stock western books, especially Louis L'Amour (even though I knew they were formulaic brain candy), but I didn't know the author of the book I saw. It obviously was a western, so I picked it up and started reading it. It took only a few pages to realize it wasn't like L'Amour's books, and my curiosity (and hormones, I am sure in retrospect) got the better of me and propelled me to keep reading - that book and the others he brought to work throughout the summer. 

That custodian really was a good man, and I am convinced he would have been mortified if he had known I was reading those books - that he had been my introduction to pornography. Looking back, I am sure he was ashamed of his habit, and especially the hypocrisy of his actions and what he had to preach in his church calling. 

It has been roughly 35 years since I picked up that book, but, occasionally, when I am not thinking actively of other things, one memorable scene from the book will flash across my mind - and I will wonder, once again, at the ability of pornography to embed itself into our neurons and refuse to be deleted. Since then, I have been exposed to pornography at various times (to differing degrees, through multiple media sources), and, with me, the same issue exists across the spectrum: my physiological tendency to have images appear unbidden that I would prefer remain unseen or, ideally, deleted. 

From decades of experience, education, conversation, and introspection, I have come to a few conclusions that I feel the need to share now regarding our treatment of this issue within our religious dialogue. I will start with a few comments about our warped cultural view of all things sexual and end with a summary comment about the nature of the porn industry and its impact on society. I hope nobody reads this post as a defense of pornography or the industry that produces it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

1) Nudity is not pornographic by nature, and we fail miserably when we make that overly-simplistic and damaging connection. There is nothing - absolutely nothing - pornographic or shameful in nudity in and of itself, even in nudity that is depicted through the written word or visually. Conflating the two causes deep, destructive, nearly innumerable issues. We need to stop doing so. Full stop.

2) Repeat the last paragraph, inserting "sex" and "sexual activity" for "nudity". (Seriously, re-read the paragraph that way, please, before continuing.) Even visual images of fully nude sexual activity are not automatically pornographic. It is critical to understand that fundamental concept in order to deal with true pornography in a constructive way and stop perpetuating incorrect and debilitating misunderstanding among us.

3) One of the reasons I have not shared my own experiences more often and in greater detail is the culture of shame in which I was raised. When I realized as a teenager that I was acting, in practical terms, like an addict (creating isolation in order to read the books, hiding my actions from everyone else, acting on a compulsion, etc.), shame was the primary reason I kept it a secret - and that shame robbed me of the only chance I had to get the support and help I needed to stop reading them. I questioned my morality, my self-control, my righteousness, my very nature - specifically because what I was doing was described as an ultimate evil - not the natural curiosity and hormonal reaction it actually was. 

4) We need to stop demonizing people who are struggling with occasional (or even regular) engagement with pornography.We can demonize the industry and what it produces, and rightly so, without condemning those who are exposed to it and even engage with it. Simply allowing them to admit engagement, especially early in the process, without any form of discipline or punishment, would go a long way toward eliminating the binding shame that too often accompanies even simple exposure. 

(I need to add a specific note at this point: I am not talking here about users who then act on what they see with people in their lives. I also am not talking about all categories of pornography. There is a proper place for formal discipline and punishment relative to the use of pornography, but we tend to make that place far too broad and inclusive than it should be.)

5) We need to focus on the practical reasons why pornography is so evil as much as the spiritual dangers - and we need to discuss those reasons openly and without shame. We need to be open about how natural it is to be stimulated by nudity, sex, and pornography - and the differences between them. We need to stress that sexual arousal is not a sin. To emphasize that point, we need to stress that sexual arousal is not a sin. We need to incorporate real sex education into our practices, at the very least by supporting it in our schools. Just like educating people about the practical and physical health dangers of smoking and drinking is more effective for many people than focusing on addiction as a spiritual loss of agency, educating people about the evils of the pornography industry itself can provide a powerful motivation to discuss usage openly and constructively - as long as we balance such discussions with a rejection of the personal shaming that has been such a core part of our culture for so long. 

I no longer am ashamed of my reading that summer, since I now understand much better the physiological foundation of why I continued to read those books, but I reflect on my experiences throughout my life and wish someone had talked and would talk now more openly and scientifically about pornography and its allure - and also about the damage it does in practical terms, not just in spiritual terms. I wish the dialogue surrounding pornography had not been so extreme and condemning of the people who read (and viewed) pornographic materials, even as I believe the industry itself is one of the best examples in our world of the evil that exists in the hearts of conspiring humans. It dehumanizes people, both men and women; it degrades people, both men and women; it drives much of the sex slave industry that is vile and depraved to an extent that is beyond my ability to express. 

Ironically, the way we approach pornography actually inhibits our ability to fight the industry that produces it, since that approach drives its use among us underground - which deepens the debilitating shame (and fear of punishment and communal rejection) that keeps it underground - which silences productive discussions about it - which aids and abets its continued production and use. 

Compassion and real charity toward people is the key. We simply have to separate in our rhetoric and in our hearts the consumer from the producer, particularly the good people who are so different from the evil people who are striving to enslave them.  We need a loving understanding of that Stake President so many years ago who unwittingly introduced me to pornography, not a culture of judgmentalism, punishment, shame, and scorn. 

Currently, we are adding chains to their lives, instead of helping to free them. Shame on us.