Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Danger of Deadbeat Dads: Remembering the Real Reason for Marriage

Before I rant about deadbeat dads, I will acknowledge that there are plenty of problems among both genders when it comes to the trauma of divorce. For every deadbeat dad, there may well be 0.2 or more malicious moms out to abuse the system. Update: I should also acknowledge that I know some good men who have suffered from courts that seem highly biased in favor of women, even very bad women (the biases depend on jurisdiction and individuals: sometimes pro-woman, sometimes pro-man, and sometimes rather fair). In any case, divorce can be one of the ugliest things in human life. May our legal systems one day not make it any worse than it already is. So here's the rant:

I am pained and bewildered by the callousness of the legal system in some states and counties where deadbeat dads can routinely get away with neglecting their families. In one case I am somewhat familiar with (informed mostly by the wife and kids, so yes, there may be much more to the story than what I know), it appears that a doctor worked with his CPA relative to stash away money secretly for years to be ready in case his marriage ended in divorce. When it did, the wife with two special needs children had a devil of a time getting enough because a lot of the real wealth of her wealthy husband was hidden. Apparently some professionals share tips with each other on how to beat the system and be prepared. That alone wouldn't be such a problem if it weren't for judges who are quick to buy the man's side in case after case, leaving many women and their kids without the support they need.

After the divorce, this dad eventually just quit making payments, claiming he had lost his income and was now starting up a new practice in a new state with essentially no income. Pleading poverty, he has pretty much gotten away with leaving his special needs kids in the lurch. His income may actually be zero after he pays out salaries to his employees, one of whom is his new wife. His financial duress must be extreme, given that he's living in a very large new home. How he manages that on no income is a testament to frugal living, I suppose.

Again, this is the perspective of the impoverished wife, who has had to rely on charity for food, help with rent, and insurance. Her story is reinforced by what the children have witnessed.

The judge handling this case hears man after man telling him that they've lost their jobs, don't have an income, and can't make payments. In today's economy, many of these men may be telling the truth. It takes a little digging and discernment for the system to sift truth from fiction in these cases. If a judge just doesn't care or is known to have a serious bias in favor of men, it's easy to accept the stories and let them get away with paying much less than their wife and kids need. That may be the case here.

The woman was a stay-at-home mom who had a full-time job dealing with her children's severe problems. Now she has started looking for work, but it's so depressing. She gave up her career when she married to follow her husband to new locations for his work and to raise their children. She was vulnerable, and the legal system has failed to adequately protect her from the risk of being abandoned.

The risks that women face when they marry and might have children are partly why we have the legal formalities and regulations of marriage. It is about protecting children and providing incentives for a father to not abandon his offspring and the woman who dared to bear his children. The legal need for marriage, along with the social reasons for its existence and its fundamental definition across millennia, continents, and cultures, is intimately entwined with biology. Marriage is about fostering procreation and protecting women and children. Deadbeat dads represent one of the great social evils that our society cannot condone. Men who abandon their wives and children are among the most severe threats to marriage and the family. They must be shunned and punished. Those who cannot pay all that they should must strive in good faith to do all that they can. Deadbeat dads, repent, come back, and pay up. The financial stress you face now will be a minor price compared to what you will face when you stand before the bar of God, our Heavenly Father, to give an accounting of your stewardship as an earthly father. You don't want that kind of pain. Repent now, and regain your life.

This issue reminds me of a classic article by a defender of marriage, Maggie Gallagher. "What Marriage Is For" was published in the Aug. 2003 Weekly Standard. It's worth reading. Here is an excerpt:
AGAIN, what is marriage for? Marriage is a virtually universal human institution. In all the wildly rich and various cultures flung throughout the ecosphere, in society after society, whether tribal or complex, and however bizarre, human beings have created systems of publicly approved sexual union between men and women that entail well-defined responsibilities of mothers and fathers. Not all these marriage systems look like our own, which is rooted in a fusion of Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian culture. Yet everywhere, in isolated mountain valleys, parched deserts, jungle thickets, and broad plains, people have come up with some version of this thing called marriage. Why?

Because sex between men and women makes babies, that's why. Even today, in our technologically advanced contraceptive culture, half of all pregnancies are unintended: Sex between men and women still makes babies. Most men and women are powerfully drawn to perform a sexual act that can and does generate life. Marriage is our attempt to reconcile and harmonize the erotic, social, sexual, and financial needs of men and women with the needs of their partner and their children.
And women with babies are vulnerable. They are often inconvenient, sometimes less attractive than before they had children, and certainly more expensive. For some men, it's tempting to walk away from all that hassle and responsibility. That's one reason why there should not be sex before marriage, and why marriage should be a serious covenant that entails responsibilities that are hard to escape. How tragic that it's been downgraded and put at such jeopardy in our modern culture. Erosion of the family unit does not take a culture down a sustainable, healthy path.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Inspiration from God or Just Our Own Random Thoughts?

While we Latter-day Saints emphasize the reality of revelation and inspiration from God in the operation of the Church and recognize that we can receive inspiration from God in our own lives and in our stewardship in the Church, we would be wise to be cautious about making any claims to having received such. This is the theme of a noteworthy article by Orson Scott Card, "Be Careful Claiming Inspiration." I encourage you to read and ponder that article before weighing in.

Even Church leaders such as bishops, who may have keys entitling them to receive revelation for the work of their ministry, need to recognize that not every idea and thought, no matter how prayerfully obtained, is necessarily inspired. Decisions made while seeking prayer and revelation can still be bad decisions. I can say that because I've served in that role and can see that while there were many times when I have no doubt real inspiration was received, there were also times when I made poor decisions on my own.

But even those ideas that are inspired and obtained from revelation should be given caution in terms of what claims are made. Orson Scott Card makes the point that claiming an idea or thought is inspired tends to shut off discussion and close doors to further light and knowledge that may have come had others been allowed to treat it as a proposal for consideration and discussion. I think the same can apply to callings. A decision to issue a calling to someone may be inspired and often is, but there may also be good reasons why that person should not or cannot accept that calling. There are dangers in declaring that the Lord wants that person to serve in a calling before we learn that, for example, the person is moving away next week or has a major issue making them unable to serve.

The first calling I ever issued as a new counselor in a bishopric in Atlanta was one I prepared for and wanted to be a spiritual experience. When I issued the calling to the woman, tears came to her eyes. "Wow," I thought, "this is cool. A spiritual experience!" Then she blurted out, "I need to get out of this church." Yikes! I ran over to the bishop and had him meet with her in his office. This was a less-active woman who was struggling with major issues. It would have been unwise for me to proclaim that God wanted her to serve in that Relief Society calling at the time (I didn't say that, fortunately). My meeting with her led to her being able to come in and talk with the bishop and move forward in some way. I'm not sure where she ended up--the bishop kept that completely confidential. Accepting the calling would have been absolutely wrong, but perhaps the decision to invite her in to discuss a calling was an inspired catalyst, perhaps, though the calling was not right for her to accept.

Revelation is sacred and real, but it is not a faucet that can be turned on at will or one that drips continually. The influence of the Spirit in guiding us, when we are open to its influence, can be clear and direct at times, but most often is quiet and subtle, a still small voice, that can easily get shouted down by the obnoxiously loud voice of our own will. It's fair to always be a little hesitant in declaring that something that has entered into our head is necessarily revelation from God. I like the way Brother Card frames this complex issue.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Great and Marvelous Change of 3 Nephi 11:1

I am delighted and enlightened with a profound but subtle new insight into the Book of Mormon text which actually clears up a number of issues, some of which have been raised here by various commenters on this blog. Please read "The Great and Marvelous Change: An Alternate Interpretation" by Clifford P. Jones, one of several outstanding and scholarly offerings in the latest issues of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.

For years there has been some confusion over the space of time between the natural destruction (apparently volcanic and other activity) in 3 Nephi 8 around the time of the crucifixion of Christ and the marvelous visitation of Christ to the Nephites and Lamanites in the New World recorded in 3 Nephi 11. The opening verses of that chapter report that the people were gathered together to discuss the "great and marvelous change" which had taken place--that sounds like they were talking about all the physical changes and destruction. That makes sense of they were gathering very shortly after the disasters had occurred. But comparing 3 Nephi 8:4 (the calamities began in the 1st month of the 34th year) and 3 Nephi 10:18, it seems pretty clear that it was at the end of the 34th year when Christ appeared. Clifford Jones digs into the issue with the skill of a lawyer (he is one) in what is almost a legal brief (actually a detailed scholarly analysis) for the case that the "great and marvelous change" was the Change brought about by the Atonement of Christ. The event was an organized event, led by priesthood leaders, held at the Temple, to focus on the Ultimate Change that Jesus Christ had brought about. He explores a number of subtle issues that support this reading, which, after considering Brother Jones' case, strikes me as clearly the most intelligent and natural reading of the text. Some of the arguments draw upon and illustrate the consistent use of terminology in the Book of Mormon. There is much to be learned from the detailed, carefully written article.

The Book of Mormon peoples may have been gathered together to seek further knowledge about the meaning of the Atonement. It was a religious, sacred event at the temple in Bountiful, with the top spiritual leaders present who would soon be called as the disciples of Christ. In this sacred setting, with the people and leaders pondering the scriptures and the Atonement and seeking further knowledge, the great revelation of Christ's personal visit was given. This was roughly a year after the destruction had occurred. Things had calmed down and the people in the land, humbled and seeking more, were blessed by the promised ministry of the Lord.

There is much to this story. I hope you'll read and digest what Brother Jones has written.

The Book of Mormon is an amazing text. It is "smarter" and more internally consistent than we recognized. It is vastly smarter than Joseph Smith or any of his peers, and smarter than any of us. There is much to be gleaned by digging into it in the way that Brother Jones has illustrated with this one issue.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Quality, Not Just Quantity: The First Recorded Miracle from Jesus

One of the best parts of the human experience is the marvel of good food. The rich variety of experiences possible with food and beverage, in my view, goes far beyond what can be accounted by evolutionary pressures to survive. The same applies for the visual and musical arts. Next time you are enjoying a perfect strawberry, a crisp apple right off the tree or perhaps the garlic-basil-infused eggplant in my baked pasta specialty, ponder the improbability of achieving such experiences through random mutations helping one caveman spread his genes more successfully than the guy in the cave next door.

The first recorded miracle of Jesus was a food miracle (1 John 2). Well, a beverage miracle, turning water into wine and adding to the success of a wedding feast that was important to His family.

I'll mention two lessons of the many one can draw from this event. Lesson one is that we should not be derisive about the small miracles of God. Ever hear this? "I'm sick of hearing testimonies about how God helped some lady find her car keys. How can God be concerned about finding keys when thousands are dying every day in war, in natural disasters, and in cancer wards?" And yet the Master of heaven and earth, the greatest Healer of all, the One who would heal the blind and the lame, began His ministry with what many would mock as a "trivial" miracle. Big, bad things like death are going to happen to all of us eventually, but along this brief mortal journey let us welcome God's tender mercies in whatever form He occasionally greets us with, whether it's a miraculous answer to faithful prayer in finding something lost (while at the same time our cancer or heart disease continues its course), the miraculous joy of a bowl of fresh strawberries served by a kind friend when we are feeling down, or something huge like the rescue of a child who was lost. Big or small, be grateful for all.

Lesson two is that Jesus didn't just increase the quantity of wine available at the feast. He increased the quality. The governor of the feast was surprised when he tasted the newly provided wine, wondering why the best had been saved for last, contrary to custom. The wine Jesus made was truly excellent. Ah, the miracle of excellent food and drink, able to lift spirits, strengthen the body, and show love and kindness to others. Maybe we would do well to strive to up the quality of what we serve. In an era of mass produced food and plenty of junk on the shelves, it's not always easy, but it can be done.

Getting closer to good food can help us better appreciate the marvels of the Creation--even if it has to be alcohol-free food for now under the LDS Word of Wisdom. Such a shame? No, just be patient. With the enhanced palette of the resurrected body, we'll have plenty of opportunities later on to explore the full range of unimaginably good food and beverages of all kind. For now, the abstinence from wine, tailored to the pressures of the modern era, gives us a chance to show our willingness to sacrifice, and is part of how we can "present [our] bodies a living sacrifice" (Romans 12:1).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Helping Those Who Face Lonely Calllings

One of my first callings after getting married ended in total disaster after a couple of months. I thought I was doing an OK job in my new but puzzling role as Executive Secretary. I had been attending the bishopric meetings and doing what I thought I was asked to do, but suddenly, without warning, I was sitting in sacrament meeting and heard the announcement over the pulpit that I had been released. This should never happen, of course. The bishop was a kind, loving man and I was almost instantly over the slip-up, recognizing that it was an innocent mistake. I'm sure someone had meant to have an interview to properly notify me of the release and the person conducting the meeting thought it was all taken care of. That's not the real problem, though.

The problem was that I had failed. I had been failing to fulfill the bishop's expectations of me. I hadn't inquired enough to understand that my duties involved much more than showing up at meetings and carrying out direct orders. He always seemed to be scheduling interviews on his own without involving me, and so I didn't realize that he wanted me to take the lead in setting them up. Even though I was "in the loop," I really felt out of it and unaware of what the bishop was doing and what he wanted. In a sense, it was a lonely calling, in spite of having regular contact with the bishopric, all great people. If such a calling could be lonely and frustrating for an active member with a strong testimony and solid grounding in the Church, think how much more challenging some other callings can be for those who might be new in the Church or on their way back to activity.

One of the blessings the Church offers is the opportunity for every willing member to serve in various roles. Teachers, organists, clerks, Young Men and Young Women leaders, priesthood leaders, missionaries, welfare specialists, employment specialists, and numerous other positions give us opportunities to help others and grow in service. While callings can be exciting and rewarding, sometimes they are difficult and lonely burdens. It depends on many factors such as the skills, experience, and background of the person called, as well as their employment and family situation. The perception of the calling also depends on those the person works with in the calling. A person can feel neglected and out of the loop after they are called, especially if there are no regular interviews or other signs of real people caring and helping.

I think we would be a stronger community if we more frequently considered what others in their callings might be facing and feeling. Their poor performance might not be because they are slackers, but because they don't know how to start or didn't know what was expected or are intimidated by the demands. Sometimes the barrier to success is something as simple as being given a ward directory or explaining the most relevant part of a manual or introducing the person to someone with experience in the calling.

We can help others in their callings by participating, showing appreciation, and communicating. A ward event might seem like a drain on our time, but by showing up and helping the event to succeed we may be doing a great favor to the person who organized the event. These small things can change a person's life, one way or the other. We need our people to succeed in the challenging callings they are given.

If we are in leadership positions over or linked to the calling, extra efforts to understand the person's feelings and needs can really help. We can't expect everyone to grasp what the calling is about and be self-starters who dig and live up to our expectations. A lot of guidance and patience may be needed to help it be a positive experience for the person called.

Of course, some of us really are slackers. Yes, that's me, sometimes. But a few words of encouragement and some tactful reminders can really help. People generally want to do well in their callings, but love, help, guidance, and inclusion are always part of the recipe for success.

As a final note, the calling of full-time missionary can be one of the most lonely of all. Sure, you've got a companion, but sometimes the friendship doesn't really blossom. Then you can be stuck in some strange corner of the world with someone you don't feel close to, day after day trying to help people who don't want your help and and perhaps don't even want your presence in their town. This is where letters from home can really help, plus kindness from local members or non-members. Letters from home, meals from ward members and strangers, and especially just a few minutes to sit down and talk with good people all really helped. I will forever be grateful to some kind souls in Switzerland and Germany who recognized that a couple of bewildered American kids might benefit from a little kindness. Some of the most appreciated weren't members of the Church but were open-minded good people who reached out to us and fed us or just talked with us and showed real human kindness. They helped make a rather lonely but joyous calling into a much more joyous one. We were trying to lose ourselves and serve them, but God bless them for reaching out to us as well.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Remembering the Words of Jesus

"Mormons don't rely on Christ but think they can be righteous and worthy by keeping commandments." This was one of the themes recently hurled in my face several times by a minister who was teaching a woman and others that her sweet LDS parents weren't Christian and were going to hell. He was especially offended by the idea of Mormons getting a temple recommend card to signify that they were "worthy" (he hated that word) to go the LDS temple.

A healthy counterbalance to such rhetoric can be found in the words of Jesus, which might not be considered as often as they should be in some circles. In recent posts I've pointed out how Christ responded that we should "keep the commandments" if we wanted eternal life--a request of His that clearly was not sarcastic, as this minister argued.

Matthew 5 is one example of many. The words of Christ in this sermon are focused not on one-time belief or salvation by faith alone, but on a lifelong journey of obeying God and eliminating bad behavior. He teaches us how to live and behave in order to more fully follow Him. It is a call for us to pursue righteousness, though we know it is only through His Atonement that we can overcome death and sin, or have any hope of truly choosing righteousness. No amount of obedience on our own can do anything to change our fallen nation or remove our sins, but His grace is offered to us in a covenant relationship to cleanse us and bless us. But that covenant involves our participation. We accept His grace by accepting Him and seeking to follow Him and yes, even obey Him, imperfect as we are. Keeping commandments in this covenant relationship does not create the tree of life, but gives us access to it, as Jesus Himself spoke to John in Rev. 22:14: "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life."

Matthew 7 makes similar points, urging us to pursue the journey found on the straight and narrow way and warning us that the fruits of our choices and actions show whom we serve, and that those who profess belief and claim to have been great men of God yet have done works of iniquity will be cast out. It is doing his will, not just professing with our lips or claiming to be believers, that matters: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." (Matt. 7:21)

He is not denying His own grace in saying this. He is not casting Himself out from true Christianity. He is teaching what He taught in his premortal role as Jehovah and what He teaches now as our resurrected Lord and Savior who sits on the right hand of the Father, doing all things to rescue us, if only we will let Him by exercising faith, repenting, and seeking to follow Him. The message of repentance, by the way, is not a Mormon heresy, but reflects some of the first words of Christ as He began teaching the world: "From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matt. 4:17)

The word "worthy," by the way, reflects a goal of following Christ and does not imply self-sufficiency, perfection, or not needing grace. See how it is used in the scriptures. Also, if Paul could warn against partaking of the bread and wine "unworthily," is it not possible that other rituals or ordinances might require some degree of "worthiness"?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Let's Get Biblical: What Does the Bible Have to Say about the Definition of "Christian"?

I have long endured critics who say that we are not Christian based on the Bible. No amount of sincere witnessing of one's faith in the Savior of mankind and of one's acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Redeemer, as Son of God, as Creator, and as the promised Messiah will satisfy those who choose never to be satisfied. They will always find an objection, some reason why your Jesus is a different Jesus. But for those with open minds who have wondered if our critics are right, let's take a look at what the Bible actually says about the definition of Christians.

The word "Christian" occurs only 3 times in the Bible. Each occurrence, however, gives us some insight into the debate about who can be called Christian. If you're going to start casting people out from Christianity on the basis of the Bible, you had better start with what the Bible has to say about this term.

Here are the three occurrences, in order: Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16. If you're not willing to accept people's proclamation of belief in Christ as the commonsense and gracious standard for being Christian and instead want a more exclusionary definition rigorously based on the Bible, these are the key verses to understand. Now let's see what they have to teach us, in context.

Acts 11:26, in the Context of Acts 11:15-30
15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning.

16 Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost.

17 Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?

18 When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.

19 Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.

20 And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the LORD Jesus.

21 And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.

22 Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch.

23 Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.

24 For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord.

25 Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul:

26 And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

27 And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.

28 And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar.

29 Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:

30 Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
In verse 26, we learn that the term "Christian" was what others called the disciples, who in the New Testament tended to call themselves "saints" rather than "Christians" per se (e.g., Acts 9:13, Eph. 2:18-20 and many others). The term obviously stuck and spread and we are certainly happy with it, though "saints" still applies in the original biblical sense. But what do we learn about these people in Antioch who were called Christians? The next verse gives us a telling clue: "And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch." OK. If we want to whittle down the definition of "Christian" based on how the Bible uses that term, we can suggest that real biblical Christians will have prophets among them, or rather be willing to receive prophets sent from Church headquarters.

The context of Acts 11 tells us more. It shows a Church suffering persecution, with active apostles and disciples reaching out to diverse geographical regions and doing missionary work. They preached repentance (note "repentance unto life" in verse 18). They had baptism by water and the gift of the Holy Ghost. They had a central organization that sent Church leaders to preach and conduct the work of the Church in remote regions. They exhorted believers to "cleave unto the Lord."

Finally, in light of a prophet warning of famine to come, the Church organized temporal relief efforts to help the saints cope with food shortages.

So far I'm feeling rather comfortable with what the Bible has to say about "Christians." Prophets, gift of the Holy Ghost, baptism, missionary work, organized central ministry with broad outreach via apostles and disciples, and organized Church welfare efforts, and perhaps even something compatible with a food storage program to cope with predicted famine in advance (might be reading too much into the text there). OK, my testimony is still intact.

Acts 26:28, in the Context of Acts 26:22-29
This is Paul's famous encounter with King Agrippa. Here's part of it:
22 Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come:

23 That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.

24 And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.

25 But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.

26 For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.

27 King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.

28 Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.

29 And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.
Agrippa, not Paul, the term "Christian," but that's no problem. What was the persuading that Paul was doing? He was teaching the basics: that Christ suffered for us, that he was killed and resurrected (yes, a real, physical Resurrection), that there were witnesses of the real and tangible resurrected Lord who had seen Him, and that He continued to be a light to the world. He wasn't getting into fine metaphysics or details of theology and complex interpretations of scripture, but the basics.

Paul, in his teachings, emphasizes the word of the prophets. Again, "prophets" and "Christians" are being paired in the Bible. We also ask the world, "Believest thou the prophets?" Paul, though, was referring to the writings of past prophets, though he himself as an ordained apostle called by Jesus Christ through revelation was also a modern prophet.

We also learn that outsiders like Agrippa called the Christian religion an expression of madness. Check.

Believing in the basics of Christ as Savior and resurrected Lord, accepting apostles and prophets, and being called crazy: testimony still intact.

1 Peter 4:16, in the Context of 1 Peter 4
1 Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin;

2 That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God.

3 For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries:

4 Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you:

5 Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead.

6 For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

7 But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.

8 And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.

9 Use hospitality one to another without grudging.

10 As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.

11 If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

12 Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you:

13 But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.

14 If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.

15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men's matters.

16 Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.

17 For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?

18 And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?

19 Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.
Hmm. Gospel preached to the dead, list of sins to avoid and emphasis on the need to obey the Gospel, future accountability to God, and need to live in the Spirit now. I'm still OK with this. My testimony has survived yet another challenge. How's that anti-testimony doing, fellow Christian?

Fortunately, I don't require that others pass through all these hoops to be called Christian. If you sincerely believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, welcome to the club! Of course, there are some very cool things we'd like you to consider adding to your faith to strengthen your covenant relationship with the Lord and your understanding of the majesty of His Atonement, but we can talk about that later.

The LDS Emphasis on Personal Responsibility and Preparedness: At Odds with Faith in Christ?

A few years ago, a very good Christian couple, both inspiring servants of Christ in many ways, expressed concern to me about the LDS approach to food storage and emergency preparedness. The were firm believers in the concept of the Rapture and believed that when times got really tough, the Lord would be taking them and other good Christians away. They saw the food storage program of the Church as an expression of lack of faith in Christ. I tried responding by explaining that God has often commanded his people to prepare for difficult times--Joseph and the seven years of plenty as a time to prepare for famine, Noah and the ark preparing for flood, etc.--and that preparing for the future in respond to God's commands is an expression of faith, not lack of it. I also explained it's not just focused on end times, but that such preparations have helped our people in numerous events and circumstances already, from hurricanes to unemployment. It's just a wise, even inspired, thing to do. That helped little, but didn't remove their fundamental concerns.

Those peering into the Church can easily get the wrong impression. For example,, tThis morning to help me learn a little more about some of my duties in the Stake High Council, I began reviewing some of the wonderful resources the Church has online for members and leaders. There is a page on "Welfare Lessons for Church Leaders" at the Church's resource-rich Provident Living site (providentliving.org) that has the presentation, "Principles of Welfare" (sadly, though it is a PowerPoint presentation, it is only available an executable file that one has to install, apparently to make sure that all the video content in it plays properly). One of the slides is shown below. The title is "Individual Responsibility," a term one can hear frequently in LDS circles. I can imagine how an outsider would look at that and say, "What about faith in Christ? What about trusting in Christ, not our works?" There is a risk of that kind of response, but it misses some important points.
The Lord has always urged his people to prepare in various ways. It's a common term in the divine lexicon. Consider the parable of the faithful steward in Luke 12:42-48, where the steward needed to "prepare" and be ready for the Lord's coming. Consider the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25, who needed to be ready with oil in their lamps. The most important preparation may be spiritual, but there are also times when the challenges will be temporal. The early Church was concerned about the physical as well as spiritual welfare of its members, working for the temporal relief of widows, orphans, and the needy, and sharing their goods for the common welfare of the Church.

Today, in a time of increasing tribulation and calamity, the Lord has kindly given us instruction that we should prepare. Getting out of debt, having food and water ready to handle an emergency or to better withstand economic turmoil, and being prepared with education, physical health, financial savings and discipline, elimination of addictions and other bad habits, is part of His plan to bless us and help us be more able to serve Him and bless others in these critical times. Such actions and attitudes do not run contrary to faith in Christ, but exemplify faith in Him and trust in His guidance to us. These are the kind of works without which faith may indeed die: there's a reason why the Bible says "faith without works is dead."

Faith in Christ calls for personal responsibility for our stewardship. We must be wise stewards, preparing now and seeking to do what the Lord has commanded us, that we may be ready when he returns. May we each personally prepare for the challenges ahead and not expect to find security and comfort in ease, much less quantitative easing (oh, did I mention the dollar must eventually tank with the thieving fiscal policies being perpetrated by Fed and company?). There are hurricanes ahead, and we're probably not going to miraculously delivered by ignoring the warnings and refusing to prepare. Faith leads to action, the kind of action the Church urges us to take to advance the welfare of our families and those around us, in addition to (or even as part of) spiritual preparation.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Saints with Halos at the Green Bay Temple



While visiting the Green Bay Temple, I was impressed with the two statues of local saints. These are Saint Curly (Lambeau) and Saint Vincent (Lombardi). If you stand in the right place, they have tasteful halos. This wasn't a Mormon temple, if you didn't notice. It is the temple for a much more popular and still relatively true religion in Wisconsin.

The Green Bay Temple is a very cool place, even if some of the worshipers run around in funny clothes and odd hats. There's a lot to like about the religion, but that part about humans becoming glorified is hard to swallow, especially when some of the glorified apostatize and join other teams. Then there's that whole reincarnation thing with Saint Farve.... Hey, but every religion has things that seem odd to outsiders. Even mine, I guess.

Here are a couple more views.


Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Out of Egypt - But Really Out of Utah: The New Game, Feast or Famine

One of my brothers and his family gave me a Christmas gift that really impressed me. It's a game involving Egyptian themes and the story in Genesis of the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine that Joseph predicted and managed. When we opened and enjoyed Feast or Famine from Good Knight Games, I had no idea that it was a game out of Utah. It's been one of the top sellers at Deseret Book, I understand. Cool.

The mind behind this game is Jason Conforto. He helped my brother, David, of Avalanche Studios fame, produce and direct the documentary Mario's Conviction, the film about a Mafia man who became LDS and lived to talk about it. Congratulations, Jason, on an interesting new venture.

Feast or Famine appeals to me because it combines strategy with probability and chance. That way you can feel smart when you win or just a victim of luck if you lose. Uh, yes, I was a victim. The game has a two-sided game board, one for seven years of plenty, and one for the famine ahead. During the seven stages of the feasting phase, players can use points they accumulate every turn to purchase a variety of goods. A lot of chance determine how many pieces you get for your money, but there is plenty of strategy involved as well (what goals to pursue, what to buy, when to spend or save). The goal is to fill in rows or columns on the board with tokens of purchased goods. Completing a row or columns earns the player Egyptian wadjet eye medallions (the stylized Egyptian eye, as in Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham) which are used in bidding for Egyptian card later in the famine phase. During the famine, strategy and luck combine to let players obtain face-down cards that may contain many or few points. There are some really interesting aspects to how one plays this part of the game, with results that are difficult to predict. Keeps the game fresh.

I like the artwork and the stylized elements, including the four Sons of Horus game pieces (the figurines one sees under the lion altar in Facsimile 1). Fun addition to our game closet. And I fell for the game even before I knew of its provenance.

Any of you tried it?

Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Problem with Perfection, or, How I Made My Granddaughter Cry


Photo from BBCGoodGood.com.
For breakfast this morning, my wife made some wonderful blueberry pancakes from scratch--the kind that use real, plump blueberries. Wow, so delicious. But our 4-year-old granddaughter turned her nose up at the first few we offered her, apparently noting some defect in coloration. "I'll wait for a perfect one," she said. I gently challenged that sentiment with a smile and a little joke: "Well, don't you know that nothing in life is really perfect. Except grandfathers, grandmothers, and Mommy and Daddy." She promptly burst into tears. I was so surprised and asked her what was wrong. "It was something from you," she said, sobbing. What? Then she blurted out the offense: "Nobody is perfect except Heavenly Father and Jesus!" Ouch.

That would be the first of two major theological blunders that got me in hot water this morning. The other came when it was time for the blessing on the food, and I errantly suggested that we have a "blueberry prayer" since we were blessing blueberry pancakes. That, of course, signaled a potentially apostate approach to prayer that she would later discuss with Mom. But she still loves her grandpa, in spite of his occasional departures from orthodoxy.

My tender granddaughter's crying over a perceived error on the topic of perfection was endearing, unlike the related whining about "perfection" that I have faced from some critics. One critic, a minister, recently chided me for the alleged Mormon belief that we can progress and one day become perfect, acting as if that were prima facie evidence for our non-Christian status. The whining is based on misunderstanding similar to that of my granddaughter.

Yes, only God the Father and Jesus Christ are truly perfect, sinless, complete, and independent. They are perfect in every sense of the word. But the word "perfect" in the scriptures can have a range of meanings and perhaps most commonly refers to being complete and whole in some sense, but not necessarily absolutely perfect in all ways like God is. Job was said to be a "perfect" man in Job 1:1 (KJV). Ditto for Noah (Gen. 6:9). Both had obvious shortcomings. Paul said that "we speak wisdom among them that are perfect" (1 Cor. 2:6)--referring not to God but to a mortal audience of imperfect Christians. Paul also urged us to "go on unto perfection" (Heb. 6:1). That language echoes God's words to Abraham: "walk before me, and be thou perfect" (Gen. 17:1).

Christ also had a few words on this topic. In fact, as God had commanded Abraham, so He directly commanded us to "be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). Further, when Christ told the rich young man that he still lacked something in spite of having kept the basic Ten Commandments, His plea for that man to sell all that he had and to come follow Jesus was prefaced with the conditional phrase: "if thou wilt be perfect" (Matthew 19:21). Had the young man accepted the loving request of Jesus, we need not suppose that he would have become instantly infallible, but certainly more complete in his faith and closer to God. This was not the last of Jesus's utterances setting perfection as our goal. In the great Intercessory Prayer in John 17, He prayed that Christians would have the same kind of unity that He and the Father shared, and then stated: "I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one" (John 17:21-23).

In addition to our belittled concept of "perfection," the LDS idea of progression to grow in faith, virtue, and godliness is often painted by our critics as a heretical, non-Christian invention of Joseph Smith. That appalling concept of progression is also often condemned at the same time with our demonic belief that we must endure to the end to have our salvation made sure, rather than being automatically and irrevocably saved once we accept Christ. Once again, these scandalous Mormon heresies are not actually innovations of Joseph Smith, but teachings of Christ and his apostles. Consider the words of Peter, the leading apostle of the original Twelve, in 2 Peter 1:
1 Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ:

2 Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord,

3 According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue:

4 Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;

6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;

7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.

8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

9 But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.

10 Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall....
Peter is speaking of steady progression toward the goal of receiving the rich promises that God offers us through the grace of Christ--promises that can help us put on "the divine nature" and share in all things pertaining to life and godliness. This begins with faith in Christ, but we are asked to grow in that faith unto the end, being fruitful, so that our calling and election will be made sure. Otherwise there is indeed a risk that we as Christians can fall. It's a great summary of LDS teachings in this area--but not so much an innovation as a restoration, in my opinion.

The need to grow and progress in our faith is why we need a Church of Jesus Christ. We need the fellowship and support that the Church provides and the inspired leadership of apostles, prophets, and others for "the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12, see also 4:11-14). This work of perfecting is only possible through the Atonement of Christ, whereby He will take us fallen mortals and turn us into glorious sons and daughters who will be "like Him" as the scriptures boldly declare (1 John 3:2) and who will then be joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8).

C.S. Lewis offered a healthy perspective on God's command for us to be perfect. This passage comes from Mere Christianity:
The command "Be ye perfect" [Matt. 5:48] is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were "gods" and He is going to make good his words. If we let Him--for we can prevent Him, if we choose --He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creatures, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to Him perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what he said.
So yes, "perfection" can have different meanings in the scriptures, but ultimately, God's goal is to bring about the eternal life and exaltation of man (Moses 1:39), cleansing us of all sin and corruption through the power of His Son's Atonement, giving us glorious and perfected bodies fully in His glorious image, and helping us to partake of all things that pertain to godliness as we put on His divine nature. This is the ancient Christian concept of theosis, in my view, for which we are also widely condemned as being non-Christian heretics. Disagree if you will, but recognize that it is at least possible for sincere modern Christians to find a reasonable, biblical, and early Christian basis for such views. It's nothing to whine about.