Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Light and Joyous, But Still a Yoke to Pull and a Burden to Bear

In the comments for my recent post recommending low standards (or expectations of others) for better happiness in the Church, Papa D offered an interesting insight. I'll quote part of it:
To the point of lower (or, for me, more realistic) standards being the key to happiness, I think it's interesting that those who argue a "confess-only-and-be-saved" position basically are employing the lowest PRACTICAL standard for themselves possible to define salvation. Of course, everyone who argues it will say that relying totally on Christ and de-valuing our own actions is the highest form of worship and trust in Him - but, from a purely practical standpoint, it really is the lowest possible standard for their own actions.

On the flip side, those who argue a "personal-works-only-earn-salvation" position do the exact same thing - but with an opposite focus. They use the lowest possible standard for Jesus' actions and the highest standard for their own. **Both are extremist positions.**

Both bring a form of happiness (complacency), imo - since they are simple and give no real reason for what I believe to be "true" repentance. I see repentance as the result of a perceptual balance, that makes it harder to simplify into one fairly brainless formula, that leads to a degree of angst and concern and contemplation, that leads to self-reflection and effort to change - which is the definition of repentance.
I like his perspective. Believing that salvation comes from keeping a list of rules, with a focus on outward behavior, has a similar flaw to believing that God's rules don't require zealous effort on our part. Both reflect low expectations, as Papa D said.

I believe a correct reading of the scriptures recognizes that our relationship with God really matters, and that relationship must be a covenant relationship, one that accepts His grace and the power of the free gift of the Atonement of Jesus Christ in a very serious covenant that includes conditions for our access to that gift. Keeping mere outward ordinances and rules is not the key to a healthy relationship with God, nor is merely believing in our heart. God wants us to be servants and friends, followers of Him who give this covenant relationship all that we can, serving Him with our strength as well as with our heart and mind. What we do matters, what we think and feel matters, who we are and who we seek to become matters.

There is a yoke to pull and a burden to bear. There is work to be done and tasks to be completed in our mortal journey with God. Christ invites us to hitch ourselves to His team and pull with all our might, but assures us that His burden is light and His yoke is easy (Matthew 11:30). And it is. Keeping His commandments is so much less painful than sinning, and having the joy and support that the Spirit of God brings to our lives makes the path back toward Him much more bearable even in the midst of mortal pains than the path down toward sorrow.

God is not interested in just handing us a harp and saying "you're saved." He wants us to progress and "become perfect, even as [our] Father in Heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). We are His sons and daughters and He calls us follow the path of "godliness" and to "put on the divine nature" and become more like Him (2 Peter 1:3-4). It is a journey that we must continue to the end (Matthew 24:13), not a single step in one moment of yearning.

In working with us on this journey, Christ may tailor His demands upon us to help us overcome our own personal barriers between us and Him, just as He did for the young rich man who had been keeping the commandments, but was letting his love of wealth stand between him and God. In Matthew 19, when Christ told him that "if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments," things looked great for that young man for he had been doing so. But in spite of good outward observation of the rules of God, the relationship with God was flawed because of what was in his heart. There was one thing he lacked, and to overcome that barrier, the precise prescription for him (not necessarily all of us) was to sell what he had and follow Christ.

Building a relationship with God requires that we come to know Him. It also means that we know ourselves through regular introspection and examining our status before God, repenting constantly to remove what is flawed and seeking daily to better emulate the Savior. With this process in mind, we can understand why Paul, the great teacher of grace, would exhort his audiences to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12), to "press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:14), to view our journey toward salvation as a race that we must run with patience and complete to win the prize (1 Corinthians 9:23-25; Heb. 12:1), to examine ourselves lest we partake of the sacrament (communion) unworthily (Acts 11:27-30), and to be concerned about the dangers of falling from grace (1 Cor. 10:12; Heb. 2:1). This is why Paul would say that "we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end" (Heb. 3:14) and why Paul would say that God offers eternal life to those "who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality" (Romans 2:7).

Eternal life, the fruit of the heavenly tree of life, is all about the grace of Jesus Christ, but as we are reminded in the closing words of the Bible, "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life" (Rev. 22:14)--in other words, following Christ and keeping His commandments is a necessary condition in our covenant relationship with Him for us to gain access to the fruits of grace.

Reaching the tree of life is a journey of many steps, not just one. Consider again the context of Peter's statement on putting on the divine nature, and observe how he describes this journey and its relationship to the goal of having our calling and election made sure:
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....
We must be diligent on this journey as we pull Christ's yoke and bear His burden, but He blesses us and gives us joy and support as we seek to serve Him with all our heart, might, mind, and strength. He does the miraculous work of freeing us from sin and death, but since His goal is shaping us in a two-way covenant relationship to become true saints and God's sons and daughters in His kingdom, He asks us to do something that requires merely all we have and all we are, namely, to follow Him.

Related Resources
  • Friday, August 26, 2011

    It Doesn't Get Any Easier: Sending Our Last Son Away on a Two-Year Mission

    I just completed a whirlwind period in which we had a wedding in Minneapolis for one son and sent another son off on a two-year mission to Piura, Peru. In between we had a reception in Menominee, Wisconsin, a family reunion and an open house in Neenah, Wisconsin and to celebrate the wedding, the mission, and our own departure to China. My wife and I got a bit frazzled as we worked frantically to recover from all the activities and guests. We worked through our last night in Wisconsin without a wink of sleep to complete our move out of the house before the 6 am flight that would bring us home to Shanghai. We're so grateful to the kind LDS man from the Neenah Ward who came by and insisted on staying to help after we had foolishly turned down a couple other offers for help, thinking we could do it all ourselves. He helped me see that I had grossly underestimated how much work was involved, and his kindness in stepping up and helping us won't be forgotten. We could have used another day, frankly, but we managed to get all the essentials completed and barely made it to the airport in time. Whew.

    Before the sleepless night of frantic final packing, we had one of the sweetest and most difficult experiences: sending a son on a mission. The sweetness especially comes from the ordinance that begins the mission: the setting apart of a missionary by the Stake President. It's a simple, beautiful ordinance done in the ancient mode of the laying on of hands and speaking a blessing with the power of the Priesthood. During that blessing, I opened my eyes to take in the scene. The first thing I saw was portrait of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemene hanging on the well of our Stake President's office, a reminder of what missionary work and the Gospel is all about: the Atonement of Jesus Christ and its power to save souls. Beneath the portrait was a little bronze state of an early Boy Scout, which called to my mind all the blessings my young son has received from the dedicated Young Men leaders in his life, especially Scout leaders. How grateful I am to all those who helped shape this young man and all of my sons that I am so proud of. Then my eyes turned to my son, his eyes closed in humbly accepting the blessing and charge being given, the overwhelming challenge of full-time missionary work. Then I glanced at the Stake President, such a kind and loving man, a lawyer with a giant soul (yes, this is possible!) who does so much for our Stake in kindness and love, and makes even those who fail in their callings and in their duties feel appreciated and loved. Then I looked over at my wife, who was quietly taking notes on my iPad about the things spoken in the blessing that would pertain to my son. My heart leaps when I look at her sometimes and ponder what a gem I've been blessed with, the woman who more than anyone has shaped and blessed the lives of those most important to me, not to mention my own life. And the secret to her success and positive influence, like the secret to the success of our Stake President, has been in large part her commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the intelligent application of the principles taught by the Church and the scriptures.

    It was a sweet and joyous moment to take in this scene and contemplate the culmination of so many blessings that enabled this sweet moment of beginning to occur. But it was also bittersweet, knowing that this son who has brought us so much joy would not be seen by us for two more years. The next morning we drove him to the Green Bay airport, took some photos, said good-bye, and sent him off to Salt Lake City, where family there would get him safely to the MTC while we scurried to complete our move to China.

    As we walked away, my wife and I both felt the same thing, I think, as our eyes moistened. We've done this three times before, sent three of the finest people we know away for two long years, and we realized it has not gotten any easier, not a whit easier at all. We're so grateful for his mission call and for the privilege to serve, but we will miss him sorely. May the Lord watch over him, and may those souls in Peru that he meets learn all they can from him and receive the blessings that he is sacrificing much to bring them.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    Low Standards: The Key to Happiness??

    On a Shanghai forum for expatriates (mostly English-speaking foreigners), I saw a discussion of things that bothered people the most about the Shanghai experience. One commenter said that the problem many Americans have in coming to Shanghai is that they expect it to be a typical international city and are disappointed with some of the unsavory realities of life there. His key to happiness there, he said, was "lowering your standards." I was taken aback since I'd been overwhelmingly happy with the city, and while I know there are some unpleasantries one must cope with (occasional noisy throat clearing and spitting on the street being one of the most common annoyances), it never occurred to me that I had to lower any standards to love the place. Maybe my standards were just naturally low. (Yes, street spitting is unseemly and crude, in my opinion, but I shrug it off.)

    In thinking about this, I realized that my ability to accept imperfection probably has been essential in finding so much delight in Shanghai. I also think it's part of why I can find so much meaning and joy in a divinely inspired Church that is loaded with imperfect mortals. There are those who essentially demand perfection in prophets and scripture--perfection being a grand standard and a powerful tool for rejecting all manner of divine messengers and messages. In comparison, yes, I have low standards, or rather, I've lowered my expectations to account for the reality of human error. It's not such a bad thing and I suggest you consider taking the same approach. If you're not convinced, read "'Well Nigh as Dangerous': Latter-day Prophecy and Revelation; Infallibility and Blind Obedience" by McKay V. Jones over at FAIRLDS.org. Awesome review on the issue of fallibility in mortal leaders and how we can wisely cope with it. It's a tremendous essay--nearly perfect, by my standards. Enjoy.

    Sunday, August 07, 2011

    Lessons from Another Frozen Yogurt FAIL: Troubling Utah Statistics

    Today's post recalls my 2009 post, "Frozen Yogurt FAIL: What a Bad Consumer Experience Taught Me about Retaining Members in the Church.' That same year I encountered another "frozen yogurt fail" that I've been meaning to share. Now that I'm in Shanghai, on hot days (as in most days) my thoughts more frequently turn to the abundant frozen yogurt here in the land of mostly melamine-free milk and honey. By the way, I'm pleasantly surprised at how much milk and yogurt there is in this allegedly lactose intolerant nation, and hope that lactose and religion will continue to advance on the toleration front.

    So here's the "FAIL" part of the story. Edy's Ice Cream had a lovely full-page ad in Better Homes and Gardens in 2009 (I believe it was June 2009 - that's when I took the photos). The ad touted the advantages of Edy's frozen yogurt over regular refrigerated yogurt:
    Put away your regular, old plastic-cup yogurt. Yogurt Blends has 46% less sugar and 34% fewer calories* than refrigerated low-fat yogurt....
    Wow, frozen yogurt has 34% fewer calories? What amazing technology did the food scientists at Nestle invent to do that? Mmmm, the invention wasn't by the scientists--it's an invention of marketing. Look at the fine print in the hard-to-see side of the ad. If you don't flatten the magazine out, you wouldn't even see the footnote:
    14 g sugar and 107 calories per 4 fl oz serving as compared to 26 g sugar and 162 calories per 6 ounce serving of low-fat yogurt.
    Whoa, mama! You mean you're comparing 4 ounces of your product to 6 ounces of the competitors' product, and boasting about how your tiny serving size has fewer calories than the bigger size serving of regular yogurt? Why not compare 1 gram of the good stuff to a million grams of the bad ol' competitive stuff and claim you're a million times better? Or would that be too obvious?

    Here's the footnote: click to enlarge.

    So let's see, if we compare a 6-ounce serving of frozen yogurt to a 6-ounce serving of regular yogurt, things are a little less impressive on the calorie front. Turn's out 6 ounces of Edy's frozen yogurt has 161 calories (160.5 if you don't round). That's a tad less than the 162 calories of evil regular yogurt, but not enough to avoid my FAIL award. There appears to be less sugar, with 21 g in Edy's versus 26 g in regular yogurt. Less sugar but the same calories? Bet it's the extra fat in Edy's making the difference, but the marketers don't seem anxious to discuss that part of the story.

    Edy's applied an advanced technology to turn their high-fat product with the same calories as regular yogurt into a healthy marvel with 34% fewer calories. The most cutting-edge version of this technology is, of course, found at WonderWhacker.com, where we can learn more about what leading experts call GAVROES, short for "Gravimetric and Volumetric Reallocation of Existential Substance." The WonderWhacker website may be a bit too advanced, but in layman's terms, if you take one portion of food and whack it with WonderWhacker technology, you can get two portions, each new portion now having approximately half the calories and half the fat that the single portion had before! Nestle hasn't upgraded their technology to be able to reduce fat as effectively as the folks at WonderWhacker.com can, but I'm sure that's in the works.

    Wait, this is a blog about religion? Oh, right. Well, the point is that statistics can tell some pretty crazy stories sometimes, especially when they are being used for marketing and not for understanding. Some hostile "marketers" love to throw statistics out the same way they throw out horrifying snippets about our bizarre beliefs, not to promote understanding but to quickly score emotional points to sell their point of view. A popular approach is to find social problems in Utah and suggest that the religion is responsible and, therefore, that the religion is bad or harmful. Utah is not paradise (you have to come over here to China for that, I'm afraid) and has plenty of problems, but linking those to the Church may be quite a stretch sometimes.

    Improper bases for comparison can lead to errant conclusions in some of these drive-by-statistics cases. For example, in terms of suicide statistics for Utah, one seeking to understand might want to look at Utah stats versus the Mountain West in case to consider the impact of Western US culture. One looking at anti-depressant use in Utah might do several things to understand what it means and consider a variety of complex factors before jumping to rash conclusions. One troubled by the high consumption rate of green jello in Utah can also recognize, that, uh, I mean, because maybe, uh ... OK, that is just plain troubling. Sorry. But it's not necessarily the Church's fault.

    Be careful when dealing with the tiny bit of information contained in a statistical snippet. Swallowing those stats like a plate full of green jello may not be the healthiest thing for you.

    Tuesday, August 02, 2011

    Painful Silence: The Art of Biting My Tongue in Chiina

    During a wondeful trip to another city, I was speaking to a group about intellectual property strategy when a leader from another part of our large company showed up. He had met me when I was interviewing in China and had learned from an American friend about my Chinese-speaking son who served a mission in Taiwan. I think he is from Taiwan and is very familiar with LDS missionaries and has a lot of respect for them. He gave the group I was speaking to another introduction for me and said some very kind things, and then said, "And now Jeff, would you like to tell us about your religion?"

    This was an important moment for me. All my life I've been happy when given opportunities to share a few thoughts about my religion for I think it's the greatest thing to bring peace, happiness and meaning to people's lives. It was the kind of open invitation that rarely comes and is a great opportunity when it does. My answer, of course, was to look down, shake my head, and say, "No, thanks."

    That's right, I just said no. He was OK with that and went on to explain that he thought it was cool how my son had been a missionary in Taiwan. I then picked up the comfortable secular topic of IP strategy and moved on.

    Talking about the Church in any degree was an opportunity I had to decline to be faithful to the very strong requirements of our Church leaders here in China, who plead with us to carefully repect the rules that we are under. It's good to know and follow these rules, even if (or especially if) you're just a tourist passing through. Some leaders in the Chinese government have actually been very kind to us and may have put their own necks on the line, I suspect, to grant us foreign members the privilege of meeting freely provided we don't proselyte among native Chinese people (whether they are members of the Church or not). With the long-term benefit to the Church and to the people of China in mind, we respect those rules carefully. But it was painful to say no to such a kind invitation.

    I later told my friend that I was sorry for declining his invitation, but explained to him the rules we have. He was very understanding.

    Someday this will change and more doors will open. Someday missionaries, even if only service missionaries, will be visible in China. Someday Blogger will be available in China (it's blocked now, so I'm not too worried about what I write here influencing the Chinese--actually a bit convenient at the moment, I guess). Some native Chinese branches will be able to combine with foreign branches and worship together in some form. Someday thousands more Chinese will have Family Home Evening, will store food to be even better neighbors when disasters strike, and will join in home teaching service, temple service, and LDS-organized humanitarian service. This nation will be stronger for it, but first we must pass the present test and show through our actions that we can keep our word (and that this strange religion of ours really does bring out the good in people).