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

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Saved By Grace, After All We Can Do? Inisghts from Paul in Ephesians 6

I've encountered many Christians whose theology makes them struggle with basic LDS views like the importance of keeping the commandments and the concern that we as Christians can fall from grace. While we've beaten these issues many times in the past here at Mormanity and over at JeffLindsay.com, I'd like to point out a minor insight that might help some folks when it comes to confusion over a related Book of Mormon teaching, the idea of being saved by grace "after all we can do". The verse in question comes from Nephi in 2 Nephi 25:23:
23 For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
There are several ways to interpret this verse. Some interpret it to mean that grace makes up the difference between our best efforts and God's standards, but with the expectation that we do everything we can on our own. Some argue that it means that notwithstanding all we can do, it is only through grace that we are saved. A related interpretation is that grace is apart from all we can do. I'm not sure what is best. But I do think we might learn something by looking at another leader in the Gospel who, like Nephi, wrote and spoke to persuade others to be reconciles to God, and who vigorously warned against sin and urged people to be zealous in following Christ. I think we can learn a little by considering Paul's words in Ephesians 6, who exhorts his fellow Christians to encourage them to become strong and diligent in living the Gospel, obviously concerned with the risk that Christians might fall. After all, it's a spiritual war we are in with a real enemy and real casualties. Thus, we need armor:
10 Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.

11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

14 Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;

15 And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;

16 Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.

17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:

18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;
Verse 13 is especially noteworthy. Christians are exhorted to protect themselves from the dangers of Satan with the multiple components of the armor of God (yes, there is real danger and not guaranteed salvation from a moment of belief). Though Satan's attacks are powerful, if Christians put on this armor, they will be able to avoid falling and, instead, to stand--having done all. Perhaps "and having done all, to stand" is meant to express much the same meaning as Nephi's "after all we can do." If so, I think we should be easy on Paul and not reject him as another non-Christian cultist with no hope of salvation for having errant theology. Paul's still a good fellow Christian in my book.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Consecrated Brain: Greg Smith's Intellectual Journey in Dealing with the Challenge of Polygamy in the Early Church

One of the best sources on the complex topic of Mormon polygamy is "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask)" by Greg Smith. That link allows you to play an MP3 file to hear Greg Smith's hour-long talk on the topic. You can also read his words at FAIRLDS.org, complete with footnotes. He treats many aspects of this complex issue, including polyandry and young wives.

While I rejoice in the detailed scholarship and carefully reasoned insights Brother Smith offers on this topic, I am especially intrigued by the approach he took in dealing with the issue. The long-terminated practice of polygamy offered much that bothered Brother Smith, such as charges from critics that Joseph was a sexual predator. As he struggled with the issue, yearning for answers and wondering if he should delve into all the historical details to come to his own conclusions, he turned to God in prayer.

But, the problem was, in that moment, when I first approached God with this, was that my spiritual life did not have four or five years, which is how long I've been doing this now, to sit in the church archives. My spiritual life could not be put on hold for that long. How long could I halt between two opinions? If Joseph be Baal or a sexual predator, don't follow him. Jesus called the apostles and did not tell them to spend three or four years with the primary sources before deciding to answer the call to "Come, follow me."

And for me, ultimately, the question (I see now) had nothing to do with plural marriage at all. Plural marriage was only the catalyst for a much more fundamental question and that question was, "Do I trust Father?" And I see now, by the grace of God, that my instinctive reaction was to do that, to express my trust and, amazingly, to mean it. I did not realise it at the time, but what I effectively chose to do, if I can put it crudely, is I chose to "consecrate my brain." I value my brain—we all do—nobody likes to be thought foolish or na├»ve or ill-informed or duped or cognitively dissonant or any of the other labels people can put upon us.33 I'm a doctor, I'm regarded as a reasonably smart person, I love science, I love evidence, I'm a sceptic, I'm a rationalist. I say all this about myself—I am all those things, that's part of how I conceive of myself.

I could have gone before God and I could have demanded answers, I could've told him I want the evidence and I want it now, I want closure. I could've issued him ultimatums. I could've told him that if this didn't work out, I was quitting. But, I chose instead, to consecrate my brain. I was willing to sacrifice my self-image, my years of learning, my intellectual effort and my social respectability on the internet (which I'm sure is crashing as I speak!) because I trusted Father.

But, you know, it's the funny thing about consecration, you always get back everything you consecrate, with interest. Once my Father and I had an understanding which took, maybe, 10 minutes, I was back to thinking again. And immediately, I began to get more answers and perspective that I know what to do with, and it hasn't stopped yet. It's like trying to drink from a fire hose and I apologize for spraying you all but I haven't exactly got it controlled yet.

I got "good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over" (Luke 6:38). I cast my bread upon the water and God sent back an aircraft carrier with a bakery on top.

My only fear in saying all this is that some people will think I'm offering a pat answer—I'm not. Abraham was asked to consecrate Isaac. And with Isaac went all the precious promises, everything that made Abraham, Abraham. But he put his son on the altar and he got him back and so much more. We know how Abraham's story ends but Abraham did not. And as Elder Maxwell observed, even when we know it's a test, we can't say, "Look ma, no hands."34 You can't consecrate your brain while crossing your fingers and hoping that we can somehow trick God by going through the intellectual motions and that he will support our demand for proof. You can't ask for a sign, but I bear you my witness that "signs follow them that believe," in this as in everything (D&C 63:9).

And so, I've tried to answer some questions today but I will leave you with one. And that question is, "Do you trust Father?" If you do, I have no worries, and if you do not, or if you've forgotten how, or you fear you may be starting to, you must start there because no answer from me or anyone else will satisfy you on a historical matter. And if plural marriage doesn't trip you up, something will. Settle it up with Father and then you and I can talk.
Some will assume that a "consecrated brain" means making up your mind and ignoring the evidence, but that would be gross injustice to the complex grappling with history and detailed scholarship that Greg Smith has put into this issue. It has been a journey of discovery and new insights, not a close-minded reiteration of what he thought he already knew. Trusting God as we open our minds and do the heavy lifting of studying and thinking is not weakness but brings intellectual and spiritual strength.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"The Fullness of the Godhead Bodily"

A timely reminder from Paul is found in Colossians 2:8-9:
8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
Bodily. I like that word. The physical, tangible body of the Resurrection, the one that witnesses handled and saw and that Christ declared and showed to have flesh and bone, not spirit alone, still exists. In the real and tangible body of Christ, the fullness of God's glory and power exists. He is real and, as Paul said, looks just like His Father, for He is "the express image of his person" (Heb. 1:3). And wonderfully, we are created in that physical image, sons and daughters of our very real Father in Heaven.

Don't let the traditions of human philosophy, steeped in Neo-Platonism or other inventions, deceive you regarding the basic nature of the Godhead.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Engineering Professors Witnessing for Christ

I'm in Minneapolis this week with thousands of other chemical engineers. It's been a very busy week filled with some small and large miracles along the way. On Tuesday morning, I obtained a real boost in my desire to be a better witness for Christ while attending a 6:30 am Christian fellowship breakfast, one of the highlights of each Annual Meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). Professor Lisa Bullard, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at North Carolina State University, was the speaker. She shared experiences in which she has been able to help struggling students in rebuilding their faith, and offered ideas on how professors can stand as witnesses of Christ while respecting the rules and pressures of the secular organizations that employ them. Inspiring! She also got the group very involved in sharing. One professor shared his approach of simply letting students know at the beginning of each semester that he is a Christian and would be happy to talk privately with anyone struggling with their faith. Another professor whom I really respect and admire said that he regrets the quiet, bashful approach he took to Christianity over much of his career. In the past 5 years, this bold witness for Christ has decided that there's no need to be ashamed of Christianity and has been much more open and frank about his faith and says life is so much more fun that way.

Students need to know that it's possible for intelligent, respected professors to also be devout Christians. The smug anti-Christian attitude that pervades academia needs bold refutation by living witnesses for Christ. I was inspired by the Christian professors and other engineers who were at this breakfast, sharing their experiences and desires to witness for Christ and bless the lives of students who need Christ more than ever in the soul-numbing atmosphere of modern universities.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Coaching Those Who Struggle in Callings

The Church is a volunteer organization, so the quality and quantity of work done at any level by volunteers in their callings will vary and can often disappoint. How we deal with those who disappoint is one of the most important challenges for strengthening others in the Church and maintaining the health of our organization.

When I was a young married student at BYU, we attended a local Provo ward with some young student families and a lot of other people, many close to or past retirement. I was called to serve as executive secretary in a bishopric with a very experienced bishop. With his experience, he understood well what the role of executive secretary was and how important that calling was. Unfortunately, I did not share that understanding and didn't know what was expected. I thought I was serving faithfully and didn't realize that there were a host of things he was expecting beyond attending meetings with him and carrying out specific assignments. After a couple of months, I was surprised in a sacrament meeting to hear the announcement that I had been released and a new executive executive secretary had been called. Ouch. Releases are supposed to follow interviews of some kind so that the person to be released understands that the release is coming. It's a mistake that is rare but can happen (a release interview may be delegated to a counselor and then a touch of confused communication can lead the bishop to think it's been handled when it hasn't been)--I made that mistake at least once myself. But it's also the kind of mistake that can drive wounded members out of the church. I chose to act thick-skinned and not be bothered, but I was. I remember wondering why I had not been coached and guided. I think I would have accepted the challenge and tried harder if I had know what was needed.

We all struggle in our callings, even some of us who have been around for decades with lots of Church experience. I think it's safe to assume that all of us could use some coaching and guidance when we aren't living up to expectations. But those expectations should be made clear early on and then reiterated in follow-up interviews and contact to help those in callings understand and succeed, when possible, in their callings. New and experienced members need gentle treatment and guidance to find success.

For those of us who have been wounded when our calling or release is handled in a way that causes pain or embarrassment, we must also remember that we are dealing with fallible mortals in a volunteer organization where also sorts of human problems can occur. Talk with your leader or leaders about the problem, but be patient and quick to forgive. Recognize that we need to put up with a lot in this mortal journey, but keep holding on in faith and remember that it is Christ we seek to follow and serve in His Church, no matter what gaps the mortals around us may have.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Understanding Grace and Works: Grasping Prayer Might Help

As I struggle with the blindness of some ministers and their followers who condemn Mormons as non-Christians because we allegedly require "works" like following Christ and trying to do the things He taught, I'd like to suggest they step back and consider prayer. Before launching into the same old arguments about how we are not-saved since we think that our works can influence our salvation, or that any human action could possibly influence God's granting of grace to us, why not think about prayer first as a model? In prayer, we do something, turning to God in faith, requesting guidance and blessings sometimes. And He responds. He answers prayers. Maybe not the way we want sometimes, but millions of Christians have experienced the reality of prayer.

Through prayer, we may receive blessings from God--through grace--that He wants to give us, but might not have if we didn't seek and ask. Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be given unto you. Asking and receiving is part of the Christian experience. Accessing grace that is made available with conditions--asking, seeking, exercising faith--does not destroy the concept of grace. It's inherent to it. We access the gift of grace by seeking to keep God's commandments and follow Him in faith. We don't earn salvation or anything else, but gladly receive the gifts of grace on the conditions God has created in His covenant of mercy. It's as simple as prayer.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Church in Korea

While in Korea last week, my wife and I attended an old inner city unit of the Church in a hilly downtown area. There we met Brother Cho and his wife, shown below. He was the first bishop in the entire land of Korea. He was so warm and friendly and made us feel right at home. The Korean people are remarkably friendly, but he was especially so. The photos below show their little church building and Brother and Sister Cho, plus a view looking down from above.

That downtown unit went from being a ward to a branch since so many families have moved out to the suburbs recently. I felt the downtown area of Seoul was beautiful and highly livable, but it may also be too expensive and a challenge for raising children, so the exodus to the suburbs has been pretty strong for people with children. In spite of the exodus, there had just been a convert baptism of a young woman the week before and a young man in college, a bright MBA student, was getting baptized the day we were there. Cool.

Beauty in the Details: A Car Wash Analogy

The photo below, unmodified except for resizing and adding my name, was taken during a car wash in Appleton, Wisconsin, back when we still had cars. Now we're carless, living in China. The foam looked interesting so I whipped out my camera and took a shot as my dirty vehicle was being cleaned. It was cool, but the real beauty was in the details when I looked at the image later. When I zoomed in to different parts of the image, as shown in the two other enlargements below, the interplay of light, water, and foam on the mirror was really delightful.

The Gospel is that way, including the Book of Mormon, the LDS Temple, and many other parts of our journey. There is much more than meets the eye initially, many gems that only come into view when we dig and zoom in, or, when it comes to service, when we magnify our calling and see the hand of the Lord there to help us.

The Gospel is so true, so beautiful, but a careless observer might just see what we have as a wet dirty vehicle and miss the beauty that is being unfolded in the Lord's process of cleaning and refining.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty's Fingerprints of God

A new friend in Shanghai lent me her copy of Barbara Bradley Hagerty's Fingerprnts of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience (New York: Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2009). Barbara is NPR's religion correspondent--a keenly intellectual, gifted writer and clear thinker who has explored many aspects of religion and the religious experience over the years. She's also a recent convert to Christianity. I enjoy the perspectives she offers and the way she feels and thinks. I almost feel like I'm reading the journal of a sister, of a seeker who gets it, though perhaps not quite the way I wish she would. But somehow I expect or hope that we will find ourselves on converging paths. I am grateful for her efforts to share her explorations with the spiritual and to let others know why there really might be something beyond the tiny glimpse of reality we get in the tangible world.

Barbara was raised as a Christian Scientist, believing in God more as a principle than a living Being, but has since become a more traditional Christian who accepts Christ as the Son of God, while also accepting modern science and acknowledging certain limitations of the Bible. She also believes that there may be many ways to follow Christ and that God's love for His children and access to spiritual experiences is not limited to Christianity alone. There is much that I can agree with and virtually nothing worthy of cursory dismissal. One day, though, I hope she will come to know the rich core of joy and light available in the fullness of the Restored Gospel, whose blessings indeed will be made available to peoples across the continents and the centuries, even those who lived and died without ever hearing of Christ--so merciful, loving, and just is our God. Then she will be even more fully my sister.

Her personal journey and the journeys of others she interviewed for the book involve spiritual experiences that might be familiar to many Latter-day Saints and other fellow Christians. For example, prior to her conversion, she interviewed an evangelical Christian, Kathy Younge, who had found spiritual peace and happiness in spite of facing deadly cancer. She asked her how she could be so cheerful while facing that awful disease.
"It's Jesus," she said. "Jesus gives me peace."

"A guy who lived two-thousand years ago? I asked, incredulous. "How can that be?"

"Jesus is as real to me as you are," she explained. "He's right here, right now."

Right, I thought. Yet there was something wondrous about Kathy's confidence.... As we talked, the night darkened. The streetlamp next to our bench cast a circle of around us, creating the eerie sense that we were actors in the spotlight on a stage. The temperature had dropped into the fifties. I was shivering but pinned to the spot, riveted by Kathy and her serene faith.

My body responded before my mind, alerting me to some unseen change, a danger perhaps. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and my heart started beating a little faster--as it is now, recalling the moment. Imperceptibly at first, the air around us thickened, and I wondered whether a clear, dense mist had rolled in from the ocean. The air grew warmer and heavier, as if someone had moved into the circle and was breathing on us. I glanced at Kathy. She had fallen silent in mid-sentence. Neither of us spoke. Gradually, and ever so gently, I was engulfed by a presence I could feel but could not touch. I was paralyzed. I could only manage shallow breaths. After a minute, although it seemed longer, the presence melted away. We sat quietly, while I waited for the earth to steady itself. I was too spooked to speak, and yet I was exhilarated, as the first time I skied down an expert slope, terrified and oddly happy that I could not turn back. Those few moments, the time it takes to boil water for tea, reoriented my life. The episode left a mark on my psyche that I bear today. (pp. 4-5)
It's not always so dramatic, especially as we begin as our spiritual journey and encounters with the Spirit, but so often there is both the physical--the burning in the heart or the physical sense of a presence--as well as the mental enlightenment that comes in those moments that strengthen our testimonies as we encounter the Divine.

This was one of multiple spiritual experiences in her journey. As with so many seekers I know, so many converts to God and Christ, she had spiritual experiences involving prayer. Prayer is the real secret sauce for moving beyond the deceptions of the material world and our minuscule scope of human understanding. Four days after her interview with Kathy, Barbara reflected on that experience. Pondering, she became curious about "those Christians" who felt that they had come to know God. What had they found and how? She describes how her curiosity became a thirst, and that thirst led to prayer. It was daring to pray, daring to open her heart up much later, that she experienced just how real God is.
On June 14, 1995, around two o'clock in the afternoon, I lowered my guard. I opened myself up just barely to the notion that there might be a God who cares about me the same way that Jesus cared about, say, his friend Mary. I prayed--and in the split second of surrender, O felt my heart stir and grow warm, as if it were changing. It was a physical thing, exquisite, undeniable....

That moment was seared into my memory, and later, when I wondered if I had really encountered God, that warmed heart acted like a Polaroid snapshot, confirmation that a spiritual transformation had taken place. (p. 72)
It was not a dramatic event with angels, voices, or visions, yet it became the "continental divide" for her life. She noted that it involved both physical and mental aspects, something many others have observed, and something the LDS scriptures also mention (the "burning in the bosom" of Doctrine and Covenants 9, the revelation to heart and mind of Doctrine & Covenants 8). Fascinating.

President Monson Reminds Me of My Wife

Here in Shanghai our branch got to view General Conference this weekend, along with the reast of eastern Asia. What a delight!

While listening to President Monson's powerful sermon in Priesthood session last night, I marveled at the breadth of experiences he has had and at what a gem this human being is. He is so right for the Church at this time. Such an amazing and charming person. I said to myself, "We are so lucky that such a person even exists, and he is ours!" That's a familiar sentiment for me, though most often directed toward my wife. I simply can't believe how lucky I am to have her in my life, and I can say something similar about President Monson. I think we can all say that. We're just so lucky to have such a man in our lives. One of the finest examples of true Christianity anywhere in this mortal realm.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

My First Vision of Korea: "Believe in Jesus"

This was the first thing I saw after leaving China and walking out of the customs area into Korea at the Gimpo International Airport in Seoul. A faithful Christian man was waiting for the many passengers from Shanghai. "Believe in Jesus" was his simple message. I gave him a thumbs up and asked permission to take this photo. He was happy to share his image with the world. "Believe in Jesus" - what an urgently needed message.

The religious liberty of Korea is refreshing, though China has a degree of it. Christianity has flourished in Korea, as have other beliefs. The freedom of the people to believe, to assemble, and to share their religious thoughts with others is an important part of the liberty of Korea that has contributed to such amazing prosperity and beauty in this land. May all the world one day become a safe place to share one's religious beliefs with others. I think the gift of religious liberty will only make a nation stronger, better, and happier.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Emperor and His Cucumbers

Recently I had my second visit to the Forbidden City of Beijing which I enjoyed even more than my first. On that first visit in 1987, my Chinese friends arranged for an English speaking tour guide who was very helpful. Several times she mentioned the emperor and his cucumbers. Apparently he had quite a taste for cucumbers. Of all the terrific delicacies one can find in China, why cucumbers would be so high on his list was beyond me, but I nodded and kept listening. Then she took us to a lovely building and explained that this was where the emperor kept some of his cucumbers. A whole building, just for cucumbers? What? It took a few minutes before I realized the problem. The emperor's cucumbers were victims of mispronunciation. Concubines was what our tour guide was trying to say. The emperor wasn't such an ardent vegetarian after all.

Sometimes when we talk about our religion, we are like the tour guide, using terms and concepts that can really puzzle and confuse those whom we are trying to teach in spite of politely nodding and appearing to understand. Communication gaps from our use of unfamiliar terms ("bearing a testimony" or even "temple marriage" might be examples) or poorly explaining things can leave people with completely wrong impressions. It's never easy, but taking time to check on what people think we have said can help, as can pondering if the terms we use frequently in our religion convey the same meaning to others.

Note: please keep the comments on topic. Today's post is not a forum for delving into controversies around plural vegetables of any kind.