Sunday, February 7, 2010

And Cain (who was Righteous) Walked With God...

19 And in process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.
20 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel, and to his offering;
21 But unto Cain, and to his offering, he had not respect. Now Satan knew this, and it pleased him. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
22 And the Lord said unto Cain: Why art thou wroth? Why is thy countenance fallen?
23 If thou doest well, thou shalt be accepted. And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door, and Satan desireth to have thee; and except thou shalt hearken unto my commandments, I will deliver thee up, and it shall be unto thee according to his desire. And thou shalt rule over him... [Moses 5:19-23]

We all know how this story ends: Cain rises up against Abel and does indeed slay him, becoming the first man to introduce murder for gain into the world, and in so doing he becomes Master Mahan, a son of Perdition and chief among devils, even over Satan himself.

But this is not what interests me. No, not the end, but the beginning... or at least the middle. The chapter continues:

24 For from this time forth thou shalt be the father of his lies; thou shalt be called Perdition; for thou wast also before the world.
25 And it shall be said in time to come—That these abominations were had from Cain; for he rejected the greater counsel which was had from God; and this is a cursing which I will put upon thee, except thou repent. [Moses 5: 24-25; emphasis added]

The Biblical account of this tale is nearly identical; it is merely that in the book of Moses we have a bit more detail, not least of which is found in the chronology of occurrences. For as can be seen in the above verses, God gave this advice to Cain before the act, but after Cain had begun planning the act; after Cain had in fact begun speaking to Satan.

This strikes me as interesting. This was, after all, not the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve had already been cast out and begun bearing offspring. And God no longer walked with man.

Let me say that last again. God no longer walked with man.

Why, then, was he walking with Cain, of all people? Why was he walking and talking - directly, it would seem from the scriptural accounts - with the man who would first murder and in so doing also introduce the secret combinations that would serve to further Satan's purposes throughout history?

The answer is, to me, both obvious (once thought of), and fascinating: Cain had not yet murdered. Not only that, but he was likely a chosen one of the Lord, and one of the great leaders of the Kingdom of God on the earth at that time. For with whom does the Lord walk and talk? Not with the sinners, that is certain: the only occasions when he has done so has been to successfully call them to repentance, as was the case with Alma the younger and, perhaps to a lesser extent, with Saul of Tarsus.

But that is not the kind of interaction occurring here. Here, in these verses (and in their counterparts in Genesis chapter 4), God is speaking to Cain as a friend warning another; as a loving Father who is counseling a son who has until now not only not been wicked, but likely been exceedingly good. After all, Moses 5:24 (above) states that Cain would be called "Perdition."

And who can be called "Perdition"? The scriptures make it clear that this is a title that is reserved not for those who have been wastrels or even evil from the beginning. Rather, it is a term used exclusively for those who have been shown the Son, who have known the truth of the Gospel, who have served with the Priesthood, and then have chosen to knowingly throw away their righteousness in favor of wickedness (see, e.g., Doctrine & Covenants 76: 31-43).

And so we are left with an image of Cain as... a Prophet? An Apostle, perhaps? Someone like Judas who knew the virtues of Christ and then sold his soul for mere worldly goods?

The reason this fascinates me is not only because it changes the image I think most of us have of Cain - that of someone intrinsically evil from the beginning of his life - to one that bears a much greater lesson than the very obvious surface teaching that one should not murder and if one does, great consequences shall follow.

Rather, it teaches that we must never allow Satan to get a foothold in our souls. We must never allows ourselves to entertain thoughts of evil, but must rid ourselves of them in the very moment that they come. Because though (I believe) most of us are "good" people, I also believe that, if we allow it, Satan could have his way with any one of us.

After all, he had his way with Cain.

And Cain, as we now know, must have been a man of great personal righteousness; a man so good he was allowed the singular privilege of talking with the Lord.

Surprisingly, then, I find myself saying that I am not even as strong as Cain once was. How much more, then, must I protect against sin, and shore up the defenses of my soul against evil. I can never "rest on my laurels." I must be ever vigilant. I must be ever wary of the evil one.

Because if Satan could corrupt someone as good as Cain... what might he do to me?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Nothing but a Cool Day in Paradise

Had an interesting time at Sunday School yesterday (yes, I know, when DON'T I have an interesting time... ). We were discussing the fall of Man.

First of all, just so you know and so there are no hurt females out there, the word "man" as we use it in English derives from a Germanic term. In German, there are three terms denoting a person or thing: one is male, one is female, and one is generic.

Guess which one that language utilizes to denote "everyone"? That's right, the germanic generic. And so when the scriptures (or any other pre 1980 text dealing with humanity in general) uses the term "Man" it is neither denigrating nor excluding females. There are exceptions, of course (when aren't there?), but for the most part those texts are simply hearkening back to the germanic root wherein the word man could mean someone male or it could mean (as it does here) "everybody."

Now that I've beaten that little horse of nomenclature to death (don't worry, the horse was a man), I will return to the topic.

So there we are, discussing the usual: God makes Eden. God makes Adam. God takes Adam's rib and makes Eve. Eve eats the fruit. Eve gets Adam to eat the fruit. God shows up and says "What just happened here, kids?" Adam, like any good man (male), blames the other person in the room. Eve, like any good girl (female) tells the truth. God kicks them out of Eden.

And here is where, all of a sudden, I find an interesting verse. Moses 4: 14:

And they heard the voice of the Lord God, as they were walking in the garden, in the cool of the day; and Adam and his wife went to hide themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

And for those of you who prefer to stay Biblical, rather than venturing into the Pearl of Great Price, there is a virtually identical verse at Genesis 3: 8:

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

Most of us have heard these verses - or at least paraphrasing of these verses - innumerable times. So what? God showed up, and Adam and Eve hid...

And they did it on a cool day.

There are very few discussions of weather in the scriptures. And all of them - all of them (I checked) - deal with adverse climatic conditions: too much rain, too much sun, too much wind, that one time where the ocean splits in half.

All of them, that is, save one. The one where, for no apparent reason at all, the writer of these books adds that it was a cool day.

Bear in mind, the author of these books was Moses. He himself had been responsible for (through the power and permission of God) more than one major climatic event. So for him to add the words "on a cool day" in his work would be like you or I writing "I sat down on a chair, which was made of leather" when drafting our memoirs about how we won the Nobel Price by curing cancer. It seems to not only have nothing to do with the subject at hand, but is so very out of place that one must wonder if the editor was asleep at the wheel the day this page came in.

Especially since we know - we've been told, over and over again - that space in the scriptures is limited. The actual words of Christ, for instance, as recorded in the New Testament, can be read aloud in about a half an hour. So clearly the writers put in only what they thought - and what they Spirit guided them to think - were the most important words that Christ said. I suspected that on an occasion or two He might have said, "That rock looks like a nice place to rest for a while" or "Boy, talk about windy last night, huh?" or "Did you hear the one that goes..." (yes, I believe the Lord has a sense of humor... He made me, didn't he?). But none of that was included. It wasn't important. In fact, to actually include such things would be to criminally rob us of the space needed in the holy texts for the things that mattered more to our Salvation. That's why everything we read has some importance. That's why everything we cast our eyes on matters. That's why... wait a minute... Adam and Eve were cast out "on a cool day"???

Seems odd. So rather than listen to the rest of the Sunday School lesson, I found myself fixated on this verse. Why, if Scriptural space is so limited, would Moses let us know basically that it was more or less nice if a little on the cool side?

Then I had a thought. But I am about to start using a LOT rope here, so someone can feel free to hang me if I don't do it myself. And certainly don't take this as church doctrine, because it's just me thinking.

So after that disclaimer, here is what I was thinking:

The accepted chronology is that Adam and Eve partook of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. They then looked upon one another and knew they were naked and were ashamed. They then made aprons for themselves out of fig leaves.

Now, it's also been made clear, at least in the LDS church, that the Fall of Adam and Eve had nothing to do with any kind of sexual indiscretion. It was, instead, a transgression which resulted somehow in a changing of their bodies from an immortal - though innocent - to a mortal state which had infinite capacity for good and for evil.

So having ruled out the sexualization of the Fall, it leads me to wonder why Adam and Eve would look upon each other as naked and be ashamed and go make fig leaves. By this I mean, there are (at least) two reasons why they would not be ashamed:

1) They were already man and wife. The ceremony was, in fact, performed by God Himself in Genesis 2:

22 And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

There is, granted, some ambiguity there, but latter-day prophets have made it clear that this was, in fact, the first marriage, and that it occurred in Eden: "The first marriage was performed by God in the garden when Adam and Eve were not subject to death." (Henry B. Eyring, “Be One,” Ensign, Sep 2008, 4–9.) So the fact that they were not "legitimately" allowed to view one another's nakedness is not a factor in their wearing of the aprons.

2) Even without their marriage, the fact is that Adam and Eve had, presumably, been running around in the garden in the nude for an unknown - but presumably long - period of time. Many lifetimes, perhaps.

So mere nudity could not be the reason for the sewing of the aprons. However, the verses immediately preceding our subject verses in Moses and Genesis say the same thing:

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

Nowhere in there is any kind of shame mentioned. It was not until they heard the Lord "in the cool day" that they ran and hid themselves.

In the cool day.

In so many other religions it is understood as doctrine that the fall of Adam and Eve was tragedy. That if only they had stayed, paradise would have come for all without work or woe.

We in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, view the Fall not as a sin, but as a transgression: not as an evil act, but as one that countermanded a law of God, i.e., if you eat of this tree you will die. Adam and Eve eventually came to understand what this meant, whether through Lucifer's unwitting assistance or of their own accord, and chose to partake of the tree. Yes, that meant being cast out of the Garden and into a lone and dreary world... but it also meant that they could have children; raise family; become more like the Lord and someday even be a joint heir with Christ in the Kingdom of God. Mere innocence in a garden has little to compare with such riches.

And so Adam and Eve left.

But still, this "cool of the day" phrase. Why include it? It is possible that it was an accident; after all, though God is perfect, He works through us as imperfect beings, and so often (if not always) we don't get it quite right: if God chose to speak through me, for example, I would end up maybe getting the point across, but being too wordy about it (as this post itself may show).

But I do not think that it was a mistake. Particularly since the detail is included not only in the earlier versions of the Bible, but also in Joseph Smith's translation of the work. And if I assume this is the case, then the previously outlined timeline changes a bit. They were not naked and ashamed because of each other's eyes, but because of God's. So there was perhaps no need for fig leaves... unless...

Was it because they had begun to grow, in something as simple as one of them going "It's a bit cold" and the other saying, "I never thought of this, but we could sew leaves together and be a bit warmer"?

I don't know if this is what happened. I was not there. But I believe that in the Garden of Eden, innocence was not merely an absence of evil. After all, the snake somehow made his way in. Rather, it was a state of ignorance. Perhaps they walked with God not only because they were spiritually clean, but because, like babies, they had to be constantly watched and cared for. But then they partook of the Tree. They began (if they had not already begun) to grow. To make up their own minds.

Agency was born. Perhaps before the snake's proposition. But whether before or after, it happened.

And now Adam and Eve were making decisions... on a cool day in what had been their home. Dressed in fig leaves already, hiding perhaps from the elements that were no longer so perfect, because the Garden itself knew that Adam and Eve were not to remain.

And one more thought: even when God came, even when He told them they were banished from the Garden, nowhere does Moses mention accompanying tempests or storms. Because God had no reason for anger: his first two children of earth had made their first major decision, and had to - or better said were privileged to - reap the consequences of that act.

And so He came, undoubtedly knowing already what they had done.

He asked them what happened, giving them another chance at agency as they chose to tell the truth or tell a lie.

He let them know of the great power they had over Satan, through the lineage of Eve - a stunning reward for what most of the world labels an act of hideous misdeed.

And then God sent them forth. To live. To grow. To be like him.

And all on a cool day in a small garden that led to a vast and amazing world.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Love and Loneliness in the Christ-Centered Life

When Christ said: "I was hungry and you fed me," he didn't mean only the hunger for bread and for food; he also meant the hunger to be loved. Jesus himself experienced this loneliness. He came amongst his own and his own received him not, and it hurt him then and it has kept on hurting him. The same hunger, the same loneliness, the same having no one to be accepted by and to be loved and wanted by. Every human being in that case resembles Christ in his loneliness; and that is the hardest part, that's real hunger.

- Mother Theresa

The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.

- Thomas Wolfe

That there is within all of us a hunger to be loved is a more or less universally accepted fact. Babies who are not touched, held, caressed, will wither and die. Children who are not shown affection will as a rule grow to be twisted mockeries of humanity. Adults who do not belong to some kind of community - whether it be a social group, a religious organization, or the most basic community of all, marriage - inevitably turn into themselves and become either mindless hedonists who live for the swiftly fleeting pleasures of the flesh, or plunge into depression.

But I wonder... is it really the need for love that we crave in our innermost selves, or the need for understanding? For loneliness is rarely cured by mere love - that is to say, a beggar on the street may be shown the charity of a passer-by who casts coins at his feet, but will the loneliness of that beggar's existence be cured? Doubtful. Sit with that man, however, and speak to him long enough to understand him, and that beggar will now carry within himself the knowledge that there is someone who is out there who knows him.

Such knowledge is the ultimate key to our salvation, as is shown by D&C 39:23:

And again, it shall come to pass that on as many as ye shall baptize with water, ye shall lay your hands, and they shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and shall be looking forth for the signs of my coming, and shall know me.

And again, in D&C 84:98, when the Prophet was speaking to a group of elders who had recently returned from their missions, he spoke to them of the essential terms and conditions of the return of Christ:

[Plagues and catastrophes shall be visited upon the world] Until all shall know me [Christ], who remain, even from the least unto the greatest, and shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, and shall see eye to eye, and shall lift up their voice, and with the voice together sing this new song...

And so this knowledge of Christ, this understanding of Him, becomes not only central to His return, but to our own Salvation.

But to return to the opening theme of this essay: of loneliness. How can we have knowledge of something in the way that Christ speaks of? Oddly enough, I came to the realization that I was doomed to loneliness after I had been married for some years.

This is not a reflection on my wife, whose goodness is unparalleled, but rather a mere recognition of the fact that this was the one person who had come to know me better than any other. To know my great works, and my moments of weakness; to know my sunlights and my shadows.

And yet...

And yet...

Still there were (and are) things about me that she does not know; that she never can know, either because I am unwilling to share them (who among us does not have some secret that they fear will make them unlovable to those around them), or - more often - because I am simply incapable of conveying to her the feelings that I am experiencing or have experienced. Years and years can be spent discussing one's worst day, or one's best moment, without scratching the surface of the actual feelings of that time.

Nephi spoke of this when he mentioned that mortal words could not capture some of the things that he had been shown - that he had felt - when in communion with God. And it is also the same with us, for we are children of God, and so have the power within us to experience emotions so great and so terrible that words fail, we are left powerless to communicate the experience to another human being...

And so we find ourselves, in a word, alone.

And then, being alone, we find ourselves lost. Because none of us can find our way in this life or to the next without a guide. We learn this in the scriptures, in the Temple, in the very structure of the Priesthood and the Patriarchal orders through which we learn and grow... and in which there is always someone above us, showing us the path that lies ahead, and helping us thereby to pass through the brambles and thistles of sin and temptation unscathed... or as unscathed as we are willing to be.

But still there is that hidden part, that secret part that lies within all of us. Be it because of sin that we fear to share, or righteousness that we cannot express, within each and every one of us is an area so vast and profound that it cannot be shown in any way to any other.

Save one.

And that, I think, is the true saving Grace of Christ. For only through His Spirit can we truly understand, not merely Him, but one another. Only when communing with the spirit can I truly commune with my wife. Only when a Bishop listens to the promptings of the Holy Ghost can he be inspired to understand the ailments of a contrite sinner. Only when the Prophet himself hears the still small voice can he understand humanity's woes - and oh what a burden, to be responsible for lifting not only oneself, but the world - sufficiently to succor them.

Loneliness is the art of the devil. It is the natural effect of the fall of Adam, for what did Adam and Eve first feel when they left Eden? I doubt it was the cold and misery of the lone and dreary world into which they had been cast; rather, I suspect it was the separation from the Almighty, and the sudden knowledge that they no longer fully understood their partner. For when they walked in innocence, understanding was unnecessary. And when they then graduated to knowledge, such knowledge was insufficient to encapsulate all of the experiences that each one's partner had gone through.

We are, after all, of finite mind. So how could we hope to understand the infinite perambulations of even one other person, no matter how close that person may be to us?

My wife still surprises me (generally and most often in a good way).

I know that I still shock her from time to time (probably less often in a good way).

How may I know her?

How can she know me?

And with those questions comes the greater: how can I ever hope to know Christ? For as we have seen, without that knowledge, He will not return. Without that knowledge, I shall never sing the song of His redeeming grace. Without that knowledge, I will not be saved.

And the answer, as so often is the case with the Gospel, lies within the question.

How can I know Christ? Through His Grace. Through His Spirit and Atoning intervention.

It is interesting that the first thing that God did after creating Adam was to "breathe" life into him. The base of the word "breathe" is "inspire," as in "inspiration" which means not merely to take in air, but to take in knowledge and truth.

The key to Adam's first moment of life was understanding.

The key to our last moment of judgment will be the same.

The loneliness that plagues all of us is a human condition, a mortal frame, a temporal reality. But it does not - must not - be an eternal one. For in Christ we may find the same breath of life that inspired Adam. We may find understanding of our Lord, and in understanding Him, will be like Him. We will be saved. We will be loved.

And never again, will we be lonely.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

That we Might Have Joy... That we Might Have More

While reading scriptures with my wife the other night, I came across an interesting verse in the Doctrine and Covenants:

Verily I say unto you, ye shall both have according to your desires, for ye both joy in that which ye have desired. [D&C 7:8]

It was one of those scriptures that stops me from time to time: not so much because it says something overtly pleasant or instantly impactful, but more because it is like an itch that I suddenly can't scratch.

I have grown to recognize this as the Spirit's way of telling me to stop moving, slow down, and think on what has just passed before my eyes.

Accordingly, I re-read it:

Verily I say unto you, ye shall both have according to your desires, for ye both joy in that which ye have desired.

In this scripture, the Savior is speaking to John and Peter. To John, he has just finished saying that he (John) will be granted his desire of tarrying until the Savior's return in power and grace. John would thereby become "as flaming fire and a ministering angel," to minister to the "heirs of salvation" until Christ's Second Coming.

And to Peter? The Lord had said that he, too, would be granted his desire: to live out his life, then return to Christ in Heaven.

It might be noted that at this point, I having paused, my wife immediately spoke up and said how much she would prefer John's blessing and wouldn't I love that, too. I responded "No way, I want to get to Heaven asap." "But," she responded, "think of how amazing it would be to live as John lives, to have that power and do that kind of work!" "Nope," I said. "Heaven. Now. Me."

I suppose this says a lot about her level of dedication to the Lord versus mine.

At any rate, while we were having this mini-discussion, I continued reading the verse in question over and over, and at last it struck me. The thing that had captured my attention on a spiritual level was the fact that Christ said that both men would have what they desired, and then gave a very specific reason for it, to wit:

... for ye both joy in that which ye have desired.

So they got what they wanted... because they liked it?

But no, not merely that, for we know that joy is beyond merely "liking" something. One of the definitions of the Oxford English Dictionary for joy is as follows:

A pleasurable state or condition; a state of happiness or felicity; esp. the perfect bliss or beatitude of heaven; hence, the place of bliss, paradise, heaven; = BLISS...[emphasis in original]

And bliss in that same tome is defined thus:

Mental, ethereal, spiritual; perfect joy or felicity, supreme delight; blessedness.

So joy becomes much more than a mere liking of something: it becomes an actual state of being, of blessedness, of perfection. But this then, raises an issue: if we must have joy to receive a blessing, and a blessing requires joy, which is some state of perfection, then how can we hope to have any blessings at all?

The answer comes in Romans 5:11:

And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

Joy comes through God through Jesus Christ. So let us now wrap back around to our original scripture, D&C 7:8:

Verily I say unto you, ye shall both have according to your desires, for ye both joy in that which ye have desired.

Peter and John were promised that they would have the things they most craved; most sought after, because they had joy in those things. They had pleasure, they had blessing, they received a measure of atonement in pursuit of those things. Atonement, the process by which one is brought closer to God the Father, the means by which the gap between ourselves as doomed souls and the Lord as Perfect Man is bridged. We receive that which will bring us joy, which will bring us atonement, which will bring us closest to God.

This last has amazing ramifications. Many of us are aware of them peripherally, but when I really think about them, I am awestruck. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) is credited with the philosophy that "Everything happens for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds" (or at least with its precedent concepts; for a more thorough description of this philosopher's works, click here). Modern philosophers and scholars have serious problems with this, the easiest and most wide-spread being that this cannot possibly be the case: if this is the best possible world, then a) God is constrained somehow, and b) we have the small problem of the evil clearly rampant in our world... how to explain it?

But those explanations are easily supplied when one considers that only those things are given to us which will provide to us the opportunity of atonement. For some this may mean an angelic visitation while on the road to sin or at least serious misunderstanding in the name of righteousness, as was the case with Alma the younger and Paul/Saul of Tarsus, respectively. Both of them were struck down by their heavenly visitor. Both of them underwent change that brought them closer to Christ. Both of them thereby received a measure of atonement.

Others, however, would not react so well to such visitors; they might require the humbling experience of a congenital disease, of a loss in income, of a tragedy caused by the "evil" actions of others. That there is evil is not denied, nor is it contradicted by the axiom that everything does happen for the best, if one interprets that not as meaning that we will be granted our every whim (I have yet to be covered in gold and discover a recipe for no-calorie chocolate), but as meaning that at every single moment of our lives the Lord stands ready to accept us and willing to aid us in our walk to him, then surely there could be no better world. For a world where the infinite joy - and there it is again - of eternal life at our Father's side is always a possibility that we may take advantage of - is indeed the best of all possible worlds. For what better world could there be, than one which leads to Paradise for anyone who wishes to go there?

And as for the rest, for those who do not make the requisite choices to achieve atonement - not only in this life, but in the life hereafter, for as we know there shall be at least some post-mortal activity and corresponding judgment for many - then it can be argued that this is still the best possible world for them. For in choosing not to be close to the Lord, they are demonstrating that they have not joy in His presence. Indeed, Joseph Smith made quite clear in his writings that to the wicked the glory of Heaven would be as destroying fire. So the level of atonement - that is to say, the relative closeness of that person to the bliss of the Lord - is what they are most comfortable with, and where they will find the greatest measure of joy.

How, then, may we find our desires fulfilled?

Simply? By making sure our desires are those of the Lord. And this does not mean that we must restrict our desires to hoping that the orphans are cared for and the widows given shelter (though this should be part of what we want). We can also desire our own personal spiritual, physical, financial, social, and emotional well-being. And this is not selfishness: the Lord desires to give us all things in the end; to make us co-heirs with Christ and recipients of all he possesses. Will He begrudge us a desire to get a raise of a few dollars at work (or to have work at all in these trying times), when in the end He intends to impart to us all the riches of the universe? Such a concept makes no sense.


The caveat is always that the desire must line up with the righteousness of the Lord. May I desire to be a millionaire and sincerely do so with the hope that I may help others and provide that money to prepare the world for the Second Coming of the Savior? Yes. And will that righteous desire be given? Absolutely. Either that or the Lord will communicate that such a desire will in fact have unforeseen side effects (He sees farther than we do, after all), and that we should shift our focus elsewhere. Either way, we will receive what we desire, because we have joy - a measure of atonement - in that desire.

May we reasonably expect the millions to flow from God's grace and bounty so that we may provide ourselves with a big-screen TV and a house upon a hill? The converse answer to the above: no. Unless this will be the best course that God sees to bring us as close as possible (i.e., as close as we will permit) to Him.

We must find joy in our desires. We must desire atonement from our wishes. And when our wishes align with the avenue that will lead us closest to God, then, like Peter and like Paul, our desires will - must - be fulfilled.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Once Again, my Fast is Too Slow

I believe that the law of the fast is one of the most misunderstood, underappreciated, underutilized, and undervalued practices of the church.

Come out swinging, that's what I say.

To those of you who are reading this column who do not know either a) what a "fast" is in general or b) what it is to members of the LDS church specifically, a short(ish) explanation is in order.

We believe that the Lord has commanded us to fast once a month. That means no food or drink of any kind (contrast to many other religions' views of a fast, where food is forbidden but water is all right). The fast occurs once a month, on the first Sunday of the month. Members are commanded to fast for the period of two meals, which most members interpret to be a 24 hour period beginning after dinner on Saturday, skipping breakfast and lunch on Sunday, and ending with dinner on Sunday night.

In addition to merely skipping meals, however (which is what LDS people refer to as "dieting"), there is more to the fast. First of all, the money that is not spent on nourishment for those meals is supposed to be donated to the Church for the benefit of the poor and needy. And I can personally attest that that is where it does go, having been a beneficiary of the Church's assistance, both as a child when our family was in dire financial straits, and as an adult when similar situations arose. Additionally, having served in the Church in a capacity that led me to be in charge of processing those fast offerings, I can say with firsthand certainty how seriously the Church organization takes those offerings. I used to tell people that the two quickest ways to get kicked out of the Church were to practice polygamy or to steal fast offerings. The money is viewed as sacred - as something offered up to the Lord - and so is kept and used with that sanctity in mind.

Beyond that, however, there are also spiritual purposes behind the fast. An obvious one is that, by refusing to give in to our bodies' need for food and drink because the Lord has commanded it, we are learning to place His needs above ours, and to subjugate the imperfections of our carnal bodies to the perfections of the Lord's demands. We thus become closer to the Lord, and for that reason many members of the Church also view this as a special time to ask the Lord for special blessings, or to show special thanks. Members will also at times fast at different times during the month when in special need, again because they feel that the fast makes for a "clearer communication link" if you will, between them and the Lord, and thus makes it more likely that they will receive aid/answers for their difficulties and tribulations.

All that is well and good, but I would like to posit here another blessing of the fast: I believe that it may, more than any other practice of the Church, teach us how to be like Christ.

Now first of all note that I say may. As always, I have to reiterate that I am not an official - or even unofficial - spokesperson for the Church. Merely a member hoping to share some good things with others. So once more we swim out into waters of some uncertainty, given that they originate from me, rather than from the prophet or from one of the canonical works of scripture.

Nonetheless, I think my viewpoint has merit.

Many would take immediate umbrage, and say that Temple work is the thing that most closely approximates us to doing the work of Christ: after all, there we are performing saving ordinances, becoming "Saviors on Mount Zion" as we perform the rites and rituals necessary for the passing into Heaven on behalf of those who have gone before. And I do not dispute that there are incredible analogues between Temple work and the work of Christ.

But think about the fast for a moment. What are we doing? We are subjugating our own body to our spirit. Is that not exactly what Christ did in Gethsemane? Indeed, his body anguished to the point where he sweat as it were great drops of blood - a sure sign of mortal danger if not impending death. And what do we do when we fast? We intentionally put ourselves into a state of discomfort - albeit on a much smaller scale - in order to accomplish certain things.

What were the things Christ was trying to accomplish on Gethsemane (and later on the cross)? Simply put, "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). In other words, He was - through his suffering which was accomplished by an act of spiritual willpower overcoming physical weaknesses - seeking to perfect the physical and spiritual state of all God's children.

Now, what do we do when we fast? Again, we put ourselves intentionally into a state of mortal discomfort (if not peril - nowhere will I claim that we even remotely approach Christ's sacrifices and works), in order to bring to pass the physical safety (the analog to the immortality Christ sought) and conjunctive spiritual well-being (analogous to eternal life) of our fellows here on earth.

This last bit bears a bit of amplification. How is the spiritual well-being of a person helped by providing him or her with bread to eat? some may ask. And the answer is actually quite simple, and its necessity shown by the Savior's own actions. The answer is that it is very difficult to think on the Kingdom of God when one is starving. It is very hard to serve others when you cannot lift your head for want of food. It is well-nigh impossible to branch out to think of one's neighbors when one's immediate family is starving. In sum, our ability to serve God is directly linked to our health and ability to secure for ourselves at least the basic necessities of human existence: food, shelter, water... all things that fast offerings provide access to for countless thousands across the world.

And how did Christ show that He Himself understood this principle? Why, by feeding the multitudes. He understood that they were weary, yet wished to hear more of His teaching. He could have continued teaching them without regard to their physical needs - after all, He had walked the desert without food or drink for 40 days and 40 nights without food or water, so surely He could have gone on without stopping for a snack.

But I suspect He knew that His listeners could not. They would listen better with food in their bellies. They would understand more if they could devote more attention to Him and less to the gnawing at the pit of their guts (not to mention the children whining about wanting to go home).

Further, the fast is one of the few things that we do where we are providing a service that the recipients absolutely cannot provide for themselves. Someone has lost a job and cannot make ends meet. Someone has been tragically injured and cannot meet the demands of the hospital bills. On a larger scale, a nation is devastated by a hurricane or a tsunami and cannot heal themselves without outside intervention and assistance. Is this not almost exactly descriptive of the state that we all find ourselves in with respect to our ability to enter into the Kingdom of God? It is something we simply cannot do on our own: we need someone else's help. And so again the fast shows itself ever more to be akin to Christ's atonement in a way that few if any other practices are.

It seems to me that many of us as Church members seem to focus on fast day as a) something of a pain, something to be endured rather than savored (guilty); and b) something that is meant primarily for us. And I suppose in a way it is primarily for us, because if we learn to fast - to truly fast, as fasting is meant to be practiced - we will become more like Christ. Not merely for the standard reasoning - because we have subjected our flesh to our spirit, because we have communed with God, because we have purified our hearts - but because we will have taken active part in his work and his glory. We cannot bring to pass man's immortality and eternal life, of course, but then, everything we do on this earth is preparatory. So rather than immortality and eternal life, earned for others by sweating drops of blood, we achieve health and well-being, earned for others by missing a few meals.

The fast. I am constantly shamed by how I belittle it in my own practice of it. Because I suspect that, should I ever truly practice it as it is meant to be practice, I would already have one foot in Heaven.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Secret to Missionary Work - aka The Disneyland Principle

So many of us are afraid of missionary work. I went on a mission to Paraguay for two years. The people were great, but I have to admit that the physical conditions were, shall we say, less than adequate. Still, I had great successes: numerous people whom I taught chose to join the church, and many of them continued on to receive Temple blessings, and to hold important callings in their wards, stakes, districts, and branches. One place in particular stands out as a congregation I was assigned to literally doubled in size during my time there, and another area of success was when a zone I was working in experienced a 300% increase in baptisms.

Now, over a decade later, looking at my missionary journal, I see that I recorded mostly the "physical" stuff: the time(s) I went to the hospital, the time I was bitten by a dog, the many many many times I suffered gastrointestinal embarrassments (if you don't know what that last one means, ask any missionary who's been to South America). And I have to ask myself... why?

Why did I record only silly temporal moments when my missionary experience was a cornucopia of spiritual occurrences. I saw miracles happen: both the more mundane kind where someone is healed instantly of a sickness, and the more powerful kind where someone's heart is changed forever and he or she becomes a true disciple of Christ.

So why did I record mostly the silly pranks and pratfalls that occurred, the physical, the whimsical? The mundane bits of everyday life?

And in asking that question, I am drawn to think of the parables of Christ. He was, of course, the Master missionary. He had a perfect command both of the doctrine of salvation and how best to administer it to his audience. And one of the best examples of this are his parables: the parable of the ten virgins, the parable of the sower, the parable of the unjust steward, and on and on and on.

As I think of these things, I notice something about them: none of them are about miracles. They are about mundane things; things that everyone listening had experienced or seen firsthand in their lives as simple or rich, bond or free, man or woman.

There are, of course, reasons for this. One of them is that he was speaking in such a way that only those who were prepared to hear his lessons would understand the deeper meanings couched in the seemingly innocuous stories about farming, about trees and seeds, about searching for lost coins. Thus, the righteous could be brought closer to Him, and the wicked could be spared further damnation, for they would not be judged against the measuring stick of those lessons which they did not understand.

Another reason he spoke in such a way in his parables was that he wanted them to be accessible to everyone. He did not come to teach "higher" theology to the learned among the scribes and Pharisees; He came to teach the core principles of the Gospel to all who would hear it. So He chose parables that would reflect everyday life of those who listened, and that they therefore would be able to relate to.

These first two reasons have been pointed out by many as reasons for Jesus' "everyday" manner of speaking in his parables. However, I would suggest another reason for Jesus' use of the mundane, of the everyday, of the normal things of the world in his parables:

Jesus lived in a mundane, everday, normal world.

By this I mean to say that, even though He was known as "Joseph, the carpenter's son," and likely had his share of work as a carpenter and probably as a fisherman as well, He never lost sight of the kingdom of God. I can easily imagine Jesus planing a piece of wood, evening it out, working conscientiously in his worldly trade before beginning His three-year ministry. I can easily imagine Him thinking as he did so, "The People of Israel are like this wood: they must be planed, they must be straightened. The parts that are out of line must be removed, so that what is left will be a masterwork fit to enter into the Kingdom of God."

In other words, I think Jesus did not always think up a parable ahead of time, tailoring it to his audience ("Let's see, we have a bunch of planters scheduled to meet me at noon, I better come up with something about sowing seeds"). Rather, I believe it more likely that Jesus understood that He was the Son of God all the time. He was working for His Father all the time. He was aware of his place in the Kingdom of Heaven, and further that the Kingdom of Heaven would be made not by preachers, not by scribes, not by Pharisees (though of course some of them might make it there, too); but rather by businessmen, by planters, by farmers, by potters, by (in our day) bankers, lawyers, mechanics, housewives, etc., etc., etc., all of whom remembered that they were a part of the Kingdom of God not just on Sunday, but at every moment of every day.

The Kingdom of God on earth is like this pile of towels I'm folding: it must be done properly so as to avoid falling.

The Kingdom of God on earth is like my work as a lawyer: I must work my hardest, and be honest in all that I do, in order to be worthy of my place of trust and responsibility.

The Kingdom of God is like... and here is where you fill in your own parable.

Because preparing for the Kingdom of God is not a part-time job. Jesus knew that, and so He was able to liken the "normal" parts of his life to all that was holiest and best, because He had already realized that the only thing separating us from the Kingdom of the Lord... is ourselves.

Which brings me full circle to my original premise: the Disneyland theorem of missionary work.

As I've labored to show you up to this point, the work of God is 24/7. We are missionaries 24/7. We have no choice in this matter, for we are observed and our actions are judged by others whether we want them to be or not. Our only choice is what kind of missionaries we will be.

At this point many people "turn off." They say that they don't want to do missionary work, or they don't have time, or they've already tried everyone they know, and no one wants it.

And what they're really saying, without exception, is "I am afraid."

And not without reason: rejection is always a fearful prospect.

Or is it?

Let me provide you with a hypothetical: you have just won an all-expense paid trip to Disneyland. Transportation, hotel, everything is covered. Not only that, but you can bring along anyone you want. There is NO limit on the number of people you bring.

Now, would you be afraid to invite your neighbor? Your boss? Those people you hardly know who live down the street? Of course not.

Why, then, are we so afraid to invite people to live the Gospel, to visit our Church, to see what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth consists of? And here I'm about to reverse myself on my previous opinion. Perhaps it isn't really fear. Perhaps it's really because we don't love the Gospel enough ourselves to want to share it in the same way we would want to share a trip to Disneyland. Maybe we don't believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ has as much to offer our fellows as an amusement part.

Personally, I know I'm not perfect. But I also know that everyone - everyone - I work with or spend more than 20 minutes with knows that I am a Latter-day Saint. That I love my religion and my God. And I never fear to talk to them about the Church. I've talked to all my friends about it at some point or other, and have never lost a friend over these discussions, even when serious disagreements came up.

But do I fear these conversations, or the opportunities to introduce others into the wonderful world of blessing and love that is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

I do not. Because I know that the Kingdom of Heaven is much more than an amusement park. It contains the sum of all that is good and holy, and therefore is the most desirable of all treasures.

And once convinced of that, how can I help but want to share such a treasure with my fellows, especially knowing as I do that this is not a normal treasure: sharing does not mean less for me, it means more, as their glory is added to mine, which in turn is added to the Father's.

The Gospel is 24/7. We should all be living our lives in such a way that, in an instant, we could come up with a parable - an example, a simile, a metaphor, a story - to tell a friend or someone asking questions about the church or the Gospel that would simplify and clarify the concepts therein. We should all be living our lives in such a way that the Gospel permeates and intertwines with every aspect of not just our Sundays, but every breath we take.

We should all live our lives in such a way that, in the most mundane moments - as those recorded in my missionary journal - we can find inspiration; we can find God.

And in so doing, we will come to love the Gospel. And we will believe it of far greater joy and worth than any Disneyland trip.

And suddenly, sharing it won't seem so bad.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A House in Order

I would like to tell a story.

In this story, a man was very ill. On his death bed, he whispered for his family to draw near. Through barely-heard whispered words, they heard what he wanted most of all in this, his final hour.

They were surprised at the request. But, wishing to honor it, they made a phone call. A man in an expensive suit was summoned. He, too, put his ear to the old man's lips.

Upon hearing the old man's request, the well-dressed man straightened up and laughed out loud. "I know you're dying, but you must be crazy, too!" he said to the old man. "You think I'm going to issue you life insurance?" And he walked away, still laughing, and the old man died uninsured.

What a ridiculous story, you might be saying at this point. And you would be right. Yet, at the same time, how many of us approach our spiritual preparations in just this manner?

Doctrine & Covenants 93:43 says very clearly that we must set our houses in order if we wish to be delivered. This is a commandment that is both spiritual and physical. We see an example of physical deliverance - the blessing that comes with following this example - in the story of Lehi. In the case of his family, obedience wrought preparation (1 Nephi 2:1-4). And thus they were able to make their preparations and take flight from Jerusalem, evade those who would pursue them, and survive years in the desert before at last being brought to the promised land that would be their inheritance.

But how do we set our house in order spiritually? Joseph Smith had this to say:

"All men who become heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ will have to receive the fullness of the ordinances of his kingdom; and those who will not receive all the ordinances will come short of the fullness of that glory, if they do not lose the whole."

- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith

(Deseret Book Co. 1989) p. 309

And there you have it: the way to put our houses in order spiritually is to receive "the fullness of the ordinances of [God's] kingdom." And what are these ordinances? There are five which every man and woman must receive in order to enter into God's kingdom:

1. Baptism (John 3:5)

2. Gift of the Holy Ghost (John 3:5)

3. Priesthood Ordination (D&C 84:42; D&C 121:36; D&C 76:50, 57)

4. Temple Endowment (D&C 124:39, 46)

5. Eternal Marriage (D&C 131:1-4)

There are a few words that need to be said in particular about Nos. 3 and 5. First, No. 3:

Yes, this applies to everyone. One of the major guffs that I have encountered in my discussions and interactions with others not of our faith is that women have "lesser" roles in the Church. Of course, at this point in my life I can just laugh and point at my wife and say "You think I'm in charge?"

It's a pretty compelling argument.

But for those who are not convinced, they may then say, "But only men get to hold and exercise the Priesthood in your church," which I have found to mean that they erroneously equate Priesthood with "ruling." To this there are two responses:

1) The Priesthood cannot be used for one's own benefit. I am a Priesthood holder. I ordain people, I have the power to baptize and to bless. I am instructed - commanded - to use this power to benefit all humanity. But there is one person I cannot bless, one person I cannot ordain, one person I cannot give anything to through my Priesthood: myself. The Priesthood is designed to serve others, and has a built-in mechanism to both void and avoid any would-be acts of self-service.

2) Those who think that the Priesthood is a "men's only" affair (many of whom are, sadly, members of our own church) have not taken the time to study the doctrines we have received from our leaders. An example:

"Priesthood is not chauvinistic. The priesthood is 'without father, without mother,... having neither beginning of days, nor end of life' (Heb. 7:30), nor maleness nor femaleness. It is head to them both. Male and female alike come under it and must understand their true relationship to it, one to serve as priest within it, the other eventually as a priestess. Men here are given the priesthood power, but both man and woman must bring themselves into submission unto it, rather than she unto him [the man] as a person. The man must assume the same relationship of honor and obedience to priesthood truths and doctrines that the woman does. That is, it precedes them both."

Gib Kocherhans, "The Name 'Melchizedek': Some

Thoughts on Its Meaning and the Priesthood It

Represents," Ensign, Sept. 1980, p. 19

[italics in original; boldface added]

The other issue to be raised is, of course, that of No. 5: the necessity of entering into eternal marriage as a prerequisite to entering into the highest of glories and greatest of kingdoms. For it is true that there are those who, through no fault of their own, will not ever find someone who will take them to the Holy Temple and participate with them in this act. But, as with all things, God is just and merciful. And so it is not so much that He says we must achieve all five of these in our lifetimes, but only that we must receive them eventually. It is for that very reason that the work for the dead is performed in the temples that now cover the face of the world.

However, in our lifetimes it is true that we must be moving forward. These five saving ordinances are like rungs on a ladder to the top of a building. We must climb to the top to receive the prize. We may fall. We will fall. But we get up. We endure. It is not that we are required to reach the prize on our own - no one has the strength to do that - it is enough that we "endure to the end" (3 Nephi 15:9). It is enough that, when we fall or falter, we look up and reach to the next rung, whichever that rung may be.

And when the end finally comes, when our strength falters for the last time and we feel ourselves falling for that last time, this time never to have strength to climb again, we will find that a strong hand has grasped ours. We will find that someone who has been broken by our fall now has strength to lift us up.

We will have climbed as best we could.

And in so doing, we will have earned the prize.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On a Woman's Responsibility to Obey her Husband

22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.
24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. (Ephesians 5:22-24)

I can think of fewer scriptures that have caused more problems for Christianity than these. When I was dating in high school, I remember having a conversation with my girlfriend's mother. She was interested in what I believed as a Latter-day Saint (this being my first and only foray into the world of dating those not of my faith). We talked, and I was shocked to find out that the big hurdle to her believing what I believed was not Joseph Smith, it was not the Word of Wisdom, it was not believing that the Book of Mormon was the word of God.

It was believing that the Bible was.

More specifically, she had heard these verses when younger and could not believe in any group that would denigrate and subjugate women in such a fashion. Nor was she the only person I heard this from. Throughout my mission and thereafter it came up fairly regularly: how can the Bible be true if it says such a rotten, scurrilous thing about the roles of men and women?

I did my best to answer honestly and truthfully, but could tell that my answers never really satisfied the questioner. She (usually, for obvious reasons, the person bringing this up was a woman) would usually go away content that I didn't think she was anything but equal in the eyes of God... but still.

I was finally forced to face this issue not only head-on, but in depth when I became engaged to my wife: a self-labeled feminist.

Now, to be clear, I am not talking about someone who is out burning bras and screaming about everything. Just a person who had a deep conviction about the equality of man and woman, and a deep concern about both this scripture and (since we were soon to be married) about what her role would be in a marriage that was guided by such a scripture.

At first, I pulled out the easy answer: the one that I had been using (albeit unsuccessfully) throughout my life: Doctrine and Covenants 121:37-41. This is the section which says (in effect) that any person who seeks to rule over another on a "just because I say so" platform will automatically have his power revoked by God Himself.

This went over more or less as it always had: badly. And, talking to my smart, able, and passionate wife, I came to understand the root reason of why so many equally smart, able, and passionate women (and also some men) had such disdain for this scripture: they felt insulted by it. After all, the man is called out as "the head." And in our culture, being "the head" of something means "being in charge." This is rooted in the Old English term "heafod," which meant (among other things) the chief person, or ruler.

But Old English was not the original language that Paul was writing in when he wrote to the Ephesians. Further, the following verses point to a different meaning entirely than that which is commonly (mis)understood about these verses:

25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,
27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.
28 So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.
29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:

There was an obvious answer to the problem in the 25th verse: even if God hadslated man to be "in charge" over women, what righteous woman would mind being ruled over by someone who loved her as much as Christ loved the church? What woman would mind being lead by someone who had her best interests at heart?

But that still leaves open a problem: there is no such man: only Christ Himself possessed all the attributes necessary to properly, righteously, and rightfully rule over others. And so we seem back where we are started: with woman relegated to a submissive position in a relationship, subject to an imperfect man who will "rule" over her in a way that is necessarily flawed - for so all men are flawed, being not Christ.

But then verse 29 came to me again as we talked:

29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:

And with that thought, another scripture came to mind, one written by the same author:

11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:11).

And another scripture, this time in Genesis 2:24:

24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

Looking at these scriptures in conjunction, it is easy to see that the Lord has returned to this theme over and over through the ages: man and woman, one flesh. And at that point it dawned on me. I turned to my fiancee and said (essentially) "So what if I'm the head? What does that leave you to be? Just the heart that shows the way when the reasoning is clouded, just the hands that are capable of doing the work, just the legs that can walk the path of the Lord for us."

I believe that when the Lord was speaking (through Paul) of man as "head," he did not mean it in a tribal, Old English way. He meant it in a way that recognizes two things:

1) Man and woman are different. They are equal in the eyes of God in the sense that they have equal value, but they are different. A twelve million dollar diamond and a twelve million dollar ruby are equal in value, but they have distinct characteristics that make them valuable in different ways. And years of social research have backed up this fact: men and women are different, each gender having (as a general rule) strong and weak points, as well as different facets of strength which the other may have in lesser measure.

2) They cannot exist well apart. I have yet to see a head that could get along without a body, or a body without a head. Thus, man and woman become "one flesh," with certain distinct characteristics they bring to each other, to a family, and to the Lord. They become interdependent, and cannot - should not - be apart. For, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6).

In the end, then, is man "the head" in the body that man and woman become when joined by the power and authority of God? Certainly. But I have never seen a head that could get very far without the permission and cooperation of the rest of the body, just as I have never seen a hand or foot do its job properly without the cooperation of the head. Man and woman, together, should function as one. This leaves no room for doubt that they are, once again, equal in value before the Lord. They each bring different attributes to a marriage or to a family unit, with those attributes complimenting each other in such a way as to bring to pass the best possible outcomes.

A humorous (though mostly true) example: in our home, if it were solely up to my wife, the kids would probably be either a) taken to the ER every time they said something hurt or they had a boo-boo, or b) covered head to toe in bubble wrap to make boo-boos impossible. On the other hand, if it were solely up to me, I would probably be telling my children to "shake it off" after being hit by a car, or tell them "it's probably nothing - just go to bed and it'll feel better in the morning" after they come out of their rooms with their eyes bleeding.

Neither of these is a good outcome. Too extreme, too impractical, but hard-wired into us. And so when a boo-boo comes, we compromise, and we generally end up somewhere in the middle: in a place we can both live with, and which generally results in a child who is both being taken care of and learning how to deal with boo-boos appropriately.

In this example, I am definitely "the head": cold and calculating, trying to show my child how to survive in a world that has far too much pain in it. And my wife is definitely the heart: trying to comfort with compassion, no matter the cost.

Neither works well without the other. Just as grace and works come together and intertwine to allow for salvation (see, e.g. James 2:17, Ephesians 2:5, 8 ), so the "head" of man and the "body" of woman come together and intertwine to create one complete person.

Ultimately, it matters not which part of the complete person each one is, because they are joined of God, and they will stand together before Him in the hereafter, for together they will lead and guide each other. Together, as man and wife, I and my sweetheart will go forward, she at times leading me, I at times leading her, but always linked, always holding hands, always striving to move forward with the other, to that ultimate goal: that of further Oneness with God, as we enter - together - into His rest.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

On Being "Mormon"

What it is to be a “Mormon.” I thought I would talk about that for a bit today. I'm at home, dealing with various sick people, and so wanted to take this time to write my feelings about the church and about what it means - for me - to be a member of the church. I also thought that I would write this so that anyone could understand it, not just members of my church.

First of all, I would like to say straight off the bat that I am not an official spokesman for my church. Nor am I perfect. So please bear that in mind as you read this. Anyone looking for the “official” stances of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints* is probably best-served by doing one of three things:

1) Go to on the web. This is a website run by the church that is designed primarily to answer basic questions about the church by those who are not already members.

2) Go to on the web. This is another website run by the church. It is geared toward the members of the church, but can be freely searched by anyone, and carries within it virtually all of the major writings of the church’s leaders and its theology.

3) Invite a pair of missionaries to talk to you. These are the young men you will occasionally see biking around town, dressed (always) in a white shirt, tie, slacks, and wearing a black name tag. Or perhaps you will have seen sister missionaries: young ladies with ankle-length skirts, nice blouses, and also wearing black name tags. This is perhaps the best way to find out the church’s official beliefs because a) they are the church’s designated spokespeople in charge of preaching to those not of our faith, and b) it’s a bit more “personal” than a webpage.

Having bored you to death, I’ll now talk about what it is to be LDS, and more specifically, what it is to me to be LDS.

First, a short history:

Like the majority of the world, we believe in a Supreme Being, whom we call God. We believe that God is our creator and our father. We believe that He loves us. Because of this love, He designed a plan that would allow us to return to Him when we die – to be reunited as an Eternal Family.

However, God knew that a) He was perfect and without sin, b) no being with sin could live with Him, and c) in our time here on earth, we as his Children would make choices contrary to His commandments.

And so He sent His son, Jesus Christ, whose mission was to bridge the gap between us and Heaven by making it possible for us to be cleansed from our sins and stand pure before God and thus return to His bosom.

After Christ’s mortal ministry, He continued to speak through prophets and those duly authorized by Him to preach His gospel. Many of the words of the prophets of Jerusalem are collected in the Bible, which we believe to be the word of God.

However, there were also others in the world, specifically those people who were living on the American continents, and we believe that just as He spoke to prophets in Jerusalem, so also God called prophets to preach His word among the American peoples. These words were collected by an historian prophet named Mormon and then entrusted to his son, Moroni, who finished the compilation. Unfortunately, the people at that time were so wicked that they were killing all those who would not deny belief in Christ. This, we believe, happened around 600 a.d.

At the command of God, Moroni hid the sacred record, and for many years it was lost to those who had turned their backs on God by refusing to live by His word.

As most people know, following the death of Christ’s apostles in Israel and its surrounding nations, the church that Christ had founded split into many different factions and sects. Luther, Calvin, and other reformers proposed changes to the established Bible-based churches of their times, as did others. As a result, many different churches were established, guided by the precepts of the Bible as best understood by the people at that time.

In the 19th century, a young man named Joseph Smith was concerned for his immortal well-being, and wished to unite with a church. His own family was a church-going one, but even within the immediate family there was disagreement as to which church best represented God’s will and Christ’s teachings.

Joseph – at this time only 14 years of age – was convinced that Christ had founded a church, and that he must unite himself with Christ’s church, whichever that church might be, in order to be able to secure salvation.

But the many different sects and religions offered such diverse points and teachings that he was hopelessly confused. They could not all be true, he reasoned, since each had points of practice and belief in which they disagreed.

About the only thing they all seemed to agree on was that the Bible was the word of God, and so it was to the Bible that Joseph turned for answers. One night, he read a passage in the book of James, which stated “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5).

Young Joseph took these words to heart. He entered a grove of trees near his home, knelt down, and prayed to ask which of the churches was the true church of Christ. In response to this simple prayer of faith, he received the actual, physical visitation of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. The Father spoke to Joseph, calling him by name, and then said, pointing to the other Heavenly Visitor, “This is my beloved son. Hear Him.”

The resurrected Christ then informed Joseph that he must join none of the churches, for none of them held the entirety of Christ’s gospel, which had been lost when the early apostles and most of the faithful disciples of Christ were killed for their beliefs. This mass murder deprived the early church of the leaders authorized to act in Christ’s name and left behind leaders of churches who, good-intentioned and righteous though they might be, did not have the required authority to act in Christ’s name and perform necessary ordinances required to enter into the kingdom of Heaven. This power was called the Priesthood, a necessary power to perform holy ordinances with validity and the power to seal both on earth and in Heaven.

Joseph was instructed further at a later time that there was a record of the peoples of the American continent and Christ’s dealings with them. Eventually Joseph was led to this record – the same record which Moroni had hidden up centuries before. Joseph translated the record through the power of God, and because of the great work the prophet Mormon did in compiling the records of the American prophets, the book was called The Book of Mormon, and like the Bible, it stands as a testament of Jesus Christ and His teachings.

Later, Joseph received further divine revelations and visitors. He was visited by the resurrected John the Baptist – the man who had baptized Christ himself – and was given the Priesthood authority to baptize. Thereafter, he was visited by Peter, James, and John, the three men who presided over the church after Christ’s crucifixion, and was given by them further Priesthood powers.

With the Priesthood restored to the earth, and with direct communications with God once again open, the Lord commanded Joseph Smith to organize and restore the Church of Christ. This occurred in April 1830.

The name of the church was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “The Church of Jesus Christ” because it was not the product of man-made thought or invention, but rather a restoration of the actual church Christ founded in His time on earth; and “of Latter-day Saints” to distinguish the two eras.

This new – or rather, old – church was well-received by some, and grew quickly. Unfortunately, this rapid growth was seen by many as a threat – either to their political or theological power – and so persecution of the church began early and grew in intensity, with the “Mormonites” or “Mormons” as they were called by their enemies being driven from place to place. Eventually they settled for a time in Missouri, their numbers now large enough to found one of the largest cities in the state. However, this political clout antagonized the people in the surrounding areas enough that they complained to both the state and federal leaders that the Mormons were killers, rapists, and insurrectionists.

Once again, the Mormons were driven out of the lands they themselves had purchased, developed, and built up. This time, the governor of Missouri even wrote an extermination order – a document which essentially called the Mormons enemies of the state and authorized any and all people to expel them from Missouri, even if it meant killing them.

Through the course of this persecution, Joseph Smith himself was murdered with his brother while under “protective custody” – something of a joke since the jail they were being held in was run by anti-Mormon sympathizers who allowed the murderers free access to the jail – and the church members themselves were driven completely out of the United States, settling in the area of the Great Salt Lake, which is now known as Utah.

However, the church continued and endured. Before he was martyred, Joseph Smith called and ordained twelve apostles, just as Christ had done in the ancient church. After Joseph was martyred, one of these apostles was called and succeeded Joseph as the prophet and president of the church.

And this has continued through today. Though the church continued to know privation, tribulation, and persecution, at this time there are approximately 13 million members worldwide. It is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, and one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States.

Additionally, because of the many threats to their safekeeping in the early years of the church, it developed a sophisticated welfare program. This means that in the event of natural disasters almost anywhere in the world, LDS members are usually either first or among the first relief responders.

Now, all this is to give an introduction into the history of the LDS church, because in so doing one catches a glimpse of its culture. It is God-centered. It is durable. It is willing (as a whole) to sacrifice everything – home, well-being, life itself – to follow the commandments of God. It is family-centered, for God has revealed that families can be an eternal unit, and so we value family above all save God Himself.

And knowing this, is to know much of what it means to me to be “Mormon.” Among my ancestors was the prophet who succeeded Joseph Smith. Among my ancestors were numerous who had their homes burned down or were forced from them at gunpoint. One of my ancestors died because he carried several hundred women and children over a half-frozen river in the dead of winter (the Missourians agreed to give the Mormons until spring to get out, but in reality the mob-killings and forced expulsion began that winter).

And me?

Nothing so grand as that, perhaps. I served as an unpaid missionary in Paraguay for two years. I did nothing but proselytize, speaking to anyone and everyone who would listen to me about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I worked between 60 and 100 hours a week, every week, for two years on this endeavor. I was hospitalized several times, nearly dying more than once. I was threatened by brutal people who tried to hurt me physically. I was attacked and bitten by a dog that I later discovered had been specifically trained to attack LDS missionaries.

I also met more friendly people than I ever knew existed. I saw the depths of joy at marriages and births. One family named their first son after me. I saw sorrowing families draw together at the death of a loved one, mourning the loss but rejoicing in the knowledge that they would see their loved one again. I saw many people choose to join the LDS church, and saw their lives change forever in ways that I cannot even attempt to describe here.

After my mission, I continued to serve the church. This is not unusual. In the church, we have no paid clergy, so all worthy members (and by worthy I don’t mean that they have studied extensively, but rather that they can affirm that they are following the commandments) are expected to serve in whatever capacity they are called to.

As a result, I have been in charge of all of the men in a congregation (we call our congregations “wards”). I have taught 8-, 11-, and 12-year-old boys and girls in Sunday School. I have been in the bishopric of a ward, serving as one of the three men who preside over the entire ward and oversee the spiritual and physical well-being of its members. I have been called at two in the morning to minister to a person who is ill and has requested a Priesthood blessing. I have been called out of work to go see a person who is going to die and who has asked for someone to provide words of comfort and friendship.

I have been married to a beautiful woman whom I met in church, and who has given me three beautiful children. Two still live with us. One has gone ahead to prepare a home for us in Heaven. Losing her was terrible, but again, was wonderful because of the security both my wife and I held at knowing we would see our little Grace again. The two other children did not ever know her, but we take them to her gravesite from time to time, and teach them about Jesus, and about God, and about how they want families to be together forever, so if we are all good and do what Heavenly Father says, we will all get to see Grace again, and they will be able to play with their big sister.

I have been lead away from certain jobs, and lead to others, because of my religion. I am a lawyer by trade – a profession that many know is demanding in terms of time and emotional and mental strain – and have at every job interview I ever went to told the people that I would not work Sundays. This has lost me many high-paying jobs, and lead me to jobs that pay less but allow me to come home if my wife or child is sick. A better way of life, I think, than grinding away for 80 hours a week for a paycheck that will not cover the cost of things sacrificed for that job.

In every aspect of my life, my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has informed and enlightened my choices. It has given me opportunities to meet people I never would have chosen to interact with on my own – and my life has been brighter for it. It has given me a security in knowing that, no matter what happens or where life takes me, I have only to find an LDS church building on a Sunday to know that I am home and among friends.

Above all, it has given me hope to see through the darkness that can sometimes cloud our lives, a ray of light to pierce the darkness of everyday living, a road to walk which is difficult but which leads to a place well worth the work.

I believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be the one true church of God on the earth. I say this not with pride, in an “I’m better because I’m right sense,” but rather with humility, because if I believe that, it means that I must act at all times in a way that will glorify God and give Him credit for teaching me well: the pupil’s actions will always cast a reflection – for good or ill – on the teacher. I also believe it is my duty to live in a way that will show people that the way I live can bring them, too, happiness and joy. In saying I believe I belong to “the true church,” I am saying that I believe it is my duty, my responsibility, and my privilege to help those around me, so that together we may all draw closer to God.

For if I believe the LDS church to be the true church, then I must believe its teachings. And it teaches, above all else, that we have a Father in Heaven who loves us, and that everything He does is with an eye single to seeing that as many of us return to His presence as possible. And so to follow Him I also must concern myself with my fellows – my brothers and sisters (all 6 billion-plus of them) – and see that I do all I can to help my Heavenly Father in His work to glorify and perfect His children.

I am a “Mormon.” I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Everything I have and everything I am flows from that.

And with this fact, I am well pleased.

*The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints is the official name of the “Mormon” church. Referring to someone as a “Mormon” was originally intended to be an insult, but in a good example of “rewriting your own script,” the church members adopted it as their unofficial name. Members of the church will also call themselves “Latter-day Saints” or LDS for short.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Testimony of Salvation

D&C 62:3:

"Nevertheless, ye are blessed, for the testimony which ye have borne is recorded in heaven for the angels to look upon; and they rejoice over you, and your sins are forgiven you." [emphasis added]

In this section, Joseph Smith was speaking to "a group of elders." These men were later identified by Reynolds Cahoon as being Hyrum Smith, John Murdock, Harvey Whitlock, and David Whitmer.

Not a bad group to meet up with. Men who left their mark on the early church, with Hyrum being a co-sealer of the truth of the Gospel when he was martyred on the same day as his brother. So is it any surprise, really, that the Prophet Joseph should inform them that God had forgiven their sins?

And yet, once more, I have to apply this to myself as well (after all, why bother giving us scripture if we were not to use them? God would be a bit of a ninny if that were the case). And in so doing, I have to think that this is probably one of the most joyous of all the scriptures we have in our possession today.

Think of it... to have the angels of heaven "rejoice over you." To have your words recorded there perhaps for all your progenitors to view throughout the eternities, a monument to your following of the Savior.

For, you see, this is contingent upon bearing testimony. And a testimony cannot be borne which is false. That is to say, these men to whom the Prophet was speaking, they had borne real testimonies.

And what is a testimony? Ask yourself that question...

Seriously, ask yourself. And put the answer in your mind.

Got it?






It is something that we know.

That's it. It is something that we have experienced for ourselves, and can then describe to others. No more, no less.

Thus, in a courtroom, it is not generally permitted to say what someone told you about someone else (though there are exceptions), but your testimony is generally confined to those things you saw, heard, tasted, touched... or felt.

And so these men were given this great blessing from the Lord through the Prophet: for the bearing of their testimonies - for telling others what they knew about the Gospel - the angels rejoiced and their sins were forgiven them.

This, then brings up an interesting question. To wit: what exactly did they know? By this I do not mean to inquire into the depth of these men's souls. But rather, I again apply this scripture to myself. Would I like the angels to rejoice over me? Most certainly. Would I like my words to be recorded in heaven? Of course.

Would I like my sins forgiven? Yes, yes, most indisbutably yes!

So what must I do? Bear testimony, it would seem. The Prophet did not confine these blessings to only these men, and I must therefore assume (reasonably, I think), that if I then bear testimony as they did, I too will reap the benefits they received. It is as easy (and as difficult) as that.

But we do not have to bear testimony that we have seen Christ or that we have witnessed a burning bush in order to receive these blessings - I find nowhere in scripture that confines the blessings of bearing testimony to those who bear it on that scale.

But we are asked to share what we know. What we know can be great as the First Vision - there are those in this dispensation who have seen the Father and the Son.

But it can also be something as simple and sincere as being able to say to someone, "I know the Gospel is true because when I read the Book of Mormon it makes me feel good." This is a true testimony: it is a factual declaration backed up by personal experience. It is the same with something like, "I know that tithing is a true principle because as long as I have paid tithing, I have never wanted for my daily bread." Ditto something like, "I know this is the true Church because, even though I argue with Brother So-and-so, and even though I find Sister Thus-and-such to be a tad on the irritating side, still I love them, and they are my family, and I would die for them if push came to shove."

All of these are testimonies.

How about this one: "I know the Church is true because when I do what the prophets say to do I am happier than when I do not follow them."

A testimony does not have to include an angel. It does not have to be a travelogue. It might not even be a story.

But it must be true. It must be something you know. It must be from your own experience. And then it must be shared.

For in the sharing, the angels rejoice.

In the sharing, our words are recorded for eternity, and will serve us well at the judgment bar of God.

In the sharing, we find salvation.

In the sharing, we are free.