Friday, July 30, 2010

On new missionaries

Another nephew entered the MTC this week, and one left the MTC for his field of labor. How cool is that? I'm glad that these young men, who come from great families and are well prepared, will serve missions. They are part of a tradition in our extended family that includes many, but not all, of their similar aged cousins.

I'm excited for them because of what they'd do and what they'll learn. Their serving causes me to reflect on my own missionary service. And it causes me to reflect on the missionaries who taught my parents and me over forty years ago. And it reminds me of young men and women whom I interviewed as a bishop several years ago prior to their serving.

The rite-of-passage missionary service can be a remarkable thing in the life of the missionary, especially if the blessings to the missionary are incidental to his or her efforts. It was true on my mission and it is true now in my life: some of my greatest lessons come when I least expect them, and some only upon reflection of what has already happened.

I had a companion whose brother (with permission from our mission president) visited us for lunch late in my mission. The brother observed that one of the best kept secrets in the church is what a mission is really like, implying that the hardest parts of a mission are often not discussed in priest quorums or homecoming talks. My companion and I agreed, and also suggested that at least part of the reason for that is the need to "be there." Just as an inside joke is funny only to those who share the experience, just as only women who have experienced childbirth really understand it, so are there parts of a mission that only those who live it will know and understand it.

I'm grateful that young people choose to serve. I remember while teaching in the MTC years ago that there were lots of reasons missionaries came on their missions. My own service showed me that my greatest success (however you define that for missionaries) came when I served out of love for the Lord and for His children. I trust my young nephews will learn that lesson, too.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On inclusion

The discussion of white shirts over at Mormon Matters has gotten me thinking about inclusion. You know the deal: A number of different general authorities (including Elder Nelson and Elder Holland) have suggested it's good to encourage young men to wear white shirts while blessing and passing the sacrament. Some are ok with the idea and agree that there's symbolism in the action: white shirts mirror the white of baptism and the temple. Others are not ok, and find this another intrusive near-commandment that allows some to judge the righteousness of others.

You can guess where I stand. I'm the guy who shaved his beard happily to work in the temple. And, as I told a young friend who questioned why, I would gladly have shaved my head if they'd asked me to. Those who make those decisions can make whatever decisions they like, and I can choose to accept them, and that's ok by me. Others don’t feel the same way, and think there are too many rules.

The good news is that the tent of the gospel is big enough for both camps and more. In fact, the gospel tent is big enough for all of us, as long as we are seeking to find and follow the Savior.

Here’s an example that illustrates the point:

I was reading in 3 Nephi 18 this morning where the Savior institutes the sacrament among the Nephites, and he counsels them only to partake of the sacrament worthily, and to prevent the unworthy from partaking of the sacrament. But, he also says of the unworthy, "Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out from among you, but ye shall minister unto him and shall pray for him unto the Father, in my name….Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship…" (3 Nephi 18:30, 32).

I don't mean to link shirt color to worthiness! Instead, I mean to suggest that the Lord's standard is high for believers: We should strive to be worthy to participate in priesthood ordinances, and we should be willing to include those who are not. There are those whose calling it is to judge worthiness; the rest of us just shouldn't. Period. We should love and accept and encourage and invite all to come unto Christ.

When Elder Clayton Christiansen, then an area authority 70, visited our stake a number of years ago, he suggested that the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for the righteous – and he reminded us that we were all in the former category in one way or another. Further, he suggested if we couldn't smell tabacco smoke in our meetings, then we weren't working hard enough.

Knowing that, who are we to judge another who may think or act differently than we do? Indeed we're taught to invite with "persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge…without hypocrisy, and without guile" (D&C121:41-42).

The tent is big and there's plenty of room. Come on in!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

An addendum on agency

I've been reading Prince and Wright’s book David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, and Chapter 12 makes pretty clear that during the strong anti-communist period of the mid-twentieth century, rhetoric in the church, and even from President McKay certainly did equate free agency with some level of political freedom, which seems to contradict my latest post on agency.

In General Conference after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President McKay (then a counselor in the First Presidency) said, “To deprive an intelligent human being of his free agency is to commit the crime of the ages.... So fundamental in man’s eternal progress is his inherent right to choose, that the Lord would defend it even at the price of war” (Conference Report, April 1942, 71-73, quoted in Prince, 280).

That said, I still believe the scriptural reference to agency has little to do with political freedom and more to do with man's innate ability to choose, as in this report about President McKay (then church president) in the Los Angeles Times points out:

"People under Communist domination will some day rise against their rulers, the world leader of the Mormon church predicted today. White-haried Elder David O. McKay, Salt Lake City, said free will – the freedom to choose between right and wrong – is the people’s most valuable possession. ‘No power on earth,’ he said, ‘can take that freedom away’” (“Head of Mormons Predicts Revolt in Red Countries,” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1954, quoted in Prince, 292). As Prince and Wright observe, President McKay’s prophecy was true.

The second statement suggests that free will, free agency, transcends political constraints as I suggested in my original post.

That said, given the history of that period, it's not hard to see how some members might also make similar arguments to today’s that government policy which is seen to limit political freedoms might also be interpreted as limiting free agency. They can make that argument, but I do not agree with them.

Monday, July 19, 2010

On agency

I've been engaged in a discussion of agency on another blog, Eric Nielsen's Small and Simple. Thanks, Eric for the discussion and for getting my thoughts churning.

Eric's blog looks at the terms "free agency" and "moral agency." The phrase "moral agency" showed up in three talks in the November 1990 General Conference (President Faust, Elder Packer and Elder Nelson), and in 2006, Elder Christopherson spoke to the term "moral agency" at a BYU devotional (and was subsequently quoted in the Ensign last year):

“In years past we generally used the term free agency. That is not incorrect. More recently we have taken note that free agency does not appear in the scriptures. They talk of our being 'free to choose' and 'free to act' for ourselves (2 Nephi 2:27; 10:23; see also Helaman 14:30) and of our obligation to do many things of our own 'free will' (D&C 58:27). But the word agency appears either by itself or with the modifier moral: 'That every man may act in doctrine and principle … according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment' (D&C 101:78; emphasis added). When we use the term moral agency, we are appropriately emphasizing the accountability that is an essential part of the divine gift of agency. We are moral beings and agents unto ourselves, free to choose but also responsible for our choices” (“Moral Agency,” ENSIGN, June 2009, pp. 45-53, from a BYU devotional delivered January 2006).

I'm a simple guy, and I prefer the simpler term agency, as defined at

"Agency is the ability and privilege God gives us to choose and to act for ourselves. Agency is essential in the plan of salvation. Without it, we would not be able to learn or progress or follow the Savior. With it, we are 'free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil' (2 Nephi 2:27)."

Agency relates to the description of Adam and Eve after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree of knowledge: “And it is given unto them to know good from evil; wherefore they are agents unto themselves, and I have given unto you another law and commandment” (Moses 6:56).

As such, it seems there are some things agency is and some things it isn't. Agency describes our present state, where we as humans can and do make choices about how we live and what we do. We choose to keep the commandments or not. We choose to obey the law of the land or not. We choose to marry or not. Those choices are made possible because we are agents unto ourselves, because we have agency.

Agency (Free, Moral, or just plain Agency) does not suggest that I should be free to do whatever I want without consequence. It does not suggest that less government is better. It does not suggest that more government is better. It does not mean that teenagers do not need to listen to their parents. Nor does it mean that I can justify ignoring the commandments of God.

In fact, because I have agency, I am accountable for the choices I make. When I choose to act in one way or another, I also choose the consequences of that action. My agency does not free me from the consequence. And the imposition of a consequence does not limit my agency in any way. In fact, I would argue that the imposition of a consequence increases my agency, because it gives weight and meaning to my choices.

When Adam chose to partake of the fruit, he did so knowing the consequences of his choice, good and bad, and then chose. And we can do the same.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On being tolerant with ourselves

The other day I posted about my higher / different standards compared with those of others in my life. Today I'd like to talk about my own inability to reach my own standards.

I suspect we all fall short from time to time. Sometimes these are small things that barely merit a second thought, and sometimes they are mistakes that seem to haunt us for a long time. Without creating a list of my own insecurities and shortcomings, I can say that even seemingly insignificant mistakes of my youth creep back into my consciousness from time to time and still cause discomfort – no so much because I was bad or wrong, as I wasn't what I wanted to be.

In the Book of Mormon, Alma gives his son Corianton good advice in this matter: "only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance" (Alma 42:29). Corianton had made some pretty big mistakes, and you can read about them yourself in Chapters 39-32. But Alma sent him back to work. His counsel is that we ought to feel bad enough to change, but no worse than that.

The Lord himself reminds us regularly through the scriptures that he is anxious for us to turn back to him. In 3 Nephi, for instance, just before he appears to the Nephites he repeats a common refrain: "how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and have nourished you. And again, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings" (3 Nephi 10:4-5).

I believe the Lord is anxious to bless us, else why would he have suffered for us as he did? And if he is anxious to bless us, if he wants to gather us as a hen gathereth her chickens, then shouldn't we also want to be gathered?

A commenter on a recent post suggested we need to be tolerant with ourselves as we live the gospel. President Hinckley reminded us that we need to do the best we can. King Benjamin taught that we shouldn't run faster than we are able. Sometimes, even if we're not doing everything just right, we are doing what we can do. And it's good that we are doing what we can. Part of the blessing of the atonement is that the Lord helps to make up the difference when we need it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A higher standard?

Do you hold yourself to a higher standard than you do others? Sometimes I think I do, and I wonder if I should.

I tell myself I do it out of tolerance, and in an effort not to judge. But do I?

I grew up LDS (from about age 9) in a non-LDS community. Except for my sisters, I was usually the only Mormon in my school, and the older I got, the more divergent my standards (or better said in those early days, my family's standards) were from those of my friends and classmates. Now in the professional world, I work with very few church members, so I am in the same boat.

Even among church members, some of us attend more regularly; some go to the temple more often (and some don't go); some are more consistent about holding Family Home Evening than others, and so on.

My parents never taught me to have friends only in the church. It would have been difficult to do so as I was the only boy my age at church. But even if I had many friends at church, my folks would not have wanted me to isolate myself on some Mormon social island. We have also encouraged our kids to have friends at church and outside the church. We live in a non-Mormon community, but there are more kids my kids' ages at church than I had, and they are fortunate to have good friends there, too. But they also have friends at school who aren't LDS. Some of those friends are religious in their own families and others aren't.

While I know what my standards are, is it fair or reasonable to assume those I associate with will have the same standards? In high school I was fortunate to have a group of friends who, while they did not always share my standards, at least respected them. (The weekend of high school graduation, most handed me a can of Sprite at the door, warning me that the punch was spiked.) My work colleagues are respectful of my choice not to drink alcohol. And they know better than to ask me to go places where I wouldn't take my wife. And many have learned to be more mindful of their language around me (though I've never asked them to).

Some of our children as teenagers have had friends who really pushed my tolerance envelope, however. It almost seems they sought friends who were on the very edge, and I wondered how to respond. (To tell them not to associate with those kids would have been foolhardy; by this time they were old enough to make these choices, and they were making them.) We generally tried to be gracious when these friends came by, and the friends were generally respectful of us when they were in our home. But we worried.

The questions that linger in my mind: how do we teach our children right from wrong, and still teach our children to be tolerant of others? Are my standards higher or just different? We use the phrase "love the sinner, hate the sin", but even that phrase smacks of judgment to me. Or is it my place to understand what God expects of ME (and only me) and live accordingly? Is my telling myself that I have higher (or different) standards than others allow me (or force me) to judge others in, even in some passive way? And is that ok or not?

I'm interested in your thoughts and experience.

Friday, July 9, 2010

On seeking a testimony

In an ongoing discussion with a young friend, I included a conversation about young Nephi from the Book of Mormon as he sought to understand something his father had taught him. Nephi's father Lehi had a vision of the Tree of Life, an archetypal story which represents God's love and our quest for it, as well as pitfalls along the way. Just after Lehi finishes his account of his vision, Nephi records:

"For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot.

"And the Spirit said unto me: Behold, what desirest thou?

"And I said: I desire to behold the things which my father saw.

"And the Spirit said unto me: Believest thou that thy father saw the tree of which he hath spoken?

"And I said: Yea, thou knowest that I believe all the words of my father" (1 Nephi 11:1-5).

My questions to my young friend:

What do you learn from this scripture? Have you ever heard anyone teach something you want to know more about or something that you want to have a testimony of?

What did Nephi do?

- He DESIRED to know the things his father saw
- He BELIEVED the Lord could make them known to him
- He sat PONDERING in his heart
- He TOLD the Lord what he wanted
- He BELIEVED what his father said before he knew they were true

When we seek spiritual confirmation of truth, I think Nephi's experience is instructive.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

An Experiment

Alma invites us to experiment upon the word, to plant the seed of faith and see if it grows. It reminds me of the first grade bean experiment in which school children put lima beans in wet paper towels against the glass of a jar. Within a few days, the kids can see their beans sprouting.

I have sometimes wondered why the experiment Alma outlined worked so well for me but apparently not for others. I was fortunate in that I was a little bit like Nephi in that I wanted to know the truth of what my father had taught me. And over the years I looked for evidence to support that truth. And I found it. And many other people do, too.

But some others don't seem to. Someone very close to me, whose testimony of the Book of Mormon gave water and sunshine to my own barely sprouting one, finally parted ways with the church while I stayed strong. Another very close friend and I explored young adult questions of history and doctrine together and ended up on different sides of membership in the church. I am not in a position to know the hearts of these two people who still mean a great deal to me. And I suppose there is a possibility that they are right and I am wrong, though frankly I don't entertain that idea.

I've known quite a few young people who have wrestled with questions of faith and felt their pleas have gone unanswered. One told me once that he decided to try a year of inactivity to see if anything bad would happen. When it didn't, he concluded that church activity was not important. (I suggested that it might take longer to see the final results of that experiment, but his mind was made up, at least at the time.) Another, when I suggested he read the Book of Mormon again and put Moroni's promise to the test, told me he'd already read it; why bother reading it again? (I suggested that although he was very bright, there might be things he missed the first time around.)

Most troubling to me are those who claim they cannot get answers to their prayers. And I wonder (and sometimes ask) how long they have prayed, and for what? What in their view constitutes an answer? I think about Mother Teresa, who served the destitute and sick of India for 45 years who confided in her biography that she had felt separated from God for 50 years. And it causes me to wonder what kind of faith held her where she was despite her spiritual loneliness.

In my own life, times of no-answers (and I never had a 50 year stretch) grew into times of faith. Because sooner or later I came back to memories of things I did know, things I had felt, things I had read that were meaningful, uplifting and strength-giving.

Shortly after Oliver Cowdrey arrived in Harmony and began to work with Joseph Smith, he sought a blessing at Joseph's hand. It would not be unthinkable to imagine that he wanted renewed confirmation that he was on the right path, as he sequestered himself with this young prophet engaged in translating an ancient record. His answer in this blessing (after rather specific and pointed testimony of the truth of the work): "Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?" (D&C 6:22-23).

There is power in remembering our connections to the Divine. They are for me evidence in The Great Experiment of Faith. And I am grateful for them.