Monday, August 30, 2010

What if God (or the church) changes?

This is my final entry in a short series on our relationship to God and His truths. The other two are here and here.

This is really a trick question, as I'm sure you can tell. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. Nephi taught this truth to his brothers (see 1 Nephi 10:18), and the Lord Himself taught it repeatedly elsewhere in the scriptures as well.

We know that application of the gospel has changed through the ages, but God has not changed. For instance:

• The Old Testament offered the Law of Moses; the New Testament offers a higher law, and yet the Savior taught that the two great commandments – to love God and to love our neighbor, we consistent with "the law and the prophets" (see Matt 22:40).

• From the time of Moses, only the tribe of Levi administered ordinances around sacrifices. Today all worthly male members of the church may hold the priesthood, either Aaronic or Melchizedek.

• In the Savior's time, the gospel was preached only to the Jews, not to the Gentiles. And to Peter, after the death of the Savior, came the instruction to go to the Gentiles.

Did God change? Did the gospel change? I think not. But the application of the gospel changed.

The Book of Mormon makes clear that the plan of salvation or the plan of happiness – that plan that sent the Savior to atone for our sins – was in place before the foundation of the world, that it was always Father in Heaven's intent to send a Savior. The Good News of the Gospel, namely the Lord's atoning sacrifice and our ability to repent, has been around since the beginning. Again, the Book of Mormon makes clear to us that even in the days of the Law of Moses, people looked forward to the coming of Christ.

Some of my friends make a big deal about changes in the church in our day. Polygamy. The extension of the priesthood to all worthy male members. The organization of the leading bodies of the church. Yes, even a cursory study of church history reveals that ours has been a dynamic church. The Lord did not deliver to the prophet Joseph the administration of today's church fully formed. (It would have seemed a little top-heavy to have a First Presidency, a Quorum of the Twelve and all those quorums of Seventy with only six members in 1830).

It is little surprise to me that the church has changed over time as the needs of the saints have changed. When the Lord revealed the principle of baptism for the dead, members rushed out and performed baptisms for their dead relatives without recording names, without the order we now associate with those ordinances. Only later did the Lord clarify that the saints needed to perform those baptisms in a temple (when one was available) and with a recorder to witness the ordinances. Does that mean the saints were wrong to baptize as they did at first? No. But it does mean that over time the Lord introduced more order to the process.

I trust in the prophets, seers and revelators that I sustain. I trust that they take inspired action in leading the Lord's church. I do not understand everything they have done through the years. But I trust that they seek and receive the Lord's will.

In recent years we've received interesting insight into the workings of the senior councils of the church through biographies of some of the brethren. We've learned (and subsequent reviews of history have confirmed) that the brethren do not always agree, that there is sometimes vigorous discussion among those councils. I am grateful that such discussion exists. The Lord counsels us to study questions out in our minds before presenting our proposal to him. I'm glad the brethren follow that pattern, too.

Whether the brethren's impetus for such discussion is driven by inspiration, their own agenda or by outside forces is of little consequence to me. The Word of Wisdom came from a question that Emma asked Joseph. The first manifesto in 1880 was at least prompted by political realities facing the church. But in the end, the instructions, directions and counsel that followed those questions came from the Lord on His timetable and according to His will.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

How do we discover God?

In my last entry, I suggested it was up to us to find God, not to make Him into what we want Him to be. Here I discuss how to find Him. In a future entry, I'll talk about how I deal with changes in the church.

I like that joke about an economist stranded on a desert island with a case full of canned food, but no way to get into the cans. Says the economist: "Assume a can opener..."

In my life, I started assuming that God exists. Though they were not Mormons then, my parents were believers. We said prayers at night; my folks read us Bible stories; we went to church. I don't think I ever wondered IF God exists – for me He was always there.

I've tried to give that same gift to my children, too. Not all of them have accepted my faith, but many of them have at least acknowledged the existence of some kind of God. I recognize that not everyone comes from my perspective. There are many for whom science has replaced God (even while there are scientists whose faith in God has grown because of their science; a recent poll reported on NPR showed that over half of scientists at elite US universities believe in God). And there are those who have never considered the possibility of (or need for) God in their lives.

I don't have a clear answer for those folks. I don't know how to start someone on a believing path, except to say, "Here's my experience…." If my experience resonates, then perhaps someone else will inquire further and come to his own understanding.

But if we assume God exists, our next step is to sort out what that means for us. In my tradition, God is a fixed point, and I must align myself to Him. God is the same yesterday, today and forever, one eternal round.

Clearly the scriptures are a starting point for our understanding. Scriptures are written by prophets and other inspired people, and they record God's interactions with His children at different times and places. Some religious traditions derive their authority from the written word. Of course the Bible is a common source book. But the Bible I read is in translation (I don't read Hebrew or Greek). For me, there are other books of scripture which complement the Bible, namely the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. The first is another ancient record of God's dealing with His people, but set on the American continent. The main story of the Book of Mormon spans 600 BC to about 400 AD. The Doctrine and Covenants includes revelations to prophets in our day, since the first half of the 1800's.

For me, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants offer clarification of and reinforcement for truths taught in the Bible, and all of these books work to point me to an understanding of God.

The emergence of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants also depend on another source of truth, namely modern revelation. Mormons believe that our church is a restoration of Christ's church in the latter-days through the prophet Joseph Smith. Among other things, Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon and received most of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. And he has been followed since his death by other men who we also accept as prophets.

The teachings of those prophets also help me to understand God and His will for me.

Finally (for this entry), I have my own personal experience. Through scripture, God makes clear that He will hear and answer my own prayers. James 1:5 from the New Testament says, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him." Moroni 10:5 from the Book of Mormon teaches "by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." In addition to what I read and what I hear, I can seek a confirming witness from God. In Doctrine and Covenants 6:23 we read, "What greater witness can ye have than from God?"


Monday, August 23, 2010

Do we get to pick and choose?

This is the first of a few essays that will be broadly linked. In this one, I explore the idea that we need to align ourselves with God instead of trying to make Him into what we want Him to be.

Have you ever met anyone who said, "I could never believe in a God who _____________," and then filled in the blank with the thing they could not tolerate.

This attitude strikes me as odd.

Perhaps it's my father's voice in my head that causes my discomfort. My family joined the church in the late 1960's; I was the youngest of my parents' four children and we were all baptized together. My parents had been very active in their protestant church prior to our joining the Mormons, but my father had expressed his concern about our church's changing because of social changes at the time.

My father's view was that if God is God, and if He does not change, then the church should not vote about what was true this year or not. For my father, God was a fixed point, a given. And it was up to us to discover who He was, not to create Him in or change Him to the image we liked.

So when someone tells me he prefers the God of the New Testament to the God of the Old Testament, I'm confused. (Now I've written before about the fact that the Old Testament also teaches the need for love of God and love of fellowman, just as the New Testament does.) Or if he wants to select a la carte the characteristics of a God he can believe in.

It seems to me what our job is in this regard is to discover God, not to create Him. We can discover Him through study of the scriptures, through revelation through the prophets (including modern prophets), and have those truths ratified through our own personal spiritual experience.

Personally I'm guided by some counsel I received from Elder Theodore Burton of the Seventy while I was on my mission. He taught in a zone conference that those things the Lord felt most strongly about He tended to say more than once in the scriptures. He suggested that teachings that appear only in one obscure verse might not be as significant as those broad themes that get repeated play.

Perhaps you've had a similar experience to mine that in General Conferences I sometimes hear themes emerge from a particular session. It may be I hear those themes because I come to the conference with questions, but I don't think that's always the case.

In any event, I am reluctant to couch my faith and testimony in terms of what I want God to be like; instead I try to understand how He has revealed Himself to be. My understanding continues to grow and develop, even 43 years since my baptism. But it's not God that's changing. It's me. And hopefully, I'm changing for the better.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hearts of the Children Turned to Their Fathers

My mother-in-law has just completed a mission at the Genealogy Library in Salt Lake City. Her service was a great blessing to the patrons of the library, I'm sure, and it was a great blessing to us, as well. For instance, she helped me advance one of my Norwegian lines a few more generations by pointing out to me available online Norwegian church records. She also supplied lots of names for baptisms that my son and daughters could do when they visited the temple, and that my wife and I have been able to do work on, as well.

One of the greatest gifts, however, is more than the tabulation and processing of names for ordinance work (though that, too, has been important and rewarding). She took advantage of the vast resources of the new Church History Library to research and compile individual histories for some of her ancestors. She the developed a number of blogs on which she has included the results of her findings.

In the process, she sought to find "true" stories, not family folklore. She learned, for instance, that Ann Ratcliffe's (her great-great grandmother) story was different from the family fables she'd heard. The family fable said that Ann had married Thomas Karren against her father's will, and had jumped out of a second story window to do it, injuring her leg and walking with a limp for the rest of her life. Very colorful, but not true. Instead (and the story is recorded at Thomas's site, not Ann's), Ann's father died and twelve-year-old Ann (somehow encouraged by her grandmother) hired Thomas Karren (who was six years her senior) to help in the family bakery (he had been working for a competitor in Liverpool at the time). Several years later they determined to marry (against her mother's wishes, but with her grandmother's approval). He joined the church in Liverpool and immigrated to Nauvoo, and she went with him, though she did not join the church until February 1846, just before leaving Nauvoo for the west; she was baptized and endowed on the same day.

My mother-in-law was able to read journals and contemporary accounts of many of these early members, and use their own words in many cases, or accounts of those who knew them personally. She also in the process became aware of similar work being done on her relatives by others and has linked to some of those, as well. And rather than producing books that would have been a prohibitive expense, she compiled the information in a series of blogs that will allow for updates as further information is learned.

What a great gift!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Helpless Children; Helpless Parents

I have seven children, five of whom are adults. As our kids have worked through the normal stages of development, we've often cited the oldest life-stage we're dealing with and pronounced it as the "hardest time to parent children" – you know: toddlers are the hardest children to parent; no, teenagers are the hardest to parent; no, young adults are hardest to parent.

In fact, they're all hard. Because the stakes are so high. I am certain, looking back, that my parents also had sleepless nights wondering about the choices I was making. Not that I was doing awful things, but just wondering if it would all turn out all right. Whatever hang ups my parents may have had (and I'm sure they had some, but I'm happy not to enumerate them), I do know that my parents genuinely wanted what was best for me, and that generally meant something better than what they had as kids.

And they delivered. My father worked hard to provide a comfortable life for us. We weren't rich (as Mom regularly reminded us – "We can't afford that!"), but I always had shoes that fit (even if my pants didn't, since that pre-school year trip to JC Penney had to last all year), plenty to eat (though there were a lot of casseroles – shepherd's pie was my least favorite followed closely by tuna noodle casserole), and a family that loved me.

My mother was a big believer in letting us fight our own battles. I remember coming home from the Junior High bus one day, after a near fist fight with a kid who had been picking on me. I had not been hit (our mutual friends separated us and saved me from injury, if not embarrassment). Mom pointed out that in that case she hadn't meant I should literally fight my battle, but she still didn't tell me what I'd done was wrong. And she didn't rush to call another parent to smooth things out for me. I don't think it would ever have occurred to her to do such a thing.

So you'd think I'd be able to sit and watch my kids make their own mistakes and patiently wait for things to resolve themselves. As if. I have to sit on my hands, bite my tongue, bide my time, and hope I don't explode with more "help" than they need.

The divine model is more like my mom. Heavenly Father allows us to flounder. He gives us a chance to learn truth and to practice it (and practice and practice) until we get it right. And he allows us not to get it right. I remember in a Fortran class years ago our professor suggested the computer was infinitely patient: as many times as we typed a line of code wrong, the computer would calmly respond: "Data entry error" (or whatever the error code was). Our Father in Heaven is also patient. The Lord reminds us that He is anxious to gather us as a hen gathers her chicks, and that his arms are outstretched still, but we must walk to Him. And He waits. And I hope I can learn to do the same.

Friday, August 13, 2010

On guilt and shame

A conversation over on Mormon Matters has me thinking about guilt and shame. And it's related to my post here earlier this week on Section 121 and how we exert influence in our families.

The Oxford American Dictionary (the one that's been on my desk for nearly 30 years) says guilt is "the fact of having committed some offense" and "a feeling that one is to blame for something." Shame, on the other hand, is "a painful mental feeling aroused by a sense of having done something wrong or dishonorable or improper or ridiculous."

So guilt is a fact and a feeling rising out of that fact. Shame, on the other hand, is by definition painful, and is driven by the sense of having done something. Also of interest from my dictionary is the verb form of shame: "to bring shame on, to make ashamed, to compel by arousing feelings of shame."

My wife and I have taken (and taught) a number of parenting classes over the years, and we've learned that shaming behavior is not good. It can damage relationships, and it can damage a child's development. And it seems wholly inconsistent with the characteristics taught in Section 121.

I've observed shaming behavior as a near art form. In Germany over 30 years ago, you could board a street car without a ticket. But if the conductor happened to board and catch you without a ticket, not only were you subject to a fine, but also to a shaming lecture in front of all the passengers. On my second or third day in Mannheim, I boarded the streetcar with my fellow missionaries to go to church. I had purchased a 72-hour pass for the streetcar to get me through the weekend, but the moment I saw the conductor get on board, I realized I'd left the pass in my other suit. Before she got to me, the conductor began berating an old man on the car. Her speech about how all the other passengers had paid and why hadn't he, and how his service in the war didn't give him a free pass to ride the streetcar, dug into my embarrassed heart. I knew that if he was subject to her ridicule, how much more would I, a young foreigner, be deserving of whatever she threw at me?

When she got to me, however, I explained my predicament. I told her the truth – my ticket was in my other suit. She noticed my name tag, and my three clone-like companions, paused (while my heart stopped beating, I'm sure), and quietly instructed me to buy another ticket from the driver. I was guilty. I felt guilty. But I had not been shamed. Indeed in my case the mercy she showed me was a gift far greater than I had expected. I can only assume now that she had seen plenty of missionaries produce their passes with such regularity, so she was disposed to believe me. Whatever the reason, I was grateful. And I never boarded another streetcar in Mannheim without a pass.

Alma taught his son Corianton about the value of guilt as a means of helping us to know when to turn back to the Lord: "only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance" (Alma 42:29).

I'm impressed when I remember the care my parents took when correcting me to allow me to keep my dignity, to help me learn right from wrong but also to have the hope that I could learn and improve. It is a lesson that I've learned slowly as a parent, and that I continue to learn.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Section 121 and Children

You may be familiar with the key (and oft-quoted) verses from Doctrine and Covenants 121:

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death
(v. 41-44).

The question came up in the comments section of another blog about whether these principles apply to children. The questioner wondered if it's ok for parents to be strict with their children, and to allow these principles to govern adult-adult relationships, as if those two things were separate.

My answer on that blog and here is that the most important relationships I have are in my own family. And the most likely place for me to abuse my power and influence is in my family. As a result, these principles are most important within the family.

Frankly, the "because I'm your father and I said so" reason for following my decrees hasn't ever worked well with my kids. My own parents did not play that card with me, and it took me surprisingly long to learn not to play it with my kids.

My own father taught me in word and deed from the time he joined the church that I should not respect him because he holds the priesthood or because he is my father. He taught me that I should respect him because he is worthy of my respect: he was loving, hard working, full of integrity, kind, and fair. Generally he spoke to me calmly (I was the youngest in my family, and it's likely that I benefited from my father's experience with my older siblings). There were few (if any) ultimatums.

That said, my father was not permissive. He had high expectations for us, and he communicated those expectations. He and my mother imposed consequences when I ran afoul of family rules. But I never questioned my parents' love for me. And looking back, I can see that they exercised restraint in their response to some of my youthful mistakes. Their corrections, which came with the clarity of a sharp photograph, not the harshness of an acid (to paraphrase Theodore M. Burton), were gentle but clear. And I was well aware of my parents' love for me because they told me and because they showed me in many ways.

If we believe that our families will last after this life, then we have all the more motivation to operate in a way that attracts our family members to us. A good friend pointed out the final verse of Section 121; when we operate according to the principles outlined above, then:

The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever (v. 46).

This friend pointed out that our dominion as parents is our family. And having our family – our children – flow to us without compulsory means is a wonderful image, and is my goal.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

On mercy and grace

As Mormons, we often quote that verse from 2 Nephi 25: "…it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do" (v. 23). I understand why we quote it, and what we mean by it. We do not believe that we are saved by grace alone, but also by works, as signs of our faith. So taught James that faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

But in our zeal to do works, let us not lose sight of the gift of grace. Yes, we need ordinances (see D&C 84:19-22). Yes, we need to keep the commandments as we covenant to do (see D&C 20:77).

But let us also remember that "salvation is free" (2 Nephi 2:4) and that it comes "through the atoning blood of Christ" (Mosiah 3:18). In our desire to highlight our own responsibility for our own choices in this life, let us not forget that the opportunity to choose, the ability to repent, and the hope to return home to our Father in Heaven is all through the grace, the sacrifice and the enduring love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

My father sought this balance in his life. My observation was that he was slow to speak of things he did of himself, and I heard him express reluctance to demand blessings from the Lord. His view seemed to be that God was where God was, and it was my father's task to find Him and follow Him. It was one reason he converted to Mormonism when he did. The church he had been attending seemed to vote regularly on how to interpret the changing mores of the late 1960s, and my father was uncomfortable with the idea that we could somehow dictate God's will.

I'm grateful for a plan that allows me to change, and I acknowledge that this opportunity comes only through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, whose atoning sacrifice allows me to repent, to turn to Him, to improve myself.

King Benjamin taught that we are beggars, and that we must turn to Christ if we are to have hope of salvation (Mosiah 4:19-20). On my best days, I remember what King Benjamin taught.