Monday, May 30, 2011

In Memorium

Today is Memorial Day in the US. It began as a tribute to fallen Union Soldiers after the Civil War, and now honors all those who have died in the service of their country.

I have no such soldiers in my own family that I knew personally, though in the generations that preceded mine, we have many veterans of various wars. And I have friends who have lost loved ones in war. And today I gratefully bow my head to honor those who have so served.

Our family has lived overseas a number of times because of my work. It's been exciting to live in Asia and Latin America, to learn new languages (or to try!) and new cultures, to see exotic place we otherwise would not have visited, and to learn about what makes us the same and different across the human family.

One thing my wife has worked particularly hard to do is to help our children to retain their American-ness while overseas. She and I are grateful to have been born in the country we were, and we have sought to share a love for that country with our children. And our children (and we) have had that patriotism tempered by our international experiences.

That is to say, I know that the United States of America is a blessed land and great country. But it is not the only great country. I know that many Americans, regardless of which side of the political aisle they occupy, love their country. But I know that citizens of other nations love their county, too. I know that American ingenuity and opportunity have allowed many to achieve the American dream -- rising out of poverty, improving one's circumstance, able to give their children better lives than they did. I believe I've been able to do this for my own children. But I also know that parents in many countries seek this same ideal and many achieve it.

I also know that the United States is not perfect. And by not perfect I do not mean disagrees with my flavor of politics (though there are plenty who do and that's ok).

We were talking about the Pledge of Allegiance yesterday. My son asked my daughter if they are still saying that every day in her elementary school. She reported they were and he was aghast! I pointed out that one of the reasons they are is because when I learned a few years ago they weren't, I wrote letters to the principal and to the school board encouraging them to do so.

My all knowing 14-year old son insisted that America is NOT a country of liberty and justice for all. And he cited some political hot buttons to bolster his case (he argues just like his father...). I allowed that the United States is not perfect. But it is also a place where for hundreds of years political power shifts from party to party peacefully. And a place where that political process allows for open and vigorous debate.

And it is a place I'm happy to call home.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"I like the way you swear"

I wasn’t going to bring it up, but after TWO related posts on Middle-aged Mormon Man (here and here), I couldn’t resist.

I don’t swear. Well, I don’t swear in front of other people. And when I do swear in front of other people, I don’t use swear words. Some of my favorites (really): By golly! and Jumping Jiminee! I also like Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat (but not as much as the other two).

We finished an awful project at work about a week ago. By awful I mean big, hard, unwieldy, lots of late changes, and (most important to me) lots of late nights in the office for several weeks on end. Toward the end, a co-worker and I were working late and I got frustrated by something we were doing where the data didn’t line up the way I wanted it to, and I used my favorite two phrases.

My friend smiled, looked at me, and said, “I like the way you swear.”

This is not the first time something like this has happened to me (though it’s the first time anyone told me he liked the way I swear). Years ago I was in a meeting with my boss. He let fly a string of profanity (very common in my company among men and women). He then looked at me and paused. “You don’t use words like that, do you?” I thanked him for noticing and confirmed I didn’t. He let that sink in and went back to our discussion (and didn’t censor himself in the process).

My parents were converts to the church. There was minor biblical swearing in our home before and after our conversion (though less after, and much less as time went on). My mother delighted in telling a story from their Sunday School class. (Spencer Condie and Orrin Hatch, both in grad school at the time, team taught the class.) Orrin was teaching and mentioned in a discussion of swearing (perhaps a 10-commandments lesson regarding taking the name of the Lord in vain?) that sometimes he would rather “swear than punch someone in the nostrile” (my misspelling is intentional as Mom reported he pronounced that last syllable with a long i sound).

Well, I also would rather not punch anyone in the nostrile. Hence my favorite swear words.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Inspiration or Revelation? Yes.

We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and we believe that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God. (Articles of Faith 1:9)

One of the hallmarks of the restoration of the gospel is that the heavens are still open, that God today operates by Amos’ Old Testament teaching, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7).

We also know, thanks to Joseph Smith’s experience, that God also reveals himself to individuals to answer prayers. Joseph followed the New Testament admonition of James to seek wisdom where he lacked it (see James 1:5), and received an answer he did not expect.

In today’s church, apostles and others speak of revelation and inspiration interchangeably. One may receive personal revelation or inspiration for one’s sphere of responsibility – for personal use, for one’s family as a parent, for one’s organization as an auxiliary leader or one’s quorum for a priesthood leader. This revelation may extend to callings to be issued, lessons to be taught, counsel to be given, service to be rendered. One should not expect to receive revelation beyond one’s scope of responsibility, however. I should not presume to receive inspiration for my bishop or for the church in general.

Some seek to distinguish between inspiration and revelation. Orson Scott Card in a recent article in Mormon Times, for instance, suggests revelation is more rare than inspiration (and more meaningful). A recent commenter on another blog suggested specific limitations for revelation, including that it must be written down and is given in the first person as if the Lord were speaking. This comment draws on a rather long article at Zomarah, and both suggest that because revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants are written down and published, all revelations must be.

I can’t support either Card’s or Zomarah’s point of view.

My dictionary defines inspiration: “to communicate ideas, etc., by a divine agency.” And revelation: “Something revealed” (which is defined: “to uncover and allow to be seen”). (The Oxford English Dictionary, which provides context over time, makes clear that in the 1800’s revelation referred to “communication of knowledge to man by a divine or supernatural agency” – quite similar to our modern definition of inspiration. The OED confirms that inspiration is “special immediate influence or action of the Spirit of God upon the human mind or soul.” )

The Bible dictionary in the LDS scriptures confirms the definition of revelation: “The English word revelation is translated from a Greek word apocalypse, meaning to make known or uncover.”

The Bible dictionary continues: “Continuous revelation from God to his saints, through the Holy Ghost or by other means, such as vision, dreams or visitations, makes possible daily guidance along true paths.”

The Guide to the Scriptures, another study guide available at, says revelation is “communication from God to his children on earth. Revelation may come through the Light of Christ and the Holy Ghost by way of inspiration, visions, dreams, or visits by angels.” The same guide says inspiration is “divine guidance given to man by God. Inspiration often comes by the Spirit in a variety of ways to the mind or heart of a person.”

Of course the scriptures teach us about receiving personal revelation. Moroni reminds us that through the Holy Ghost we may know the truth of all things (Moroni 10:5). Section 6 of the Doctrine and Covenants reminds us of Oliver’s experience seeking a testimony of Joseph’s work. The Lord repeatedly reminds him that he spoke peace to Oliver’s mind. And in Section 8 the Lord teaches Oliver that answers will come in his mind and in his heart (verse 2). Finally Section 9 completes the triptych by counseling Oliver to study it out in his own mind before bringing a solution for ratification. That counsel is similar to Moroni’s in his 10:3 that we should ponder the circumstance under which we received the Book of Mormon before seeking to learn of its truth.

We see the pattern repeating itself in the modern church. Before President Hinckley announced in 1998 the audacious goal of 100 temples by the year 2000, he had spoken at conferences for the three years prior about how the subject of temples and temple work had weighed on his mind. He spoke of the need to bring temples closer to the people, and he introduced the rather revolutionary idea of smaller locally-staffed temples that could be built and operated at significantly lower cost than larger more traditional ones. Whether that direction came in a first person dictated revelation or through the process outlined in Section 9 is immaterial to me. The Prophet of the Lord was directed to make a radical change in the way temples can be built in order to advance the Lord’s work. As I attend one of those smaller temples today in my area, I feel the confirming witness of the Lord’s guidance in that direction.

Edward Kimball’s biography of President Spencer Kimball’s presidency details the process President Kimball followed in seeking and receiving revelation regarding the extension of priesthood blessings regardless of race – a long process of his actively seeking, and finally receiving, the Lord’s direction – and the process of President Kimball’s helping his fellow apostles to gain the same witness that he did. And President McKay’s biography by Prince and Wright confirms that he sought similar revelation but did not receive it. We do not have a text of the priesthood revelation, nor do we know the form it took, but we have accounts of the spiritual manifestations associated with it as the Lord’s will was revealed to his prophet.

Carol Clark writes in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

"Inspiration" and "revelation" are sometimes used interchangeably by LDS leaders in explaining the source of prophetic authority. The First Presidency of the Church said, "Moses wrote the history of the creation, and we believe that he had the inspiration of the Almighty resting upon him. The Prophets who wrote after him were likewise endowed with the Spirit of revelation" (MFP 2:232). President Wilford Woodruff later noted, "This Church has never been led a day except by revelation. And He will never leave it. It matters not who lives or who dies, or who is called to lead this Church, they have got to lead it by inspiration of Almighty God" (MFP 3:225). [MFP refers to Messages of the First Presidency.]

For me, the dichotomy between inspiration and revelation is a false one. I’m grateful for the revelation that guides the church, and the revelation I can receive of its truth.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Progressive Gospel

In his talk in the final session of the April general conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said this:

Obviously as the path of discipleship ascends, that trail gets ever more narrow until we come to that knee-buckling pinnacle of the sermon of which Elder Christofferson just spoke: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” What was gentle in the lowlands of initial loyalty becomes deeply strenuous and very demanding at the summit of true discipleship.

Elder Holland referenced the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7), speaking of the gentle blessings of the beatitudes and the more demanding higher law of avoiding lust, not just adultery, of avoiding anger, not just murder.

There are those who claim that our standing with God is dependent only upon an attitude or a one-time confession of faith. While I agree that I cannot pave my own way to heaven with my good works, I also acknowledge that the Sermon on the Mount requires my effort to live as Jesus would have me live.

That way of living spans from my relationships with others (friends and foes alike) to my innermost thoughts to my treatment of the poor to my relationship to God.

A growth in the gospel leads, according to Elder Holland, to an increasingly steeper path. That’s no surprise to me. A growth in testimony leads to clearer understanding of what I don’t understand as much as what I do. A progression in the covenants and saving ordinances of the gospel leads me to increasingly poignant commitments with the Lord. And an increase in understanding leads me to greater responsibility for what I understand.

Fortunately the Lord provides iron rods and liahonas along the way. I may search the scriptures, learn from the living prophets and seek my own answers through prayer. But the fact is, I must search. learn and seek. I cannot simply rest on some plateau, satisfied that I’ve traveled far enough.

And I must also remember that I cannot save myself. My only choice is to rely upon the merits of Christ, who is the author and the finisher of my faith (see Moroni 6:4).

Monday, May 16, 2011

Second attempt: Quality Prayers

I posted this last week, but a glitch at Blogger made it difficult for nearly everyone to find it. So I'll try again today...

It’s easy to think about the great prayers of the scriptures. The Savior in Gethsemane, Enos on his hunting trip, the brother of Jared with his sixteen stones, Joseph Smith in the grove. Prayers with purpose in places set apart with the attention of the prayer-givers focused intently on the matter at hand.

And yet, I also think about a prayer my MTC companion told me about. Late into our missions we were serving in the same zone. We happened to be on a split together and he told me about a moment with his companion that had so upset him that when he went to bed that night, all he could pray was this: “Heavenly Father, I’m so mad I could spit.”

It helps me to remember that God hears both kinds of prayers. And yes, of course the first kind is valuable (and more likely to be fruitful), the second also has its place as we lay our burdens at the Lord’s feet.

Sometimes I don’t know what to pray. And sometimes I’m so mad I could spit. And sometimes I’m so tired I fall asleep before the prayer ends. And sometimes I can pray in a place set apart from my routine, with purpose and focus.

Sometimes my prayers are those omnibus prayers – mention everyone by name and specific concerns I’m aware of. Sometimes my prayers are more general, grouping like folks together (“the kids” or “the kids at home”). Sometimes my prayers are focused on just one person – my wife or one of my children or another family member or friend – or one event. Sometimes my prayers are fixed in time and space and sometimes that prayer lives in my heart throughout the day.

It’s comforting to know that God hears them all.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Release

It’s happened only rarely to me in the past, and never quite like this. I was released from my calling yesterday.

Usually I’m released because we have moved. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been released without moving and not called into another position. And this time, I asked to be released. Well, sort of.

I come from one of those families where we don’t seek callings or releases. But my father taught me long ago that there’s nothing wrong with pointing out to a priesthood leader a change in circumstances that may move him to inquire if a change is warranted.

That was the case for me. Between some family things going on and the demands of my wife’s calling, and some things our bishop had said about needing to find callings for some folks in the ward, and the fact that I actually have another calling, I felt prompted to speak to my bishop.

He was quite understanding. And he agreed to consider my situation prayerfully. And in the end, he determined it was time to release me.

I’m quite excited about the brother who will replace me. He has an energy and vigor that will do the calling good. And I’m also at peace about my stepping aside for now. I will miss the association with those with whom I served. That, for me, is always the sweetest part of a church calling. And in another season (or whenever the Lord decides He’s ready), I’ll do more again.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Faith, Dinosaur Bones and Cavemen

When I went to my high priests’ group a few weeks ago to discuss Elder Hales’ talk on Agency and Bishop Edgely’s talk on Faith (both from the October 2010 conference), I did not expect we’d also be talking about dinosaurs and cavemen.

I love my high priests’ group. I have lots of friends there who truly are my brothers. We laugh together, we help each other, we mourn together and comfort one another. Our gospel discussions tend to stay in the middle of the road; it’s a “stick to the manual” group for sure.

So this week, our instructor (who really does a great job with the Teaching For Our Times lessons -- he prepares carefully, asks thought provoking questions, and leads good discussions), wandered into a discussion of dinosaurs and cavemen and their relationship to gospel teaching. His point was delivered by a bishop of his years ago: This is something you don’t need to worry about as it’s not essential to your salvation.

Then I stuck my foot in it. I commented that my fourteen year old son was wrestling with the perceived battle between religion and science and that we talked about it often. It was not something he was willing to put on the shelf or stop worrying about. I had hoped to hear helpful suggestions and ideas about how to teach faith to a teenager, and I did get some of that. But I also heard:

1. Various theories of how dinosaur bones came to the earth (including cosmic dump trucks bringing in material from other worlds and that Adam may have been an alien)

2. That Science was written in today’s world by atheists specifically to exclude God, and if one carefully reviewed the facts, he would see that the scientists are manipulating data to their own ends

Fascinating (and just a little disturbing). What I realized is that we come to these questions with our own level of knowledge and our own experience. No one in my group meeting that day is a scientist; most are folks with business or engingeering degrees, though one is a medical technician and another a social worker. I was, therefore, not terribly surprised that we didn’t have any serious students of geology or biology or zoology among us (at least none who were willing to speak up). And most are around 50 years old or more, like me, so unless they’ve made a specific effort, their impression of church teachings is likely based on 30+-year old seminary lessons.

One group member suggested (as he always does; his faith is rock-solid, and well protected by his particular approach) that we need to teach our kids to remember what they know when they find questions they can’t answer right away.

I agree with that idea. But I also agree that there’s value in understanding what my church teaches and what the scriptures teach. (I’ve mentioned to my son half-jokingly that if he’s going to leave the church, he ought to be sure he’s leaving the right one, and not leave his church because he disagrees with what some other church teaches.)

We also came around to the idea that there are many in the church who have carefully studied the science and continue to be faithful latter-day saints. There’s value in learning how they’ve done it.

In the end, not every issue is important to every person. And what’s important to me now is different from what was important when I was younger. But the things that are important are important. It’s ok to ask questions, and to seek answers. And, as my friend said, it’s good to remember what we already know in the face of what we don’t.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Begging and Bargaining With God

This weekend I remembered something that happened to me years ago.

I was begging God to let me live. And bargaining by offering whatever He wanted. Period.

Now, King Benjamin does teach us that we’re all beggars, but I’m not sure this is what he had in mind.

Here’s the backstory: I was on a plane from Hiroshima, Japan to Seoul, Korea. I felt an incredible tightness in my chest. Breathing became very difficult. And I hurt!

I was not yet 35 years old, but I thought I was having a heart attack. I kept trying to remember those warning signs I’d read about. Was it a heart attack? Whatever it was, it hurt.

And I was on a Korean airliner surrounded by Korean and Japanese nationals. And I don’t speak either Korean or Japanese. (And did I mention it hurt?)

So I prayed. I probably started off pretty calmly, trying to keep my cool. But very quickly, my prayer escalated to pleading in the first degree. Please, God, don’t let me die. I’ll serve any way I can, wherever you want me to serve. I’ll do whatever you want me to do. Please don’t let me die on this airplane. Just let me land. Please. Please. Please.

All things considered, it was pretty selfish, wasn’t it? I don’t remember praying not to leave my wife a widow or my children fatherless. Don’t let me die.

And all those things I promised? I’d already promised all those things years before.

Well, I didn’t die. And I was grateful for that. By the time we landed, the chest pains had subsided (though I felt bruised for the two days I was in Seoul, like someone had punched me in the sternum).

When I got back home to Hiroshima (we were living there as a family at the time), I called my dad and told him about what had happened. Based on what my dad told me, it probably wasn’t a heart attack. It was probably a hiatal hernia (where the top of the stomach presses up into the esophagus).

A few weeks later the same thing happened as I was waiting for a meeting to start. Same 30 minutes of torture. Same pressure and pain. As it subsided I began to put the pieces together. Just before the second incident I had eaten lunch. Just before the airplane incident I’d eaten the sandwich served me on the plane. I had tried the horseradish at lunch (usually I never eat it). And I suspected horseradish in the sandwich on the plane. (Two years later I got some dip at a US restaurant that caused the same reaction and we confirmed it had horseradish in it.) For whatever reason, the horseradish produced the symptoms of the hiatal hernia.

I’ve thought about my begging for my life on that plane and my selfish prayer. I’m really grateful I didn’t have a heart attack, and I’m very grateful I did not die on that plane. I’m glad I didn’t leave my wife a widow and my children fatherless. But I’m not proud of my prayer that day.

In the intervening years (nearly two decades), I’ve matured a bit. First, I avoid horseradish at all costs. And I exercise 5-6 days a week to keep my heart healthy. And I have an annual physical. But I also have come to change the way I pray.

For many, many years, my assumption was that my personal righteousness was a golden ticket to having my righteous desires granted, so all I needed to do was make them known. As I’ve studied it in the meantime, I’m come to realize that there are really very few in the scriptures who are given that promise (one of the Nephis and Elijah spring to mind, but not many more).

I’ve learned instead to seek the Lord’s will for me. And to stop handing God my punch list with a perfunctory “Thy will be done.” Now my prayers most often (I hope!) are more along the lines of, “Here’s my situation. Here’s what I think would be helpful. What do you think?”

I do still seek the Lord’s blessings. And I do fast and pray for certain specific things along the way. But I hope my heart is more open to the Lord’s will for me rather than dictating mine to Him.

I can’t say how I’d pray if I were on that Korean airliner today, but I hope it would be more along the lines of, “This really hurts and I don’t know what’s going on. Of course I’ll accept Your will, but I would prefer to live through this so that my wife and kids are not alone.”