Monday, November 28, 2011

Pure Religion: Does it require a church?

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world (James 1:27).

I admit that for most of my adult life, I’d paraphrase the first half of this scripture and leave the second half out. As we discussed it yesterday in Sunday School, however, I realized the problems such an approach causes: One can visit the fatherless and widows and relieve their suffering without a church.

Is that what James really means?

We developed a list of things “religion” is – primarily a system of belief or faith. Our instructor moved on before it occurred to me that religion is also the performance of ordinances.

The key is in the second half of the verse: keeping oneself unspotted from the world. The simple answer is that we should keep the commandments to keep ourselves unspotted. And yet we all sin. We all have need of repentance. And we all have need of the sacrament as part of that process of ritualized cleansing.

Without the church, without the priesthood, there is no sacrament. Nor are there other saving ordinances of the gospel. And without those, we cannot be unspotted from the world. Indeed, having the church and the temple as an occasional place of refuge is a great blessing in the second half of Peter’s description of pure religion. And, if we heed prophetic counsel, it can also be an enabler in the first half.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Grateful Heart

A sign hangs on our kitchen which has a quotation from George Herbert: "Thou that has given us so much, give us one more thing, a grateful heart."

Herbert was a Welsh-born English poet, orator and cleric. He served a stint in Parliment during the reign of King James, but returned to the ministry after King James' death.

I was surprised and happy to find the poem from which the quotation was lifted (and apparently altered). The final stanza is offset just as Herbert had it done when the poem was originally published:

by George Herbert (1593- 1633)

Thou that hast giv'n so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee
By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And says, If he in this be crossed,
All thou hast giv'n him heretofore
Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst
To save.

Perpetual knockings at thy door,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,
And comes.

This not withstanding, thou wenst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay thou hast made a sigh and groan
Thy joys.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes, than groans can make;
But that these country-airs thy love
Did take.

Wherefore I cry, and cry again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankful heart obtain
Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Atonement Blessings: Give Peace A Chance

I am grateful for the atonement. Why? Because of what I have come to learn through my own experience with the atonement. The thoughts for this post grew out of discussions my wife and I have had about the atonement as she prepared a talk for this past weekend’s stake conference on the same subject. (Her talk was outstanding, by the way!)

Perhaps the first blessing of the atonement (though maybe not the first one I realized in my own life) is the free gift of resurrection. Through the Savior’s resurrection, we all overcome the physical death that comes to us because of the fall.

The first blessing I realized from the atonement, however, is the gift of repentance – the opportunity to right a wrong. I can think of times when my parents taught me this principle when I was a small child, before I really needed repentance (though we didn’t know that at the time; we didn’t leave our protestant congregation for the LDS church until I was nearly nine). I learned as small child the power of apologizing and trying to correct a mistake. As my wife points out in her talk, the value of repentance is that it helps us get in a place to feel the influence of the Holy Ghost.

And for many years, I believed repentance was the key to the blessings of the atonement in our lives. As a bishop some years ago I watched the atonement come alive for more than one person who sought to return to the Lord’s path. And as a father, I’ve enjoyed the healing balm of the atonement as I’ve recognized and corrected errors in my own parenting.

But in the last five years or so, I’ve come to understand another benefit of the atonement, namely that I can forgive someone else. I had always assumed the atonement was so I could seek the Lord’s forgiveness. But now I believe it is just as important for me to forgive. And I can only do that effectively because of the atonement.

In Alma 7 we read of the power of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ:

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities (v. 11-12).
Because the Lord has taken upon himself the pains and afflictions and infirmities of every kind (including mine!), I can freely forgive. I can do so without expectation of retribution or recompense. I can allow societal and legal consequences to fall where they may, but I do not need to exact my pound of flesh from one who hurts me because the Savior has made me whole. The atonement has offered me the healing balm I need.

One of the key products of forgiveness for me is peace, because when I forgive, I can leave behind the anger and resentment that I otherwise carry around with me. The act of “letting it go” lightens my burden (by laying it at the Savior’s feet).

My wife concluded her talk with this verse from John. It is, for me, the gift of the atonement most available to me in this life:

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:27).

That's a peace I'd like to give a chance.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Unbridled Optimism

When I was studying literature and theatre history back in my BYU days (when we rode dinosaurs to class and dirt was new), the prevailing thought was that there would never be a great LDS tragedy. The reason: the atonement is essentially a message of joy and reconciliation, and tragedy is not part of The Plan.

That may be, but it still seems there are plenty of folks in and out of the church who struggle, who do not see hope, or who simply prefer to tear down rather than build up. Optimism, they say from a jaded perspective, is naive; it ignores the pain and suffering of the world; criticism makes us stronger.

My son taught family night last night, and his lesson came from Gordon B. Hinckley’s Standing For Something (thanks to my lovely wife’s arm twisting – er, encouragement).

My son started with the quotation from the beginning of Chapter Nine ("Optimism in the Face of Cynicism"):

My plea is that we stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight. I am suggesting that as we go through life, we “accentuate the positive.” I am asking that we look a little deeper for the good, that we still our voices of insult and sarcasm, that we more generously compliment and endorse virtue and effort (p.99).

Perhaps because my son is 15, and perhaps because I am his father, my son tends to favor cynicism, so his choice of this topic was ironic and delightful. It’s frankly a topic my lovely wife addresses regularly in our home. And she, I must say, is a pretty great example of seeing the positive without living in a sugar-coated world.

When I think about President Hinckley, it’s hard not to think of his unbounded optimism. He spoke often about the positive things of the world in which we live, the brightness of the future of the church, and hope for those who love the Lord.

I’m not surprised by his optimism, either. He was a prophet. He more than anyone understood the way this game of life will end. He understood better than most who would win, and he was aligned with the winning side.

Optimism does not require our ignoring suffering. But what it allows us to do is to have hope in the face of suffering. The savior’s atonement allows us relief from our personal suffering, knowing the Lord knows what we feel and experience. And as we bear one another’s burdens and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, as we care for the poor and needy, as we live our lives filled with the pure love of Christ, we can be conduits of hope for others.

I do not believe President Hinckley’s optimism was based in naiveté, but rather grew out of his prophetic mantel. And I’m happy to try to reflect it in my own life, as well.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Important, But Not Essential"

I had an interesting phone call this week. I was a participant in the latest Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll. The caller identified herself as being a part of the Pew Research group, assured me it was not a sales call, and confirmed I was the youngest adult male over 18 in the house.

She asked a number of sets of questions. First were questions on specific political figures. I was to rate each one on a four point scale, and she asked about Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. (Only Sarah Palin got the lowest mark from me.)

She asked about my religious affiliation and when I selected Mormon from her list, she then confirmed that I was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (her list included the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Community of Christ and “another Mormon group”).

She asked a series of questions in which I had to choose the statement I agreed most with (the toughest of those was a question on abortion because there was no nuance in the statements). She asked a group of questions about things that were extremely important, somewhat important, not very important and not at all important, including having children, being married, and having a high paying job.

She asked about whether I thought Mormons (or other religious groups) were targets of discrimination. And she asked whether I thought Mormonism was similar (very similar, somewhat similar, not very similar, not at all similar) to Judaism, Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity and Islam. She asked if I held a current temple recommend and confirmed my age and income level.

But most interesting to me was the section from which this post’s title comes. She asked some specific doctrinal and behavioral questions and asked for each item if I thought the item was essential, important but not essential, not very important, or not at all important. The items included believing that Joseph Smith was a prophet and translated the Book of Mormon, caring for the poor and needy, believing that Jesus was resurrected, abstaining from coffee, abstaining from alcohol, not attending R-rated movies, among others.

As she worked through her list, I did a quick calculus in my mind to sort out what parts of my beliefs are essential and what parts are important but not essential. I created a quick forced-ranking, and I acknowledged that just because I have a testimony of the truthfulness of a particular thing, it does not necessarily mean that thing is essential.

In the end, for me at the moment, there were few essentials: acceptance of Christ’s mission and keeping his commandments. Everything else was important but not essential. Even as I worked that through in my mind (in the few seconds we stayed in this section), I realized that although logic would suggest an acceptance of Joseph’s role as a prophet would make my keeping the commandments revealed through him easier, it was not essential in my rubric of the essential things’ being acceptance of Christ’s mission and keeping his commandments.

I will continue to think about what is essential and what is important, but not essential. I’d be interested in knowing what you would put on each list.

Monday, November 7, 2011

From weakness strength

My present church assignment is to work in the Addiction Recovery Program as a group leader. The Addiction Recovery Program, and its companion the Family Support Group (not yet available everywhere), are there to assist those struggling with addiction and also to assist their loved ones. They are twelve-step approaches to help one -- either an addict or a loved one -- learn to enter recovery.

I’m not new to twelve step programs; I actively participated in another 12-step program before working with ARP (and I still participate there). One of the things we do in a 12-step program is to acknowledge our own powerlessness over addiction and over the lives of others. In accepting our own powerlessness, we also admit our own weakness.

We spend a lot of time in addiction recovery talking about weakness, and one of the steps of recovery is to prepare to have God to remove our character weaknesses; the next is to ask God to remove our shortcomings.

What I’ve wondered about over the last while is the difference between our weakness and our weaknesses.

Often when people (including me, like here) paraphrase the weakness scriptures (2 Nephi 33:4, Jacob 4:7, Ether 12:27, to note a few) they say God will make our weaknesses into strength. But Ether 12:27 reads:

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
This verse talks about weakness, not weaknesses. In fact, all of the verses in the topical guide on this subject use the collective noun weakness, not the plural noun weaknesses.

It makes me wonder just what that weakness is. I think about what King Benjamin taught:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father (Mosiah 3:19).
I wonder if our weakness is our natural-ness –- the fact that by our nature we are not submissive; by our nature we do not yield to the enticings of the spirit. Any individual weaknesses I have stem from this overarching weakness, namely that I am natural.

In both Ether and Mosiah we read the remedy: we must come unto Christ. We must humble ourselves. We must yield to the enticings of the Spirit. We must accept the blessings of the atonement in our lives. We must have faith. We must submit.

In those acts of submission, those acts of humility before God, those moments of faith we become strong. We receive the power of the atonement in our lives and become prepared to yield to the enticings of the spirit.

As we, through the grace of Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice, conquer our weakness as humans, God will help us conquer our weaknesses through the blessings of the atonement.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

It's a Small(er) World After All

The bloggernacle, the world of LDS blogging, became just a little smaller for me yesterday.

I had lunch with jmb275, a perma at Wheat & Tares. It was nice to put a name and face with a blogger id. Thanks to jmb for the suggestion we meet.

It happened that I mentioned Ann Arbor, Michigan in a comment on a post at W&T a while ago, and jmb asked if I lived there. Turns out I live east of Ann Arbor and he is just west. We met for lunch at a sandwich place and learned a little bit about one another. I learned, for instance, that although I complained about the cold weather on my mission in Germany, I had nothing on jmb who served his mission in Russia (yikes). And I learned a bit more about Wheat & Tares.

Of course the blogging community is huge, and even the LDS blogging community is unwieldy for me. I’ve identified a few blogs (some listed on the blog roll to the right of and below this post -- scroll down past the archive if you're dying to see it) that I like. Some are subject- or point of view-specific, authored by one person, like Keepapitchinin or Middle-aged Mormon Man.

Others are “group” blogs that feature multiple authors and many themes and ideas. Wheat & Tares is one of those. It has a fairly diverse group of regular bloggers who are linked by their connection to the LDS community. Some would be change agents in the church; some seem to like to stir up discussion; some blog from specific personal experience.

Frankly, I’m not wild about every voice at W&T or at the other group blogs I follow, but I like the fact that there are a variety of voices from which I can choose. Even the voices I don’t agree with provide me a different point of view, and perhaps a window into how others in my faith community may feel. Understanding those divergent points of view, I believe, puts me in a better position to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.

And sometimes they move me to think differently than I have before.

jmb mentioned to me that he didn’t blog for others but more for himself. I suspect a lot of us blog for therapy to some extent. I believe there are others who blog in order to convince others of a point of view (otherwise, how could there be all those political debates?), but my observation is that most of us are not swayed by an opposing argument no matter how well reasoned. Instead we tend to look for self-confirming evidence of opinions we bring with us. I’m no different, I suppose.

What does move me, however, particularly when I read a point of view I had not considered, is when that new point of view acknowledges what I may already know and feel, and adds a new dimension to my experience. Often (usually) it is not an admonition that I must change my thinking (I don’t want to be told how to think any more than the next guy), but an account of someone else’s faith journey that differs from my own can be compelling and deserves my respect.

Anyway, it was great to meet jmb. At least for a while, I’ll likely read his posts and comments a little differently since he is no longer completely anonymous to me.