Thursday, March 28, 2013

The gospel of inclusion

In our family scripture reading this morning, we read these words of the Savior:

And ye see that I have commanded that none of you should go away, but rather have commanded that ye should come unto me, that ye might feel and see; even so shall ye do unto the world; and whosoever breaketh this commandment suffereth himself to be led into temptation.

I was reminded again that the Lord's gospel is one of inclusion, not exclusion. The Savior repeatedly invites us to come unto Him; He does not send us away.

Even so, He also does not relax his standards or change His expectations for us. We are commanded to be perfect as He is. But as I grow in the gospel (and, though I've been at this over 45 years, God's not done with me yet!), I continue to learn that He does not expect me to be perfect overnight. In fact, I simply cannot be.

And that's another reason for His continuing invitations to come unto Him. If I am to follow His commandment to be perfect, it will be only through Him. His atoning sacrifice is the only hope I have of obeying Him.

But the other thing that I felt as I read that verse in 3 Nephi this morning is that I should make sure that I am not sending someone away; I also need to invite those around me to come unto Christ. I need to do that in the way I behave toward others, but I also need to directly invite people to come unto Him. Those people may include members of my family, friends, acquaintances and strangers.

I've written before about the lessons I have learned in my own family about inviting my children to be close to me, even if we do not see eye to eye on things that are important to us. I believe those lessons are consistent with the Savior's teaching, as well. We are not about sending people away, but we are about drawing people in -- drawing them into our circle of influence, drawing them near to us with charity, lifting them up, mourning with those that mourn and comforting those that stand in need of comfort. That drawing in and strengthening is at the very heart of our covenants as members of the Lord's church.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Thoughts on Thomas and being present

I attended a performance of Rob Gardner’s The Lamb of God performed by the Michigan Concert Choir over the weekend. While I don’t intend to give a review of the performance, let me say I was really glad I went. Such a production is a significant undertaking; it’s technically difficult and it’s large in scope. The Michigan Concert Choir is an all-volunteer choir that includes many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but also quite a few non-members, as well.

The oratorio depicts key events from the last week of the Savior’s life and His teachings after the resurrection. I had a number of realizations during the performance, and one of them was about Thomas.

We know that Thomas was a faithful apostle. When news came of Larazus’ death and the Savior’s plan to visit, some of the apostles were concerned for their safety: “Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again?” (John 11:8)

But it was Thomas who said “unto his fellowdisciples, Let us also go, that we may die with him” (v. 16).

Of course it is this same faithful Thomas who was not present when the resurrected Savior appeared to the apostles. They testified that they had seen him, “But he said unto them, Except I shall shee in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (20:25).

I have always attributed to Thomas a lack of faith. It was not much different from his fellow disciples’ lack of faith, however; they were still shut up in secret even after Mary Magdalene’s testimony of the Risen Lord.

As I listened to Gardner’s words in The Lamb of God, I had a different thought. Thomas sings,

You’ve seen the Lord?
You’ve seen Him risen?
You’ve seen His hands and touched His side,
And you are certain?
But I’ve not seen Him.
And I must see Him.
Until I’ve seen His wounded side,
Until my hands have felt His hands,
I will not know, nor yet believe…

As I heard these words, I heard his regret that he was not there. We don’t know why Thomas was absent. It’s likely that it was for a very good reason he was not with the others when the Savior came; they did not know He would come. But Thomas was not there. He missed the meeting.

I thought about the Nephites who were a generation away from King Benjamin’s address. Because they were not there, they did not believe in the same way as those who were there.

I thought about meetings I have attended through the years that others did not attend, meetings that were particularly meaningful and useful to me, but whose message I could scarcely communicate to someone who was not there. And I found myself wondering about meetings I missed, usually with a very good reason, wondering what thing I did not learn because I was not there.

I thought about the effort that adult leaders of youth make to invite the spirit into so many different kinds of activities in hopes that our youth will be present – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually – so that they will see and feel and know and believe.

May we be present.

BTW, you can read my latest post, "The Unequal Burden of Women" at Real Intent here.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The new website on the Church in China

I read with interest this story about the new website about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in China. I have some connection to the church in China (a tiny one) only because I visited one of the expat branches in Shanghai a couple of years ago, and I used to attend church in Taipei when we lived there. And my daughter presently serves a Mandarin speaking mission in the US.

The story includes a brief video from Elder Oaks and a link to the website itself. The website is available in English as well as simplified and traditional Chinese characters. (Simplified characters are more common in the PRC; traditional in Taiwan.)

There are Q&A sections for folks who join the church outside of China and want to return to the PRC, and for priesthood leaders who have people in that circumstance. What a terrific resource!

I’m fascinated with the church’s presence in China and with our meticulous adherence to local regulations (expat congregations are separate from local congregations and no proselyting in the PRC, for instance). Those regulations, by the way, apply to all denominations, not just ours. I have expat acquaintances – both from the US and from Taiwan -- from other faiths who are subject to the same restrictions.

I’m thrilled that the website addresses the wild speculation of proselyting missionaries’ being sent to the PRC (not happening). And that there are clear Q&As for members who join the church outside of China but need information about how to find a congregation in China (the website provides contact information).

There are some fascinating opportunities and challenges already for the church in China. For instance, the Chinese culture’s keen interest in family history has made family history research for members a remarkable experience. When we did youth baptisms in the Taipei temple, it was not unusual to do work for people who were born “BC” – something I’ve never seen in western records. At the time we were in Taipei, we were told that Taipei and Hong Kong were the only temples handling the Chinese character names. (I imagine as Chinese converts increase in other major cities around the world that also have temples, perhaps some of those names could go to those temples, too, but I have no knowledge of that.)

What a terrific step forward the website is. Hopefully it will help PRC citizens who find the church overseas stay connected when they return home.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Women in the church -- the discussion comes to Detroit

This article appears on the front page of today's Detroit Free Press:

Mormon mothers focus on family, explore more options

Dr. Anna Wilson, 29, feeds son Ammon as husband Jim Wilson, 28, makes brownies in the kitchen of their Trenton home. Anna Wilson came to the U.S. from Russia 11 years ago. She joined the Mormon Church in 2006. / Photos by Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press
It opens talking with Anna Wilson, a convert to the LDS church, a resident in radiology at a local hospital, and a mom. The article talks about traditional and less traditional roles for women in the church. When queried about the statements in The Family: A Proclamation to the World about roles of mothers and fathers, the story reports,

Wilson said she believes "there's nothing more important than raising a family, raising children in the church, in the Gospel." But the 29-year-old Mormon convert decided to work as a doctor after extensive prayers and advice from others in the church.

"It was clear to me that I was to continue with residency," Wilson said. "I need to become a physician. ... (Working now) will be a small sacrifice for the potential good that I can do for people around me."

Can I say how impressed I am with Sister Wilson? I don't know her personally, but I wish I did. Here she speaks openly with a reporter about her spiritual process in making important life decisions. Good for her!

The article quotes several other local members -- some who are more conservative and others who are not -- and also quotes a few from far away about not only family roles, but the role of women in the church, including the Wear Pants to Church effort.

The coverage is timely. The Book of Mormon musical is in town. Our stake president was interviewed for a story which appeared a week ago.

I'm grateful for the exposure. The Free Press has been pretty good to the chuch over the years; it reports fairly and in a balanced way which I appreciate.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why I dread getting the Deseret Book Catalog

Along with all the other junk mail we receive, we get regular mailings from Deseret Book. We live far from the intermountain west, so we can’t wander into a store and browse, and I used to enjoy getting the mailers to see what latest church books were available.

I have enjoyed reading LDS books over the years. The apostles’ books that were either the result of their year’s focus in talks (like Elder Maxwell’s) or those that are edited talk collections (like Elder Eyring’s) appealed to me, as did collections of Women’s Conference addresses (these were especially helpful when I was a new bishop many years ago; they helped me gain a better understanding of a key part of my flock). I’ve never been too big on LDS fiction, though I enjoyed reading the Tennis Shoes series with some of my kids, and though I didn’t read any of his other books, Gerald Lund’s book on the Hole in the Rock expedition was interesting because of a family connection to that story (not my family, but my wife’s; I have no Mormon pioneers in my heritage, just old fashioned American pioneers…).

I also have enjoyed a variety of biographies published and marketed through Deseret Book, including those of church leaders and prominent members. And recent efforts at church history like Massacre at Mountain Meadows and the Women of Faith series have been awesome.

But the catalogs that come in the mail trouble me. Now, I am a fan of the free market. I work for a huge corporation that is very happy that customers buy our very expensive products. But I grimace when I turn the page in the Deseret Book mailer and see framed temple pictures selling for $250 (and that at half price!), and Christus statue replicas for $100. I realize that several hundred dollars for an object of art isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, especially for some consumers. And I surely want artists to be compensated for their work. But the framed temple pictures are photographs. And the original creator of the Christus statue has been dead for some time.

Is there something wrong that there is a market for high priced trinkets of our faith? I can’t help but have the same question in my head as arose under different circumstances in the New Testament. Couldn’t that money be better used to help the poor?

I know I’m really on sensitive ground here. Each of us makes purchase decisions that are unique to us. One man’s luxury is another man’s normal. And our covenant to consecrate all we have to the building up of the kingdom doesn’t come with a ledger book for keeping track.

After each reading of Nibley’s Approaching Zion (and I haven’t read it in a while), I find myself thinking twice about many purchases – do I need to go out to that restaurant? Do we really need the low-fat hamburger? Do we need the artisan bread instead of the store brand?

I’ve lived enough places in the world to know that my middle class American standard of living is far above that of most of the world’s population, and, frankly, it’s well above many of my fellow Americans’, too. And so from time to time, like when the Deseret Book mailer comes, I find myself wondering about how I use my resources. Am I sharing my surplus with those in need? And what is my surplus? And how should I share it? Is a generous fast offering enough? Is there more I should do?

There are no set answers to these questions of course, and my answers will be different from yours. And that’s ok, as long as we periodically ask ourselves the questions.

Monday, March 11, 2013

How I know the number of missionaries is increasing

In last October’s conference came the announcement of reduced eligibility ages for full time missionary service for young men and young women. And it’s clear that the number of applications and calls are increasing. I don’t need the news reports to tell me that. And I don’t even need my daughter’s reports of increasing numbers in her mission. I just need to look at my own blog’s statistics.

My top post in the last two months is this one, which I published last year in July when my daughter entered the mission field. For quite some time, one of the top Google searches that brings people to my blog is the phrase “missionary letters” or the question “What should I write to missionaries?”

It’s awesome to me that so many are choosing to serve. And it’s awesome to me that so many are choosing to write to those who serve.

I’m hopeful that these new missionaries are as prepared as they are eager to serve, and I have no reason to doubt that they are prepared. Certainly the fine elders we see in our ward each Sunday are well prepared. They are working hard, and their efforts are showing in the success in the work in our ward. They were in our home last night and did all the things you hope good missionaries will do.

Our missionary daughter has nothing but excellent things to report about the missionaries in her mission, as well. (In fairness, our daughter is exceptionally positive, so I’m not sure we’d hear about it even if the missionaries she knew were total slugs. But still I want to believe her that the missionaries she knows are as awesome as she says they are.)

Personally I do have some concerns about the lower ages for service. For me, my year away from home between high school and my mission was really helpful in my maturing process, and in helping me to make the decision to serve. (I was at BYU and was surrounded by other young men who were also making that decision and preparing to serve.) I recognize, however, that not every young man goes to BYU, and we likely lose some (maybe many) who have that post high school year to become more distracted from serving.

Of more concern to me is if 18 becomes the new 19 for young men. My understanding is that young men may serve at 18, but so far there is no official push to have them serve at that age. I’m not a big fan of social pressure to serve, and I believe the best missionaries are those who serve when they are ready, not when they are socially pressured to go. I doubt anyone sets out to apply social pressure, either, but we know that happens at church.

I’m less worried about sisters. In fact, I think it’s awesome that sisters can serve earlier, making a mission service more likely (or so the surge in sisters would suggest). As many have written, sister missionaries bring a lot to the missionary effort, and mission service is likely to bring a lot to the sisters, as well.

I welcome the expanding ranks of missionaries. I welcome the creative solutions to deal with increased needs for training, increased numbers of missions, and increased numbers of letters to missionaries (including those who seek advice from my blog!).

BTW: You can read my latest post at Real Intent, "God's Greatest Hits: Moses v. Satan," here.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A new me

This is the old me, the picture that had been in the upper right hand corner of my blog. Look over there now -- there's a new picture of me, just taken this week.

Not a lot of difference between the two -- still an old white guy. I'm grayer now than I was two years ago when the old picture was taken. And I'm thinner (I've dropped sixty pounds, though that was seven or eight months ago). And I have newer glasses (well, I've had them for nearly a year). So it's taken me a while to update the photo.

There are other ways I'm different from the old me. Some very subtle, some not so much. I think rarely do we go through drastic and dramatic changes. We change jobs, move houses, get married, have children come into our family or move away. None of those dramatic changes for me in the last few years.

But there are changes nonetheless. I think I'm less strident (I hope so) and more reflective. A benefit of writing is that I have time to think more carefully about what I write than I do when I speak (when all too often I speak first, then think...ready, fire, aim!)

One of the themes I've noticed in the talks of President Eyring is one that I've tried applying in my life lately. He has spoken more than once about what he does in his personal prayers, that he seeks in the morning to understand the Lord's will for him that day, and in the evening he reports back to the Lord how he did. This focus on each day has been really important to me.

I used to be a compulsive planner, and I still find great security in a good plan, though I'm less compulsive about it. I've come to realize that for many things in my life, I have to take them a day at a time. Although I may commit to lasting change, I have to realize it on the retail level, day in and day out, one day at a time, as the 12-steppers like to say.

The idea of considering my own performance each day has been really helpful, particularly in the relationships in my family. Elder Uceda's recent conference talk about a father who prayed before discussing his daughter's behavior with her really moved me. The act of prayer, it seems to me, does several things in such a circumstance:

It puts distance between the indicident that requires the discussion and the discussion itself, allowing the father to think more clearly rather than being ruled by his emotions.

It humbles the father. Kneeling and seeking his Father's advice, a father will approach his own child with greater humility and is more likely to learn from the experienced.

It invites the spirit into the delicate conversation, rather than allowing the natural man to chase it away.

I have more than once when evaluting my day in prayer felt my heart soften as I prayed, and therefore seen things in a new light, recognizing that I have changes -- and amends -- to make.

So, I suppose there's a new me every day. But not a new picture.

Monday, March 4, 2013

My good bishop

When I pray in a meeting in our ward, I typically include the sentence, “And please bless our good bishop and those who serve with him.” And in our family prayers I often include the sentence, “And please bless our good bishop and his family.”

Although I use those words often, they are not a vain repetition. I have come to learn through my own experience that the men who serve as bishops are good men who desire to do good things. They are the product of their own experience, to be sure, and each brings his own personality and even biases to the calling. But I have also observed that each bishop I have known personally carries a specific mantle associated with his calling – one that comes when he is called and leaves when he is released.

Some of my bishops have been good friends of mine before their calling. It would have been easy for me to assume that my friend was the bishop and therefore I knew him. In one case, my bishop and I had served together in the church for years in a variety of capacities before his call as bishop. His son and mine had been good friends for nearly their whole lives. His wife and mine were also close friends.

And yet, when he was called and serving as my bishop, there was something about him that was distinct and precious. Because he was my good bishop.

My lovely wife and I had the chance to meet with our new bishop yesterday. We visited with him about some challenges that we are facing in our family. We wanted him to be aware and to seek any counsel he might have to offer. We have, from time to time, met with other bishops on family matters, not because of their professional training or their personal charisma, but because we honor and respect them as those called by the Lord to be our good bishop.

There was no earth-shaking revelation that came out of yesterday’s meeting. But there was this (and though it does not surprise me, it does amaze me): Our good bishop listened to us for quite some time. He allowed us to do about 80% of the talking in our interview. He asked a few clarifying questions, and shared an observation or two along the way. After we had said nearly everything we had come to say, he reached for his scriptures, turned to a particular verse and said, “I was reading this chapter the other day and came across this verse. I’m sure you’ve read it, but perhaps it will mean something to you today. It struck me so much that I underlined it.” And then he read a verse which offered such comfort and peace; it reinforced other counsel we had heard previously, and it reaffirmed truth taught by the modern prophets.

Looking back there are several amazing things to me:

1. Our good bishop listened so well. He let us share what we’d come to tell him.

2. Our good bishop did not try to solve our problem. My lovely wife told him in the course of her sharing that she knew he could not resolve the issue we brought to him, but that we hoped that by sharing it, there would be help for all involved.

3. Our good bishop listened for inspiration. I had a stake president counsel me once that when I was bishop, I should listen 75% of the time in an interview, and during that listening time, I should be praying for inspiration so that when I spoke, I would say what the Lord gave me to say.

4. Our bishop taught us from the scriptures – scriptures he knew and studied; indeed he shared a verse that he had just read himself in his personal study. I count it as a tender mercy that he had read and retained what would comfort us.

5. The spirit confirmed the counsel we received. As the bishop shared the verse he did from the Book of Mormon, and as he concluded our meeting with prayer, the spirit’s influence was palpable. The Lord’s love for us and for our family, as manifest by our good bishop and by the spirit, was obvious to us.

I read comments from time to time about struggles members have with their local leaders, and it saddens me. I remember a relationship with a bishop I had years ago that was not very positive; we served together on the ward council and did not see eye to eye, and it was a difficult period for me. I am grateful that since that time, however, I’ve been fortunate to have positive relationships with my good bishops. (I think that I’ve grown up a bit since that earlier experience, and I freely admit that at least a large portion of the issues I had with that bishop years ago were mine, not his.)

I am certainly grateful for the good bishop I have today and for his dedicated service, and for his wife and children who support him.

Friday, March 1, 2013

New Scriptures!

Well, ok, the scriptures themselves aren't new. But there is a new 2013 edition of the standard works. You can read about it here.

The coolest update in my mind relates to the headings for the sections in the Doctrine & Covenants, including new headings for OD1 and OD2.

There's been plenty of discussion of the changes on other blogs -- By Common Consent and Juvenile Instructor are two that I subscribe to. I can add no scholarly observations, just my person observation that I'm glad I do my scripture reading on my digital scriptures, so I have these updates already on my Kindle Fire.

And the updates themselves are cool. More evidence of the care being taken in the Joseph Smith Papers project and the reflection of the work of those scholars to reflect accurately the history as best they can. The changes in the headings are not earth shattering; many simply update small details like dates. But there are some significant clarifications.

For instance, the heading to Section 89 removes the note that the first three verses were inpired but written by Joseph separate from the revelation itself. And the headings to the Official Declarations are way cool.

It's impressive to me that the leaders of the church asked for these updates eight years ago. Eight years ago! That there is an eight-year gap between the request and the published product speaks to the care and quality of the work, and the desire to coordinate with the great work of the historians engaged in other elements of the work.

How grateful I am this year to have these changes, the historical settings of sections of the Doctrine & Covenants online, and so many other resources available. What a rich and fertile field we have for our gospel study.

UPDATE: Check out this link at FAIR Blog for an outstanding post on the 2013 edition of the scriptures.