Sunday, December 25, 2005


We celebrate two significant births this month. Spencer Kimball quotes a certain F. M. Bareham in General Conference, April 1960 (also included in Faith Precedes the Miracle.)

A century ago men were following with bated breath the march of Napoleon and waiting with feverish impatience for news of the wars. And all the while in their homes babies were being born. But who could think about babies? Everybody was thinking about battles.

In one year between Trafalgar and Waterloo there stole into the world a host of heroes: Gladstone was born in Liverpool; Tennyson at the Somersby Rectory, and Oliver Wendell Holmes in Massachusetts. Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, and music was enriched by the advent of Felix Mendelssohn in Hamburg.

But nobody thought of babies, everybody was thinking of battles. Yet which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies of 1809? We fancy God can manage his world only with great battalions, when all the time he is doing it with beautiful babies.

When a wrong wants righting, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants discovering, God sends a baby into the world to do it."

Kimball went on to say,

One mother gives us a Shakespeare, another a Michelangelo, and another an Abraham Lincoln, and still another a Joseph Smith!

When theologians are reeling and stumbling, when lips are pretending and hearts are wandering, and people are "running to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord and cannot find it"—when clouds of error need dissipating and spiritual darkness needs penetrating and heavens need opening, a little infant is born.

Thanks to Janice Kapp Perry in a Cricket and Seagull interview for bringing these quotes to my attention.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

In Irreverence Lost

Sometimes I allow bad behavior in my Sunday School class with the rationale that it is better to have a disruptive student in my class where they have some chance of learning something, however remote, rather than have then go somewhere else because church is "no fun."

Recently a man related to me the cause (as he attributed it) of his inactivity in the Church as a youth. He went to church classes and all the kids were rowdy. He figured that that wasn't what God wanted and it certainly wasn't helping him to learn, so he stopped going.

I've been afraid to lose kids because I'm too strict. Now I'm hearing that we can lose kids if we're not strict enough. The same gentleman further pointed out the danger in loosening our standards of behavior to accomodate a few. What is the point, he reasoned, of a church that doesn't change people and turn them into something better than they would have been otherwise? What is the help of a Church that says, "we'll take you as you are and that's just fine with us"?

Any religion worth the time and effort must NOT accept us as we are. It must accept us only inasmuch as we are willing to strive for change. Otherwise, what is the point? If that's not what you're looking for, join a bowling league or a reading club. But the Church is about changing who we are. I need to be a better Sunday School teacher.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Would Jesus Throw Stones?

A few comments in a thread at T&S explored the story in John 8 about the woman taken in adultery that was brought before Christ to be stoned. Seth Rogers points out that her guilt is not in question. He goes on to say, "But the law also demanded witnesses to testify who would then cast the first stones. Christ calls for the witnesses." When no witness steps forward Jesus dismisses the woman with a charge to stop her sinful ways. (There is no mention of forgiveness in the story.)

Seth questions the modern understanding of the story which he phrases, "come on guys, we all sin a little now and then, don't be so judgmental!" He goes on to argue that Christ would have accepted a guilty verdict had that been the proper legal result. (He backs away from the assertion in a later comment.)

That is some meat for thinking! I always think of that story in the way that Nate Oman responded, "Gee...and all of this time I thought that story was about forgiveness." But that understanding is clearly incomplete. Jesus only set her on the road to repentance but did not forgive her at that time according to the record we have. While it may be offensive for some to entertain the notion that Jesus "really was a stone thrower after all," it nevertheless remains a plausible reading of the story.

We read in the all the ancient scriptures, including the Book of Mormon and New Testament about times where God kills people in punishment. Why would we assume that it is impossible that he should continue to endorse this practice while in the flesh?

I'll have to chew on this one for a while and see if I find myself agreeing with Seth's assertions in the end, but for the present I am very persuaded.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Poverty Tour Fantasy

In frustration with some teenagers I see, I want to load them all up in an airplane and fly them to a place where they can see real poverty. I want them to understand how phenomenally blessed they are. I've never been to such a place myself, though I've glimpsed it in different ways. Today, I read about a mother who actually carried out my fantasy. She took her children to her childhood home in Nigeria. It is hard to realize how very blessed we are to have a reliable roof over our heads no matter what.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sacrament Scream

I didn't appreciate Hans very much. He was a noisy toddler in my ward. His mother tried her valiant best to keep him in meetings. Sometimes you'd hear him holler "NO" at random moments. The kid really bugged me. (I wasn't a parent yet, so my perspective was even less generous than it now would be.)

One day, the chapel was very quiet. The sacrament was being passed. The water tray was one row ahead of me. I was trying to think about the Savior. Then a shrill scream pierced the silence.

There was no time for annoyance. Instead, thoughts of Gethsemane flooded my mind, leaving no room for my petty complaints of other weeks. It was almost like I wasn't hearing a little toddler scream at all, but a whole other and infinitely more horrible sound. I was, in that moment, in the garden.

And I was grateful for Hans.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Olive Press and Atonement

I spent hours on chairs and ladders plucking olives from the several olive trees at the BYU Jerusalem Center. We put the olives into bags which were stored until we were ready to press them.

Students crushing olives

At pressing time, the olives were poured into a large stone basin for crushing. We rolled a giant stone wheel over the top of the olives, leaving a messy mash.

Olive Press with red juiced flowing down.

I was surprised to note the color of the fluid that oozed off the baskets in the press. The red color would remain until the particulate matter had settled leaving the pure olive oil on top.

In his recent BYU Devotional address, Vernon Heperi commented on olive oil production.
The metaphor of the olive press has been helpful for me in describing the great suffering that began in Gethsemane and ended on Calvary. Through this metaphor, my finite mind is given spiritual spectacles that allow me to see and better understand the infinite and eternal nature of the atonement. From what I have learned, the process of extracting oil from olives begins with the picking and then bruising and crushing of the fruit. The crushed and broken fruit is then collected into baskets which are stacked one upon the other. They are then placed under the press where tremendous pressure is applied to them. This process slowly crushes the oil from the fruit. The pressure that is applied is firm and fierce, steadily increasing over time until the red stained oil contained therein is extracted from the once unblemished fruit.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Overcoming the Sinful Life

It is a rare to see a post with such a high ratio of excellent comments as this recent one at Times and Seasons. Kaimi laments the many sins he commits each day and wonders how it would be possible to have a sin free day. Particularly insightful was this comment from Jim F.:
...the problem is with the way Kaimi is thinking of sin, as this or that act that is sinful rather than as spiritual separation from God. I live in sin because I live separated from him. To the degree that I have the Holy Ghost, a member of the Godhead, I am not separated and, so, not in sin. But to have the Holy Ghost is to live a life that you’ve described as “constant repentance,” a life in which I continually strive to have my heart where it ought to be. Sin is the state I live in more than the acts I commit. Ultimately to repent is to live in a state of holiness, not merely to cease doing some particular act.

Another commenter posted the most wonderful poem that is probably going to find its way onto my wall somewhere.
This life, therefore, is not righteousness
But growth in righteousness
Not health but healing
Not being but becoming,
Not rest but exercise,
We are not yet what we shall be
But we are growing toward it.
The process is not yet finished
But it is going on.
This is not the end,
but it is the road.
All does not yet gleam in glory
But all is being purified.

--Martin Luther

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Wonder of Holy Architecture

As I approached the building, my heart beat faster. I had rarely been so excited before. We got off the bus and gathered up some of our luggage. We walked through the main gate and up the front walk. The entryway was flanked by two fountains. We stepped inside the lobby and nodded to the security guard behind a small glass window.

We emerge from the security foyer into a cavernous hallway. I’m breathless. I throw my head back and slowly spin around. “Do I really get to live here?” The sense of wonder is almost overwhelming.

A dozen trips up and down the stairs carrying luggage for our sisters. I’m tired. I go into my room and then out onto the balcony. I look out and see one of the most famous and politically charged monuments in the world, the Dome of the Rock. This is my home for the semester.

On a Sabbath day, we sit in the chapel auditorium. Congregants look over the head of the branch president through the massive windows. They see, with some good probability, the very site of the crucifixion of the Savior. They partake of the sacrament. The ancient and modern intermix before their eyes.

The exterior of the edifice is awe inspiring. The scores of arches in radiant white limestone fit perfectly into the ambiance of the city. I am grateful for wonderful architecture that inspires and lifts my heart. I am grateful for this gift the Church has given to this ancient and holy city. I am grateful that the city was able to accept the gift. I cherish the memory of my semester at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. I hope students are able to return someday.

[Note: Other photos of the Jerusalem Center are available here.]

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Mortal Peril of Joy

I nearly exploded. My wife and I were happily reading away when a cacophony of giggles erupted from the bedroom shared by our two children. Our boy, just a couple of months past 2, and our girl, 9 months, were not asleep at 10 PM, an hour after they had gone to bed. Instead, the two year old was smashing his face against the webbing of the crib and both kids were laughing hysterically.

Frankly, I’m not sure if I can survive another day with the joy of being a dad. I see my wife and my kids all being so cute and I just think I’m going to bust. I’m so glad I can enjoy life when the times are so good. It makes all the tough times much more bearable. And I’m grateful for my family. Somebody pass the duct tape. I’m going to have to reinforce my body.

Temple Learning

A few times in a zone conference, my mission president made a comment that referenced the temple but demurred at requests for elaboration. A few friends and I would fantasize, as possibly only missionaries really can, about getting him alone in the Celestial Room to pepper him with our deep gospel questions.

When we and he returned home, he used to invite us over to his home once a month for informal firesides. After a few of these firesides, my friend and I cornered our president and his wife about doing a temple session together. They agreed.

It took several scheduling attempts to actually pull it off, but finally the day arrived in the Jordan River Temple. It was a new temple for me. I was filled with a sense of anticipation I don’t remember having felt about the temple either before or since. Finally, I would learn the deep mysteries!

As the session flowed past, my mind was super alert. Dozens of questions raced through my mind. “Oh, hold on to that one. That is a good one. You’ll definitely want to ask that one in the Celestial Room.” As the questions raced through my mind, so did an amazing number of insights, both new and remembered.

When we finally gathered in the Celestial Room, my friend asked the first question. President’s face was thoughtful for a moment before the reply, “I don’t know. That’s a good question.” A follow-up question with greater detail and a possible answer was met with, “That’s possible, but I don’t know. Good question though.”

Meanwhile, the dozen questions I was sure I would want to ask had fled my mind. I asked the one question I could remember. “I don’t know.”

I was both disappointed and also filled with that sense of “duh.” In hindsight, I am not surprised at all by his answers. He was not one to speculate wildly about the gospel in our presence. How much less likely he was to do so in the confines of the temple we should have predicted. The respect he had for the polymorphic teaching power of symbols I’m beginning to understand.

The great surprise, though in hindsight again it should have been obvious, was the amount of revelation I received in the temple that day as my mind was engaged and alert and looking for answers. It turns out that most of my best experiences in the temple have come at similar times--times when I expected to be able to talk in the Celestial Room to knowledgeable people I admired. In each case the learning came before the talking and the talking was usually not very enlightening.

Now if I could only capture that sense of urgency in temple learning without the external motivation. Perhaps I could apply that skill in the rest of my life and achieve that dialogic revelation I’ve heard so much about.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Why I follow my leaders

I don’t believe that all or even most of the decisions made by church leaders are inspired. I believe that the purpose of our life on earth (among other things) is to learn to make wise choices. We are learning to become more like God. We are modeling our lives on the Savior. Because I believe this is the purpose of life, I don’t have a problem with being patient with leaders as they figure out what they are doing--even imperfectly.

There is a saying: Catholics teach that the pope is infallible, but none of the members believe it. Mormons teach that the prophet is fallible, but none of the members believe it.

Even though I believe I will receive erroneous counsel from my church leaders from time to time, I believe that they are doing the best that they can and that I will be blessed for following them.

I’m having a hard time with a small thing that I’m being asked to do by my ward leaders. I don’t feel totally comfortable doing the thing I’ve been asked to do. (Nothing untoward, I assure you.) But I am determined, especially with the encouragement of my wife, to proceed the best that I can and serve with all my heart. I’m going to try because I want to live my life based on principles I believe in, not just the feel-good trend of the moment. I’ve had this conversation about following leaders many times with my wife. Now it is time to walk the walk.

Holiday Greetings War

I find nothing offensive in being wished "Happy Holidays." I don't understand Christians who plan to boycott stores that won't wish them "Merry Christmas." Isn't this like saying to someone, "It's my birthday and you'd better tell me to have a happy birthday or I'll punch you in the nose."

Saturday, December 03, 2005

ID, Evolution, and Volcanoes

Pramahaphil's comment on a previous post raises the question of Intelligent Design and evolution in the schools.

I'm not entirely certain where I stand on this subject. But I think that it is important to make a distinction between introductory learning and advanced learning. One of the apparent problems with teaching evolution is the lack of qualifying statements like “Although there are some major questions in [whatever theory], many scientists believe that this occurs in nature.” The reason these qualifying statements get left out is simple: most teachers (especially in middle and high school) don’t have the time to address those major questions. Their students don’t have the background to understand the problems. And so the theory is explained without the qualifiers, which leads the students to believe that the theory is on the same level as the facts they have learned.

When I taught Introductory Geology at a state college, I was teaching students who had little science background and often a lack of interest in science generally. Although I tried not to, occasionally I would simplify certain processes to the point of inaccuracy. For example, when a tectonic plate is subducted (pushed down) into the mantle, it causes volcanoes to erupt above it. This is because of melting—that is what I tell my students. This conjures up images of the tectonic plate melting as it is shoved into the hot mantle, which is actually very rare. The actual melting occurs in the mantle, because of complex chemical reactions related to water. But in an intro class with no chemistry requirement, do we go into that? Heavens, no! I’m trying to get them to understand a much broader process. If they decide to pursue geology, they will learn all about water-flux processes in a higher level class, when the teacher has the time and the students have to background to discuss it.

So where does that leave us? I’m not sure. Should you discuss theories without mentioning complexities and problems? Should you discuss a possibly un-falsifiable theory such as evolution? Should you mention the theory of Intelligent Design (which is also probably un-falsifiable, at least in scientific terms)?

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