Sunday, April 30, 2006

"E'en though it be a cross"

I'm perplexed that it often takes me so long to catch on to details that are obvious to others. This happens especially with poetic language like that found in the hymns.
Nearer my God to thee,
Nearer to thee!
E'en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.
Today I was finally hit by the import of those words.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Personal Touch of an Apostle

One of the greatest posts I have seen on an LDS blog, or any blog for that matter, was written by Tyler and was posted at the Blogger of Jared. Tyler recounts a special experience he had as he watched the personal ministry of an apostle, Neal A. Maxwell, in a tragic circumstance.

The powerful message of the post for me was the concept that the atonement of Jesus Christ is available to help us overcome our mistakes and not just our sins.

Please read Tyler's post, The Power of the Word.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Where did the Liahona come from?

Seriously, where did the Liahona come from? (I’m talking about the directional ball with pointers, not the Church magazine.) From 1 Nephi 16:10:
…My father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.
I know that God could have created it Himself, but it seems to make more sense to me that a mortal made it.

I get a kick out of thinking about a humble, spiritual brass-smith. He’s sitting in his workshop one night, inspired to make this odd round ball, and to put two little spindles inside it. His wife comes in and says, “What is that for? What does it even do?” and he can’t answer here. He feels much the way Mormon feels at a later time:
And I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will. (Words of Mormon 1:7)
He even adds a little blank space for words that can change from time to time (see 1 Nephi 16:27-29). Then he puts it away, because he really doesn’t know why he made it. Years pass. One day he goes to look for it and it’s gone!

He never knows what happened to it, he never knows that it leads Lehi’s family to the Promised Land, he never knows that it becomes a symbol of faithful following of the Lord’s commandments. But he’s blessed because he followed the inspiration of the Lord.

I suppose this little story could be a parable to teach us to cheerfully follow the Lord’s will even when it doesn’t make complete sense to us. But, really, I just like thinking about my imaginary faithful brass-smith!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Can Marketing Replace the Gospel?

Gordon Smith at Times and Seasons wrote a post exploring the way that the Mormon Church advertises itself. In the comments, Mike wrote a lengthy recommendation for what the church might do to be more appealing. His suggestion was to immitate a successful Methodist church in his neighborhood.

The Methodist church that Mike described had a full complement of community programs including Scouting, music, preschools, and sports. The congregation was over 4000 people. Mike's wife (presumably a Latter-day Saint) worked for the Methodist organization in some capacity.

I'm attracted to part of Mike's argument. He points out that it is hard for youth to get excited about activity programs (like Scouts or Young Women) that only have a few kids. Because the groups are small, the youth are less likely to invite non-member friends to participate. Meanwhile, over at the Methodist church, the community is flocking there in droves. First they come because of the good activities. Then they choose to stay with the congregation because they want that sort of positive moral environment for their children.

One thing that Mike got exactly right is that the church needs to do better at pulling in young couples who are just starting their families. These young parents are just coming to the realization that they need to give their own children some solid foundation to grow up on. The Mormon television ads seem to be targeting this demographic, but the local congregations are not always prepared to carry out the promises.

Here's the rub. I perceive that joining a Methodist congregation is easy. Just show up. Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, recall often the quote from our founding prophet Joseph Smith, "A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation."

So Latter-day Saints don't pursue the Methodist model advocated by Mike because we don't want a passive congregation. We don't want the activites to eclipse the broader message of the gospel. We don't want to start up a giant community program that will require paid staff to support. We don't want to compete against other groups that might be doing similar things. We want the focus of the gospel to be on Jesus Christ and on our need to sacrifice. We don't want it to be easy.

But isn't it better to have the "barely committed"--those who are not yet prepared to make many sacrifices--sitting in our congregations and hearing the truths of the gospel week after week rather than having them sit in a Methodist congregation down the street where they will learn fewer of the truths available to mankind?

Where is "the family" in all this? Does a 4000 person congregation, with the paid support staff to provide every sort of activity, reduce the perceived necessity of the family unit?

It is not an easy question. I'm not committed to an answer. But is something I will definitely be pondering.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Need for Personal Narratives

Back in the good old days (5 months ago) when Times and Seasons was published under a Creative Commons license that allowed non-commercial redistribution, I took several of Wilfried Decoo's posts and put them into a booklet that I printed and shared with family members for Christmas.

Reactions are just starting to trickle in. (It took them a while to start reading as I suspected it would. That is why I wanted to give them a printed copy that could lay around until they got a chance to read it.) "Hey, I finally picked up that booklet you made. Wow!" "I read that Decoo essay about the two miners. Wow."

Personal narratives are so powerful, especially when told as artfully as Brother Decoo's accounts. I wrote earlier about the power of fictional works. Even more powerful are the narratives that recount real life experiences. Wilfried recently recounted an experience he had in the temple where a Nazi concentration camp survivor met the son of a Nazi guard. Just reading the account made me so grateful that everyone can be forgiven. I haven't done anything so heinous, but I need forgiveness as much as anyone.

A comment that AnneGB made on that thread also particularly touched me. I wanted to have a copy of her thought so I could easily refer back to it.
I empathize with the atheism of concentration camp survivors. I’ve read
over and over that they stopped believing in God. I also in my
Gethsemane. stopped. Not believing that He existed, but that He cared
if I existed.

The profoundness of the thought is in understanding that an actual person experienced it. I feel so much empathy when I think that people have actually felt that much despair. It makes me want to be more kind and gentle to everyone I meet and then help them in any way that I can. It pulls me out of my selfish shell. I'm grateful for that. I wish that that awareness didn't have to come at the price of so many other people's pain! But that is a pretty fundamental part of the plan of mortality.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Serving Those Who Could Have Done It Themselves

I remember fondly a branch where I had the opportunity to serve as a missionary in Oklahoma. This was a fairly islolated area of Oklahoma up near the panhandle of the state, so this had been a branch for a long time with not a lot of prospect of getting a lot bigger. Shortly after I arrived, we were having dinner with one of the families in the ward and they were doing the usual game of 20 questions to learn about me. Somehow it came up that I played the piano.

A short while later, the mother in this family approached me. "I've been playing the piano for our congregation for 20 years and I never get to enjoy sitting with my family before and after the meeting. I wonder if you'd be willing to fill in as our pianist for a while."

"Sure," I replied, before giving it much thought. So for the next few months I played the songs for that branch--and that sister sat beaming with her family.

It was an odd bit of service, really, especially for a missionary. It is so outside the normal boundaries of what a missionary might be doing: finding people to teach, working with people who have forgotten what they once believed, or filling in where there is no one else to step in.

I've often defined service as "doing something for someone that they are unable to do for themselves." In this case, there was a sister who was perfectly capable of filling the role of pianist for the congregation. Yet I found that it was genuine service to relieve her of that responsibility for a short time. I feel good about that opportunity to serve and I hope I'm blessed with the gift of the spirit that will enable me to recognize other opportunities for similar service; service to the faithful saints that could just do with a little break now and then.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Puzzling Martyrdom of Stephen

I've had a longstanding question about the martyrdom of Stephen. Why were the Jews able to kill him? Don't we always hear that they were not allowed to do capital punishment which is why they turned Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion? Ed Snow probes the question in a comment at BCC.
It appears, but this is not entirely clear, that the Jews were not allowed to exercise capital punishment (although there were likely exceptions, special “carve outs”–and there were occasional lynchings), but otherwise they could handle their own affairs pretty much on their own at the time of Jesus.

It is going to be interesting to watch the celestial videotape of history to straighten out some of these historical questions.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Drama and the Change of Soul

Good drama changes you. I remember the powerful forces of change within my soul the first time I sat on a lumpy couch and watched Les Miserables. My physical environment faded away and I sat riveted to the screen. I lived the amazement and bewilderment of Jean Valjean as he tried to steal silver from a Priest who turned from victim to benefactor as he gave the silver to Valjean.

Valjean's encounter with the Priest would change his being. He had been a criminal--outcast and shunned by society. He became a mayor and philanthropist, deeply interested in and devoted to the welfare of the helpless and hurting. Watching the transformation of Valjean transformed me too. I was able to live his (fictional) experience vicariously and learn from his struggles. I felt that yearning in my spirit to lift others and to selflessly serve. I wanted to be more like that Christian Priest and like his pupil, Jean Valjean.

I've been moved similarly by various works over the years. I think that is why Latter-day Saints have been called upon to make great art. I think how much I was touched by "Trail of Dreams" or "Legacy." These dramas can help place spirit over body and help us connect with our history and with what we really are.

That is the reason that I think arts are so important for humanity, not just Latter-day Saints. Just last night I watched "The Secret Garden," a musical put on by the Provo Theatre Company. The venue was small. I was in row G which was only one row from the back. The acting and singing were fabulous. Music, lighting, and sets were great. I was able to look right into the world of Mary Lennox, a miserable and spoiled orphan girl whose life is transformed by the discovery of a garden. As the garden is restored to life, so is her little soul.

I am grateful that I can have transcendant spiritual experiences even outside the formal boundaries of religion. As someone said, we are spiritual beings having a mortal experience. Thanks to the many people that dedicate so much of their lives, talents and time to creating things of beauty and meaning.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday--the day that commemorates the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey's back, with the crowds laying palm fronds on the path before Him. And next week is Easter Sunday, the glorious day on which our Lord and Savior rose from the grave.

All my hopes for the future have roots in the events celebrated this week. All my desires for my family, all my dreams for happiness--they all come back to the Atonement. If it were not for Christ's sacrifice, I could never repent of the stupid things I do--and therefore I could never return to Father in Heaven, or be with my precious family again.

I don't have any specific memories of learning of the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. They were taught to us bit by bit, line upon line even, from before I can remember. These lessons were woven into our ordinary lives so subtly--Family Home Evening lessons, discussions around the dinner table, car trips, visits to grandparents--that I don't remember even learning them. I just know.

Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Christmas Day--these are important days. But they should not be the only time we think about the Atonement and Resurrection, nor the only time we teach our families about them. We deserve to spend more time than a few days a year dwelling on the miracle that makes all our happiness--present and future--possible.

Monday, April 03, 2006

"By What Authority" conference coming

Here is something that looks interesting. From a BYU press release:
Brigham Young University Religious Education and the Division of Continuing Education will host “By What Authority,” a two-day conference on religious authority in Christianity, Friday and Saturday, April 7-8, in the BYU Conference Center.

Admission is free and the public is welcome to attend.

The conference is divided into morning and afternoon sessions each day with breaks for lunch. Morning sessions each day begin at 8:30 a.m. The Friday afternoon session will run 1:30-4:30 p.m., and the Saturday afternoon session will run 2-3:50 p.m.

A panel discussion and question-and-answer period will follow both afternoon sessions.

From Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians claiming apostolic succession from the time of Christ to Protestants believing in a “priesthood of all believers,” the conference will allow discussion on the crucial question of religious authority.

Several individuals from various Christian religions will discuss similarities and differences between the different claims to authority. Speakers will include a diverse mix of religious professors and professionals from institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Roanoke College, Baylor University and North Park University in Chicago, as well as several BYU professors.

The overall purpose of the conference is to foster more understanding and knowledge between people of differing religious beliefs. The proceedings of the conference will eventually be published in book form.

I will probably try to attend some of this. BYU sent a flyer to employees with a more detailed schedule. This doesn't seem to be available on the web elsewhere. Here is a copy (PDF scan) if you are interested.

New Wine and Sensitivity

As we grow older, we become sensitive to more and more things. This is generally considered a good thing. For example, I am far more aware of struggles people have in the church--and the things that exacerbate those struggles--than I was ten years ago when I was preparing to head out on a mission. I said and did things in church as a missionary that I would never say today. I would tread more lightly and I would take certain concerns far more seriously, knowing what mammoth obstacles they can be in the lives of good people.

I believe that Joseph Smith, Jr. was called as a prophet while he was very young because new wine can't go into old bottles. Perhaps there is a divine advantage to be had in the insensitivies of youth. Would Joseph have been bold enough to speak forth the doctrines he learned from God if he had a couple of more decades of learning and experience? Some doctrines probably aren't ever going to make rational sense when viewed in the light on this mortal probation alone.

There is a natural human tendency to soft peddle any doctines that don't fit well with our culture. It is interesting to hear Latter-day Saints today demand that the Church admit that polygamy was never inspired. It is such a puzzle to many of us that we just can't see how God would require it.

But I am confident that He did require it.

Many believe (and I count myself among their number) that the priesthood was withheld from blacks in this church for such a long time because the white members weren't yet able to bear it. There were too many old bottles with the wrong sensitivities.

I'm not sure where this argument leaves me. I am grateful that I am more sensitive to the needs and struggles of a larger portion of the world. And yet I wonder if my increased sensitivities are all of the right type. Will they prevent me from accepting God's words when they come? I pray not.

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