Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What sorcery? --Morm 1: 18-19

"And these Gadianton robbers, who were among the Lamanites, did infest the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof began to hide up their treasures in the earth; and they became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land, that they could not hold them, nor retain them again.
And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics; and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land, even unto the fulfilling of all the words of Abinadi, and also Samuel the Lamanite."

In the generations after Jesus had come, people learned that certain plants were not to be cultivated or their powers concentrated, but the first wicked generation strayed in part because the rediscovered the effects of those plants.

And the Gadiantion robbers taught that if a man took an elixir from one plant, he would feel great power, and if he took an elixir of another, he could see visions, and if he took yet another, he could forget the guilt of every wrong he'd done.

But those who craved this false atonement and false Spirit grew deep pits in their bowels that made them a desperate sort of thirsty so that they always needed more and more of the elixirs and were willing to do more and more to get them.

And so it was that every man's treasure became slippery, as those who became living ghosts because of the elixir watched with one-sighted eyes for anything they could use to obtain more from those who knew the plants and the strongest ways to distill their essence into a liquid sort of gold.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Believing without Seeing --Luke 7: 6-9

"Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof:
Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed.
For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel." (Luke 7: 6-9)

There was also once a certain man, an American, who came to Jesus and said "Forgive me for my sins!" And Jesus said to him, "what did you do?" And the man said "I haven't broken any of the commandments or trespassed the law in any way, but whenever I burn oil, a child got sick from its well first in Nigeria, and the air conditioning I use for simple comfort strains the resources some yet-unborn grandson of mine might need to care for his wife and children." And Jesus said, "I haven't seen faith like that in Israel either, faith in the power of things you don't see."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Cool Video--Luke 10:33-35

"But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee."

I had a chance, between graduation at BYU and my return as an adjunct, to grow out my beard quickly and help out acting in a short church film of the Good Samaritan story. We shot at a very cool site near Goshen, UT: an old stone structure there made the director think of some abandoned building a scrappy man might have been able to make an inn out of. It looked really beautiful as the sun set, and since unlike the Samaritan, I didn't have to carry anyone up stone stairs, I could enjoy that.

The video is posted online now at the bottom of the page of the church's call for actors for further New Testament video projects which will be shooting this spring. It's five minutes or so and well worth watching. You should also pass on the call for actors/extras to anyone who might be a good fit.

The grey is added and I have age make-up:
the script calls for someone in his forties who
"looks worn out." It describes the innkeeper
as "chief cook and bottle-washer." It was sort
of a relief when they decided to age me--when
I got cast, I figured that meant I was looking
worn-out enough all ready to make up being
thirteen years shy of forty!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Best posts for a book?

I'm currently compiling some of my Mormon-themed short stories, essays, poems, plays, screenwriting, and criticism into a book draft. I'm not entirely sure who would print the book yet, but I'm pretty sure at least a few hundred people would buy it.

I'd like to include a brief section with maybe ten of the short pieces in this blog. Any suggestions on which of these "midrashim" would be best for a book?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reed -- Ps. 27: 4

"One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple." (Ps. 27: 4)

When I was 18, I visited the Orem, UT ward I'd grown up in for the first time in six years. Those six years had changed a lot: a tight subdivision of condos had replaced what used to be orchards at the end of the once-dead-end street I grew up on, so the ward had a lot of new people I didn't know. Also: I was at least a foot taller and had grown long hair and beard, which made the child in me a little hard to notice on an impromptu visit.

The first person to recognize me, despite all the differences, was my childhood friend Reed. Most of my old friends had moved away to college by then, but Reed has Down Syndrome and still lived with his parents. The beard and hair didn't fool him one bit: he knew me on the very first glance, whispered across the chapel "James!"

A few years later, I got word that Reed was serving a church service mission and wrote him a letter. He wrote back. I didn't talk to him for quite a while after that, but would think of him sometimes, tell my wife about him when we'd pass my old neighborhood.

Today, I went to the church distribution store to pick up some things for my younger brother, who is currently in the Missionary Training Center. A man in the store looked like Reed's dad, but I shrugged it off as nostalgia playing with my perceptions. But then next to him was Reed, and I knew Reed for sure right away.

We talked. He'd been on another church service mission, this one with his parents to the Nauvoo Temple. He'd loved it, but didn't miss it much because he serves every Saturday morning in the Mount Timpanogos Temple as an ordinance worker. Maybe I should try to come when he's there, I said. Yes, said Reed. And say hi to your brother Stephen, who I used to play soccer with, he added.

I kept asking Reed questions about his life then, because I've missed the way he talks. He's got a nice, gentle way about him and he obviously loves his life so much.

A part of me thinks maybe even the temple is a little holier because Reed serves in it.

Another part of me thinks: it's so good God gave us temples, so that there's a place for Reed to serve so meaningfully.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

If it felt so right, why did it turn out wrong? -- Matt 2: 1-2

"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him." (Matt 2: 1-2)

Could there be any doubt that the star they'd seen was most unusual? Could any of them question what he had felt on seeing that star, the way he'd simply known that this signified the coming of a very special Jewish their fathers had been hearing about since the days when Daniel served Darius?

A wise man knows that knowledge comes and goes, but that experience of spiritual certainty was more than ordinary knowledge. A wise man knows that some feelings are worth following across the desert, are worth giving up wealth to purchase frankincense, gold, myrrh. Those wise men knew that seeing that star meant they should drop everything and see the King of Israel's newborn son.

So they sold possessions. They bought the best presents and provisions for the journey. These easterners traveled west in past the borders of the Roman Empire, farther west than they'd ever been before, and found--nothing. There was Herod, yes, this was Jerusalem, sure enough. But no crying baby. Not even a toddler crawling around the floor. They'd been wrong, absolutely wrong. It was obvious--no king had been born in this house; there was nothing any star could do to change the reality that was right before their eyes!

"Can I help you?" said Herod.

And they were about to shrug, turn around, hang their heads, head home. About to stop watching fickle stars now and forever. About to forget the whole delusion that is Hope, about to give up their wisdom for good old realism and practicality.

But then one of them said, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews?"

And the others chimed in, "We saw the star. We know we saw the star. If he isn't here, where exactly can we go to find and worship him?"

Maybe the stars don't lie. Maybe the feelings we've felt are worth crossing the desert for really are worth every sacrifice.

Oh, but all that doesn't make it easy to follow God past so many of our assumptions and expectations!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Joseph Smith's Dreams VII

Dreams of Beginning, Part Three
28 April 1830

Joseph has trouble falling asleep tonight. The constable who arrested him sleeps with a musket by his side and his feet against the door. The constable tells Joseph he is doing so in case a self-appointed jury comes tonight to hold a trial with tar and feathers. For some reason, Joseph does not finds the constable’s kindness entirely comforting.
Joseph sleeps only fitfully, and has three dreams:

In the first, he goes to court and is not allowed to swear on the Bible, because the judge refuses to believe that he believes in it. He argues with the judge, who has the face of his father-in-law, but gets nowhere. He takes Emma out of the jury box and walks away with her into the woods, knowing that they will hold his trial without him and wondering how badly it will go.
In the second dream, Joseph can’t hear any of the testimony because a pack of dogs is barking loudly outside the window. Josiah Stoal testifies, and Joseph can’t hear a word. Polly Harris testifies, but Joseph can’t tell what she’s saying. The man who took away their farm in Vermont is testifying and the dogs are getting louder. The judge issues a verdict, but Joseph can’t hear it. Joseph can’t hear anything but the dogs.
In the last dream, Joseph goes to court and finds that God is the judge. Joseph’s legs turn heavy. He remembers drinking too much with some friends when he was sixteen, saying things about their neighbors Christians ought not to say and laughing too hard about them. Joseph’s lawyer is late. Joseph tries and tries, but though he’s sure he’ll feel much better when his lawyer arrives, he can’t remember his lawyer’s face or name.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Medical Tort Reform and Repentence -- D&C 58: 43

"By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them."(D&C 58: 43)

Usually, when we talk about repentance, we're referring to individual sins (as in the scripture above). Sometimes, we might even forget that those aren't the only kind of sins: the Doctrine and Covenants, for example, frequently warns listeners to leave the sins of their generation. If a whole generation can sin, can't a company, a government, or even an entire profession?

Let's consider medical malpractice. Our mortal bodies are sacred, and it's probably safe to say that it's in some small way, least, sinful for a doctor or nurse to be careless in treating them. Sinful especially in the sense of being something no good doctor really wants to do, although habits, time constraints, etc. mean that doctors, like all people, don't always live up to the standard of conduct they want. There's a good case to be made that most malpractice, in fact, doesn't come from "bad" doctors, but from normal doctors failing to perform as well as they'd like under normal conditions.

Currently, the legal remedy for a doctor who makes a mistake with serious consequences is to take that doctor to civil court, preferably for a jury trial. If the effect of the mistake has been particularly tragic, the jury tends to award large amounts of money to the patient. This, it is assumed, will teach the doctor a lesson, and he/she will pay better attention next time. In essence, our legal system for medical malpractice is effective if and only if stiffer punishments invariably lead to better repentance.

I don't think that's the case. I have an easier time imagining that stiffer punishments encourage hiding one's sins or refusing to accept accountability for one's sins. What if, instead of focusing so exclusively on compensation for the families who are harmed, we put some sort of upper limit on medical malpractice awards, and focused more energy instead on changing habits and conditions for doctors' next patients? Doctors already meet regularly in most hospitals to talk about recent events and how to improve practice. What if malpractice trials devoted attention to what could be done in the future to decrease the overall incidence of a given accident?

That would certainly make it easier for doctors to quickly and fully confess their "sins," instead of having strong financial motivation to hide them. It might also make it easier for doctors, collectively, to forsake a given pattern of error by having freer access to the relevant data.

Would capping damages in medical malpractice cases actually serve to promote collective repentance?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Joseph Smith's Dreams VI

Dreams of Beginning, Part Two
16 April 1830

In his dream, Joseph stands in the middle of a great field of wheat. Emma is beside him, and there is no one else in sight, maybe on earth. He reaches out and runs his palms across the grains. He can taste something in his mouth: touching this wheat tastes like honey. He wants to tell Emma about this, but when he looks at her, he realizes she already knows: that’s why they’re in this field. The sun is warm, and the wheat is high, and he knows that it’s time for the harvest.
Then Joseph’s father is there and Joseph Knight is there and they ask him how to cut the grain gently so the honey taste won’t go. And Joseph says: I don’t know how; I’m still young; you’re the experienced farmers. He says to his father: you taught my brothers how to cut the wheat, and they taught me. He looks at Joseph Knight and says Didn’t you teach your sons?
Touching the wheat never tasted like honey before, they say to him.
Emma smiles, and the light behind her hair says Hurry. He looks back to the wheat, and it says: Don’t worry. People have done this before, long ago, longer than your father’s fathers know.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Globalization of Sin --Morm. 3: 22

"And I would that I could persuade all ye ends of the earth to repent and prepare to stand before the judgment-seat of Christ." (Morm 3: 22)

A certain sin was extolled by a man named A in the country of B, but manufactured by a company called C in the distant region of D. In E (where A was particularly popular), a firm called F was soon particularly aggressive in advertising this sin to the demographic group G. Because of the distance between D and E, several hustlers--we'll call them H--were soon fully engaged in the business of selling the sin. They weren't content simply to sell to G, however, and quickly invited I to experiment with it as well. And oh, how I loved the sin! How I admired A, how faithfully I obeyed F, how willing I was to ignore the hurt caused by H throughout D and E, how blind I was to the plight of C's workers, who earned their daily bread spinning evil out of good, and good into evil.

Now who, in all this web of sin, will stand accountable before J at the last day? And where, in such a world, will we find room for J's Kingdom?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Joseph Smith's Dreams V

Dreams of Beginning, Part One
6 April 1830

It’s a beautiful spring day. Joseph and his father are walking up a steep hill. The farther they walk, the steeper the hill becomes. The tools in Joseph’s hands grow heavy. His father begins to get ahead, Joseph is afraid he will not be able to keep up. Joseph drops the tools and increases his pace. The slope gets steeper and the grass gives way to rock. Joseph has to half-climb, half-walk to keep moving ahead. He can hear his father’s feet against the rock ahead, but he can’t see much at all anymore.
Joseph stops hearing his father. He’s worried about him, and increases his pace. Joseph’s lungs burn. His hands sting as they grasp the rocks, but he has to get to his father, has to make sure he’s still alive.
Joseph makes it up the steepest part of the trail and sees his father and brothers at a flat space ahead, standing in the shadow of a wall of rock too steep to climb. We’re ready to cut, says Alvin. He looks at Joseph, says: Do you have the tools?
Joseph’s heart sinks.
It’s all right, says Hyrum, we’ll just use our hands. When Joseph reaches out to tug at the rock, though, he leaves a red mark. His hands, lacerated from the climb, are bleeding.
William gets angry. He slams his fist against the rock. He storms off down the hillside. Samuel goes to talk him down. Hyrum follows, hoping that when William calms down, he can talk him into coming back.
Joseph and Alvin follow at a safe distance.
Then there’s a strange sound behind them. Even without them, a rock has been cut. Joseph sees it in the distance, and it’s stirring. He turns to Alvin in excitement, but Alvin looks worried. He says it’s getting bigger. He says it’s coming toward them. Joseph begins to run—he thought Alvin was running with him, but soon he notices that no one is beside or behind him, though Hyrum, Samuel, and William are still ahead. Joseph runs as fast as he can down the rocky slope, and he catches up to Hyrum. The rock is bigger, and they can hear it rolling closer and faster. It makes a dull roar and they are nervous. They catch up to Samuel and the rock is closer now, and sounds like it’s gaining speed, and nervousness inches toward terror.
They run faster than is safe down the hill, turning over their control to the slope itself, letting it hurtle their legs in ever-faster circles downward, now they run abreast of William also and the rock is still closer they can feel its presence at their backs and any moment now, Joseph thinks, the slope will become more gentle again and perhaps the rock will slow down—but no, it’s still steeper and perhaps becoming steeper and it’s steep for as far as their eyes can see and then they are running with the rock, in the rock, and Alvin and father are there in the rock with them and perhaps they will live the rest of history locked in stone.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

AWESOME lesson on Pornography --1 Pet 3: 15

"But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (1 Pet 3: 15)

Pornography is one of the serious challenges facing contemporary societies: due to recent changes in technology, it's widely accessible, and due to age-old factors in biology, it's highly addictive. More liberal societies typically do little to regulate it, and more conservative societies often don't acknowledge it enough to cope with it: the perfect recipe for a worldwide epidemic. How is a worldwide church supposed to cope?

The first phase in our collective awareness was to repeatedly affirm that pornography is bad. In a world where good is often called evil (Isa. 5: 20), this was--and is--an important step. As I learned doing research for a play involving a character struggling with pornography, however, it's not nearly enough. Many religious people's pornography problems are actually compounded by feelings of depression, low self-worth, and disconnection: that is, men and women who believe pornography is bad are more likely to view it anyway when they also feel bad about themselves. A culture in which we only talk about pornography as evil and shameful makes it difficult for people to reach out of a loop in which feeling guilty actually leads to more sin, and more sin in turn to greater guilt and disconnection.

That's why I was so impressed with my bishop's approach at our combined meeting on Sunday. He opened the lesson by asking us, a la Christ's parable in Matt 20: 1-16, who will be redeemed: people who keep the commandments all their lives, or people who don't and then repent. We answered, of course, that both will be redeemed. The bishop then asked us what the difference between the two is. We answered that keeping the commandments early means a better quality of life. That's when he told us his subject was pornography. By having framed it in terms of an optimistic question about redemption, he'd taken away some of the aura of shame and guilt and set a tone of hope instead.

He kept that tone throughout the lesson. A few particularly good moves stick in my mind:

1) The bishop said that he doesn't ask people in interviews whether they view pornography. He asks them what they did last time they ran across something pornographic. This was brilliant because rather than singling out people with a problem and making them feel separately addressed and indicted, he made having plans and coping strategies a part of our shared conversation. I'd also imagine that using that question makes it easier for people who are struggling to talk openly with him about their struggles and seek help. Being able to talk is a step toward being able to change and heal.

2) The bishop spoke not only of the problems of pornography, but also of the increased opportunities that come to those who can change their lives. He talked about things as simple as having more attention for children. He talked about the blessings of feeling more connected to those around us. This was brilliant because instead of only indicting the bad behavior, it provided a clear alternative more in line with people's deeply-held celestial goals.

3) The bishop invited a ward member who serves as a part-time missionary in church pornography counseling programs to talk about how the meetings are and how they work. The brother then talked about his love of his calling because he's able to see people turn from shame to hope. The bishop then spoke about how to gauge the seriousness of a pornography problem in terms of intensity, duration, and some other things I can't remember, thus helping people consider when it's important to seek counseling help.

I am glad that our church culture is very clear about the unacceptability of pornography and the dangers of pornography. I think that approaches like my Bishop's (and of church resources like the "Let Virtue Garnish Thy Thoughts" booklet) are important in creating an environment in which people can also talk about pornography, develop strategies for living better in a world full of pornography, and overcome problems with pornography.

In general, I hope that we can all pass on hope and encouragement about things with which people struggle as well as passing on a clear sense of good and evil in our own conversations and reactions.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Joseph Smith's Dreams IV

Dreams of Completion, Part Three
19 April 1829

Moroni appears, in the dream, over Joseph’s teenage bed. Joseph has to be quiet, because all his brothers are sleeping around him, but Moroni speaks as if no one else were there at all.
Joseph—he says—where are the pages?
Joseph doesn’t have to look under his pillow to know they’re not there. He’s lost them. He’s lost them, and he wants to make excuses or even lie about it, but he’s standing in the presence of an angel. An angel who died in crushing loneliness to preserve the book Joseph has just lost.
I’ve lost them—again, says Joseph. He can’t look Moroni in the eye. I’ve lost them again and God, who knows my family is good at losing everything, should probably just find someone else to do his work this time.
No, says Moroni, No, it’s far too late for that.
So what do I do? says Joseph. Is there another book?
Just one, says Moroni, but it’s not the same. Like the Israelites in Moses’ day, you lost the law God wanted to give you. You couldn’t stand my father’s book, so all that’s left for you is mine.
Then Moroni rolls up his sleeve and Joseph sees for the first time that carved and scarred into his arm are the characters of the old language. Joseph’s eyes sting then and he understands at once that it’s because their surfaces are turning into stone, crusting over hard into an inescapable Urim and Thumim.
So when Joseph looks up he can’t help but read the Lamentations of Moroni, can’t help but read the unthinkable wars to come in the last days, when death falls like rain from the sky, and as a copy of the book is carved into Joseph’s mind he screams and he screams and he screams.

And he is still screaming when he wakes up and Emma is holding him tight, as if he were about to die, and Emma is desperately whispering to him that it’s all right it’s all right it’s all right.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Joseph Smith's Dreams III

Dreams of Completion, Part Two
12 April 1829

Joseph and Oliver are standing at a desk over the manuscript. It’s evening, but the room is burning hot, no, boiling hot—the thick, wet heat of late summer and Joseph’s clothes stick to his body and sweat streams down into his eyes as he looks at the lamp they’ve translated by and though something inside of him presses a NO against his lungs and chest, Joseph reaches out to snuff the lamp—he can’t stand the heat—and gathers up the pages to carry outside and into town, to the printer’s.
The last light of dusk disappears quickly, now that the lamp’s been put out, and it begins to grow cold. Joseph is wearing a coat, but the wind picks up and stings the sides of his face, punishing him for his youth, for not being able to grow a good protective beard.
Joseph turns his head away from the wind and with a sinking sensation realizes maybe that’s why it happens, why he doesn’t see it: as soon as he turns his face, the wind races and begins to steal the pages from him, tearing them one by one from his hands. He clutches the rest close to his chest, but the wind still pries them from his arms. He wants to run after them, but he can’t because there’s a thick mist, a darkness to both sides of him, and now the wind blows it over him and there’s only five pages left.
Joseph realizes his only chance is to keep pressing forward, to put one foot in front of another until he makes it to the printer. Now the wind tears another pages out of his arms, tears it so violently from him that he can hear it rip apart in mid-air, or else against the branches of some tree he can’t see in the dark. He steps forward and it’s COLD there’s cold running water filling his boot with muck and silt and Joseph has to turn the other way as the wind steals another page. Three left. Three, and he doesn’t know which way to the printer, so he just runs until the wind knocks his whole body off balance and he falls hard on his side and loses a page—so that there’s only one left when he opens his eyes and sees that he’s fallen into the printer’s shop.
There’s no wind here. It’s eerily calm, and it’s dusk. Joseph is still lying on the ground, so the printer, in his work apron, walks over and extends his hand towards Joseph to help him up.
The printer is Martin Harris. Joseph hands him the last page, only to realize that it isn’t a page from the Book of Mormon at all. It’s a revelation for Joseph and Martin from last year, and fresh shame breaks out across Martin’s face when he sees it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Consumer Confidence --Matt 6: 24

"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon [money]."(Matt 6: 24)

I once read a Hugh Nibley essay that warned, among other things, against seeing rebellious youth as more sinful than the socially-respectable men in suits working hard for "power and gain." In other words: we ought to be more alarmed by the yuppie than by the hippie, even more concerned about greed than about lust.

When I read the essay, I felt strongly that Brother Nibley was onto something: the Book of Mormon warns again and again against pride, especially pride based in material wealth. If it's really written for "our day," as we're so fond of saying, then economic sin is the kind we need to most carefully guard against.

I've been thinking about that article again since I ran across this image on the new media news-site Mashable (unlike many images I'm concerned about, I actually feel comfortable posting this one on my blog):

The image is actually quite clever: it takes a recently-minted Facebook icon which is spreading across the web and recontextualizes it in a way that is unexpected and humorous (and by extension, memorable). It's great new media design.

I think it's also fairly troubling.

This isn't the first ad or promotional image I've seen that tries to draw attention to a woman's breasts and doesn't even show her face. It's certainly not the first image that takes sexual attraction out of a normal life context, or that treats it, effectively, as a commodity--an entertainment experience, as it were, for a consumer base.

Thinking about pictures like this one, I'm more and more convinced that divisions between greed and lust are evaporating in our society. The decontextualization and commodification of sexuality in our contemporary, image-driven consumer culture are serious causes for alarm because they show the extent to which Mammon is infiltrating every aspect of life. It was bad enough when lust was a deadly sin. Now it's also a product, and part of a product-mentality that is bad, bad, bad (at least according to Jesus) for our souls.

I'm also more and more convinced that I've been wrong, over the years, to think of corporate execs with fancy cars and McMansions as being unique symbols of the worship of Mammon. The average American consumer, I think, is capable of an amazing amount of Mammon worship without ever noticing that something is wrong. We are all poster children for the money cult. We're all sell-outs to a system that isn't getting any less wrong.

We've got to find a way to live less as consumers and more as brothers and sisters if we're going to keep calling ourselves religious. That's no easy task, though, in a world that sees itself in products and has gotten very, very good at hiding the true costs.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Joseph Smith's Dreams II

Dreams of Completion, Part One
6 April 1829

It’s the same dream as last night. The manuscript is finished, and Joseph gives it to Oliver to take to the printer. Joseph waits in a room made of oak on a chair made of pine. Oliver doesn’t come back. Joseph begins to grow nervous, he paces. Oliver doesn’t come back. He’s been gone too long, think Joseph, maybe he’s turned the pages back into gold, then melted them down and sold them.
No. Joseph turns and sees Oliver sitting in the pine chair. Oliver’s head is in his hands. He’s moaning. What is it, Oliver? says Joseph. What happened?
I fear I’ve lost my soul, says Oliver. Oh Joseph, I’ve lost the manuscript—all of it. The whole thousand and one pages.
Joseph realizes, of course, that it’s his own fault. He realizes now that before Oliver left for the printer’s, when they were so happy to be done, Oliver asked if he could show the manuscript to his wife. NO said the Spirit--but such was the mood of swaggering celebration, such was the sweet remission in the long ache of translation that reached down into sockets of Joseph’s eyes, that Yes he said Show her the plates, show them to anyone.
And now Oliver had, and it was Joseph’s fault that she had taken the pages from Oliver’s hands and in front of his face she had burned them, all of them—except one, which she would keep and change to prove the book a fake if Joseph ever produced it again.
It was Joseph’s fault, but anger still rose hot in his throat against her for the burning. He walked straight up to her—yes, she was there in the room! her back turned toward him, her face to the oak wall. He grabbed her shoulder, and turned her toward him—but try as he might, he could not see her face.

Joseph woke in a cold sweat. He tried to calm his heart by telling himself slowly again and again: Oliver doesn’t have a wife.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Three Visions of a Murder --1 Ne 4: 10

"And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him." (1 Ne 4: 10)

Speaking of this story, perhaps Alma once said:

There were actually two Labans Nephi was afraid to kill: the Laban of the past, and the Laban of the future.

When the Spirit told Nephi to kill Laban the second time, Nephi remembered that Laban had tried to kill him and his brothers, had stolen their goods, and was in all contexts a wicked and oppressive man. This was enough to legally justify killing the Laban of the past, but Nephi still refused to strike a blow that in cutting against the past, would also cut into the future.

And so the Spirit spoke a third time, and continued to speak until Nephi understood that if Laban were allowed to keep the plates both legally purchased and ordained by God for the family of Lehi, the Laban of the future would continue to harm the family forever.

Violence is not justified only by what has been done in the past. There must also be a possibility that if violence is not committed, conditions will become worse in the future.

And perhaps Teancum said otherwise:

Nephi hesitated because he knows that whoever commits violence also brings the curse of violence back on himself. It is because Nephi killed Laban that Laman and Lemuel later attempted to kill Nephi: if Laban had given Nephi the plates, Nephi would never have been subjected to his brothers' violence. Thus, a share of the accountability for all the violence among the Nephites lies forever with Laban.

But maybe Nehor nonetheless believed:

That Nephi killed Laban was a historical necessity, and Nephi's hesitation came only because he did not understand that anything which is necessary is also right.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

New Series: Joseph Smith's Dreams

A long time ago, I started a thread called Church History Thursdays. Unfortunately, due to the complicated nature of the posts, I didn't keep that tradition going for long. In its place, I'd like to offer a new series called "Joseph Smith's Dreams" over the next few months. With each fictional dream, I'll attempt to imagine what some of the pressures on Joseph Smith might have felt like. As always, I'd appreciate your comments/questions/reactions.

Joseph Smith's Dreams: Introduction

When he’s awake, he sees angels, finds hidden records, stands face-to-face at least once with the Father and twice with the Son. When he’s awake, he sees Eden somewhere between white and native civilizations, hears words streaming out of the mouth of God, feels the weight of apostles’ hands on his head by a riverbank. When he’s awake, people press around him—some hungry for the Spirit, some thirsty for his blood—and he loses himself sometimes in the whirlpools of their words. When he’s awake, plagues sweep the nations, earthquakes roar—he can almost see the Second Coming and he’ll close his eyes and imagine the Son of Man in red when the mobs cover his body in hot tar.

So what is left for this Joseph-son-of-Joseph to see when he sleeps?

Maybe, on the banks of the Mississippi, drained by blessing the sick while camped in a malarial swamp, Joseph’s eyes slam shut like a Missouri prison and he dreams nothing at all.

Maybe, looking out at the moon from a second-story cell in Carthage, the dreamlessness of his sleep is a sweet respite.

But maybe, just maybe, there is no calm between the stormy days of this life. Maybe Joseph dreams every night.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Thesis Defense --1 Nephi 19: 6

"Nevertheless, I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred. And now, if I do err, even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself." (1 Ne 19: 6)

During my thesis defense on Thursday, I talked about how I've tried to use my blogs to suggest a certain interconnectedness that permeates the world (see my recent Caucajewmexdian post). I went as far as to say that maybe having blogs that focus primarily on humor and ethnicity interconnected with a blog about Mormon scriptures might help dispel some negative stereotypes about Mormonism--stereotypes that even some bright Mormons tend to accept.

I did enough to talk up the interconnectedness of my three blogs, however, that one professor asked: "If showing people the multiple parts of your identity is so important, why separate them into three different blogs in the first place?"

My answer was this: even in the internet, I believe that we can strive to create more reverent and sacred spaces. Even Nephi kept two separate sets of plates: one for politics, another for religion. Separating the religion into its own space, perhaps, elevates both reader and writer. Spirituality is never totally independent of history, of course, but the concentration of reverent energy onto a separate set of plates can still serve, I think, to change the way that writer and reader alike approach the record. The separation allows the sacredness to happen.

Would Nephi have also kept a separate religious blog?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's the Difference Between Science and Religion? --Numbers 21: 8-9

"And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived." (Num. 21: 8-9)

When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were thrown into a fiery furnace, fully prepared to die rather than accept idolatry, an angel from God was sent to question them. The angel said: "Doesn't Moses say to choose life? So why are you ready to choose death?"

The three young Hebrews, all well versed in the Torah, responded that they would die to keep the Ten Commandments, one of which said, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them." (Ex. 20: 4-5)

But the angel, having anticipated this argument, produced a fireproof copy of the Torah and showed them the passage above, in which Moses is commanded by God to make a graven image--in direct contradiction to God's own commandment!

"I respect your courage," said the angel, "but how do you, who are willing to die for the words of this book, explain a passage like this?"

The three were quick to respond.

Shadrach said: "It's not actually the form of idolatry God objects to, but the content. Moloch and Baal were evil ideas, not just evil for being images. The idol we now refuse to worship is simply a stand-in for worshiping the king. That's why the commandment is reflexive: 'thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.' Moses' serpent wasn't made unto himself, but unto God. Because God was its content, its form as a graven image didn't make a difference."

Meshach always agreed with Shadrach as to course of action, but almost never agreed with the whole of his reasoning. And so he also answered: "God does object to idolatry as a form, and sanctified our people with a commandment against it. But he knew that our fathers in Moses' day had idolatrous hearts, and so he worked with them in the manner of their own understanding. Moses made the brazen serpent for them, but he received the commandments on Horeb for us. The fundamental point here is not of form or content, but context. God works differently for the children than for their rebellious parents."

Abed-nego, however, said to the angel: "When you return to heaven and tell this story, preserve my friends' explanations, but tell the listener that neither of them is necessary. It is enough to say that the story of the brass serpent is told to show that God is able to embrace contradictions."

Monday, April 26, 2010

Two Hundred Years of Concision --Omni 1: 30

"And I, Amaleki, had a brother, who also went with them; and I have not since known concerning them. And I am about to lie down in my grave; and these plates are full. And I make an end of my speaking."

When Lehi and Nephi began to write, their sacred plates were mostly blank and full of possibility. By the time Jacob received the plates, however, they were more than half full, and so he wrote with greater concision. Enos, getting the plates after Jacob, wrote even more carefully, and Jarom more carefully still.

All the record-keepers from Jarom through Amaleki were faced with the terrible challenge of writing on plates that were nearly full. What do you say into a sacred history with almost no space left?

Only after Amaleki filled the plates and thus reopened history could the people see their own generation's experience as sacred again.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kira's FHE --Alma 7: 24

"And see that ye have faith, hope, and charity, and then ye will always abound in good works." (Alma 7: 24)

At family home evening last night (Monday night Nicole and I put off Family Home Evening to see a new play by a good friend of mine), Kira chose to read this scripture for the lesson. Kira is relatively new to the world of reading, and scripture print is pretty tight and small, so it took a while to make it through the verse. By the time she finished, I was ready for a song and prayer, but luckily Nicole had the patient to take time first to talk about what the scripture means.

What is faith? she asked Kira.

Kira, who is still too young to have worried about any of faith's opposites in her relationship with God, had no idea. We said: faith is talking to Heavenly Father even though you can't see him. She said: "I'm a faith girl."

What is hope? my wife asked Kira.

Kira said she didn't know that, either, until Nicole reminded her that she talks about hope all the time. Hope is like a wish said Kira. It's a wish for a good thing.

What is charity? said Nicole to Kira.

That one, of course, stumped Kira, since the answer is for her is probably that charity is a scriptures-only word. So I said: charity is a fancy word for love. And Kira said "I love everybody in the whole entire world." So I said: yes. That's charity. You love your parents, and that's one kind of love. Your parents love each other, and that's a different kind. When you love everyone in the world, that's charity.

And what are good works? asked Nicole.

For Kira, good works are being nice to her teacher and helping throw away trash. When I was a teenager, they were staying away from alcohol, drugs, and sex. For Shiprah and Puah, good works were disobeying a direct order from a king who thought he was a god and then lying about it. For Thomas S. Monson, they are remembering the widows and teaching people how to see their own lives in terms of service. For Nicole, perhaps, they include using her talents to find the wise and good in texts. And so on, into a thousand and one possibilities every night, so that my old stake president, Samuel Kiehl, used to say: "There are so many good things to do you can safely just cross bad off your list."

This is, I think, part of the meaning of the word "abound."

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Righteous Disobedience --Ex. 1: 15-21

"And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah:
And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.
But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.
Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.
And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses." (Ex. 15-17, 20-21)

We often teach that obedience is a virtue without emphasizing that it is obedience to God and goodness we mean.

I think it's important to remember that the scriptures themselves teach the possibility of righteous disobedience in certain contexts.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Seder Thought from a Seven-Year-Old --Ex. 2: 23-25

"And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.
And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them." (Ex.2: 23-25)

Had a seder with my wife's family--including eleven children under the age of twelve--last night. I have a three-and-a-half page cutting of the Haggadah I like to use, but was a little worried about the kids paying attention even through that, so I tried to tell the story of the Exodus, as much as possible, by asking them questions.

For instance, when I asked "What did they people do when they wanted to stop being slaves?," one of my nephews correctly remembered/guessed, "They prayed."

"That's right!" I said. "And what did God do then?"

My seven-year-old niece raised her hand. "He prayed back," she said.

I like that. Here's to a God who prays back.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Thought on Polygamy

No scripture this time, just a thought. I am hardly alone in my occasional discomfort over the historical association between Mormonism and polygamy, and so I think it's worthwhile to share the latest thing I've told myself about it.

Most religious traditions, at key points in their histories, are confronted with questions over the role of marriage and sexuality in spiritual life. Some (Theravada Buddhism, Catholicism, Shakerism, etc.) see sex as leading away from God and treat asceticism and celibacy as an ideal. Other groups (ancient Judaism, Islam, some Reformation-era Anabaptists, etc.) endorse marriage, even in plural forms, as spiritually healthy. A few groups (Tantrism, Jacob Frank's sect, etc.) have gone as far as to teach free love or other forms of extramarital sexuality as having spiritual utility.

Luckily for us, historical forces have shaped the world in such a way that monogamy is a more common moral ideal today than any other system. While their priests still don't marry, for example, the contemporary Catholic Church is extremely supportive of the married couples who form the core of most Catholic communities. Jews in medieval Europe dropped plural marriage so as not to offend their neighbors and have continued to hold to monogamy since; Mormons abandoned our limited practice of plural marriage after less than fifty years of practicing it and are now devoutly monogamous.

Of course, growing up Mormon outside of Utah, you're still going to get ridiculed, probably frequently, over polygamy. And growing up Mormon anywhere, you're going to have to come to terms with the history of polygamy in the Church. Since monogamy is so much nicer, that can be tough.

Lately, though, coming to terms with our plural marriage history seems much easier than coming to terms with a religious heritage/history of idealized celibacy would be. I would rather deal with the legacy of a Joseph Smith, who felt that marriage, sexuality, and family were so spiritually significant that plural marriage deserved restoration than with the legacy of a figure like Buddha who felt compelled, as a part of his search for spiritual answers, to leave his marriage permanently and who preached celibacy for the spiritually serious.

Sure, Buddha's celibacy is a lot less controversial in our culture than Joseph's marriages--but I'd rather agree with Joseph that marriage is part of God's plan and deal with the strange baggage of plural marriage than have to disagree with my religion's history on the question of whether family life (including marital sex) is ideal or not.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Second-Generation Ship --1 Ne 17:17

"And when my brethren saw that I was about to build a ship, they began to murmur against me, saying: Our brother is a fool, for he thinketh that he can build a ship; yea, and he also thinketh that he can cross these great waters."

There was a very specific reason Laman and Lemuel were wary of building a boat.

Before he was a prophet, when his first four sons were still only boys, Lehi had claimed divine inspiration for the first time. He had been doing well trading along the camel routes from Arabia to Egypt--and then one day he came home and announced that God wanted him to build a ship and break into the lucrative trade in cedar from Lebanon.

Lehi threw his energy into the project with a religious intensity, and the boys got excited like they'd never been before. But getting the right permits and finding the right workers was hard; expenses built up fast and Lehi had to take out big loans; the ship almost didn't get built and almost as soon as the ship was built, there was a market collapse in Egypt and not much room for Lehi in the cedar trade anymore; finally, after a bad storm in the harbor, the ship sank.

It was the family's worst disaster. Lehi had to work extra hard and take long trade trips during Laman and Lemuel's early teenage years to bring the family fortunes back again.

So when Nephi told them God wanted another boat, Laman and Lemuel mocked him. To them, memories of the first boat meant that God didn't really get involved in nautical issues.

In Nephi's memory, though, the first boat was associated positively with his father's early faith. And it set a precedent for God's later command.

The difference between the brothers was in how they interpreted their early life experience.

(A variation on this story is also told in which the first shipbuilder is not Lehi, but Joseph Smith, while the brothers are not Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, and Sam but Warren Parrish, David Whitmer, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff. In that version, the ship is not a ship, but rather the Kirtland Bank.)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Volunteering at Bayonet Point --Matt 5: 10

"Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. " (Matt 5: 10)

In 1838, mobs tried to drive all Mormons out of Missouri. When Mormons fought back, the state militia was called in against them. The Mormons soon surrendered, and were ordered to sign over the deeds to their property to the state to pay for the "war." Stephen LeSeur's history on the subject (published by the University of Missouri Press) says:
"After singing the deeds, the Mormons were required to raise their hands and swear that their actions were voluntary. This proved too much for Nathan Tanner, who raised his hand and mockingly waved it over the soldiers' bayonets. 'It looks like a free volantear act and deed at the point of bayenet' he remarked sarcastically. One of the guards knocked Tanner senseless and he was carried from the ground." (183-84)

Only if our personal or inherited memories teach us to use our own power extremely carefully will we be prepared to serve in the kingdom of heaven. Without the memory of earth's lesser power being misused, how can we ever become qualified to use heaven's greater power with the necessary humility and reverence?

And oh, how great a waste it is if we turn the memory of suffering from reverence to anger!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hannah's Prayer --1 Sam 2: 3

"Talk no more so exceeding proudly; let not arrogancy come out of your mouth: for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed." (1 Sam 2: 3)

That Hannah was different had been clear to everyone well before she married Elkanah. Elkanah loved her for it: for her forthrightness, for her honesty before the Lord and men, and for the way that, when she prayed silently--something she was not afraid to do in public--her mouth still moved, as if her body couldn't help but participate in the prayer.

To most people, of course, her fervent prayers just made her look like an intoxicated and possibly schizophrenic bag lady, and they felt it detracted from the spirit of the Temple when she prayed outside of it.

So no one was really surprised when Hannah couldn't have children. In the thinking of the time, which tended to look for the quickest possible explanations, her barrenness was seen as a consequence of her actions. Once she was barren, confirming that her weirdness was not of God, it was much easier for people to publicly voice their concerns about her.

People used to tell Hannah that she was a bad representative of the House of Israel because she couldn't have children. They used to ask Elkanah if she was really committed to the Church. Some speculated that if she'd start acting more normal, she might yet give birth. Most figured, though, that it was already too late.

But Hannah kept praying like a drunk, lips silently moving. Kept saying what she felt instead of what she thought ought to be said. And God heard Hannah--oh yes, God loved few things more in those days than to listen to Hannah's prayers.

It may be of interest to contemporary audiences to know that even before Hannah's son was born, she promised God she'd never cut his hair.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Homogeneity and Heterogeneity -- Mos. 7: 18

"And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them." (Mos. 7: 18)

Drona used to say that to be one is to overcome and surrender our differences, that only when we do so can all our collective energy be harnessed into a single shared goal, creating the strong beats out of Zion's one heart. We should be like the red blood that pumps through the body: of one type and purpose.

But Teancum Singh used to say that most difference ought not be surrendered, but connected, woven into the whole. For as God is one, all good things are one. Zion is built up when its members connect their own insights, heritages, and gifts to the gospel, creating the different synapses that form Zion's one ever-expanding mind.

And the debate between them dances across the face of our church to this day.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Testimony Meeting --D&C 101: 16

"Therefore, let your hearts be comforted concerning Zion; for all flesh is in mine hands; be still and know that I am God." (D&C 101: 16)

In a certain city in a certain country, there was a ward in which no testimony meeting was considered complete without a quiet minute or so sometime between speakers, in which the stillness was allowed to bear its own witness.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Some Personal Reflections -- Matt 5: 44

"But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matt 5: 44)

We've been reading the Gospel of Matthew to our daughter lately. Chapter 4, in which Jesus fasts for forty days, was Friday night--on Saturday, Kira told her grandma that she was "an hungered" just before dinner and when Grandy asked what she meant, Kira told her the whole Jesus fasting story. I am continually impressed by the spiritual hunger of this five-year-old.

From Saturday through last night, we've worked our way piecemeal through Chapter 5, which is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It's a little slower going, since there's no action and almost everything is in old metaphors, which take twice the explaining. It's been a good experience, though.

The verse at the beginning of this post came last night in our reading and back to my mind this morning. It came back because, on the Caucajewmexdian blog, I'm in the middle of a long story about feeling a little persecuted and despitefully used by a few administrators at BYU. My interactions with these people are (God willing) over, but I still harbor resentment towards them. If that does not quite make them "enemies," it at least makes them fall under the spirit of Christ's commandment here.

Nearly four years ago, when my troubles with these people started, I would pray for them. But then I got more frustrated with them and decided to stop and do my best to forget them instead--"forgetting," though, is not what Jesus has asked us to do about those who mistreat us.

On the Caucajewmexdian blog, I'm just getting into the part of the story where I keep getting punished for my 2006 disagreement with these administrators even long after I've dropped the issue. And if someone were to ask me, I'll have to admit that I did not pray for my persecutors then and did not again until today. I stuck mostly to resenting them.

Is it easier, sometimes, to try to forget than to pray for--let alone forgive--those who have offended us? Maybe part of the reason these difficulties have resurfaced for me in the past year is to teach me the difference between how to forget (something I'm willing to try--even if it's impossible) and how to forgive (something I have abstract faith in, but still don't entirely understand).

I think one reason we read scriptures instead of simply remembering them (as I often do) is that remembering tends to take you to the places your mind wants to go, whereas reading can be more effective at bringing your mind back to somewhere it does not naturally want to go, but probably ought to be.

I need turn back again, spiritually, toward those who have offended me. I need to keep Christ's commandment.

Instead of an eye for an eye, perhaps the new law invites us to look eye-to-eye at a person we've been harmed by.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Paradox of Omniscience and Forgetfulness: D&C 58: 42

"Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more." (D&C 58: 42)

When I read this passage, my left hand said to my right: "Here is a paradox that undoes all your scriptures. For if a God must be all-knowing, how can your God forget sins, which make up the greater part of human history? You can have one: omniscience or forgiveness. Not both!"
But my right hand told my left: "God knows everything that has been, that is, and that will be. God can never forget facts and events: never turn his all-seeing eye from what has been done. But what happened alone does not create reality: reality is also created in the meaning God chooses to assign it. When we repent and are healed, it is by reassigning meaning to our sins: they become transformed from rebellion to experience as the thrill and shame of sin (which once tempted us to do wrong and then hide it) are replaced by the awareness and humility of forsaken transgression (which teach us how to love and choose right). Nothing that happened changes, but a tempter becomes a teacher, actions which were wrong become memories which teach us to do right.
God never forgets anything that happens, but he chooses to forget the meaning (sin) our bad actions first had and remember instead the new meaning (experience) created through repentance and healing."
To which my left hand said, "Drat. I thought I had you on that one."

(And my right hand said nothing more to my left hand, but whispered a great mystery to those who could listen, "As it is with God, so it was with us, who carry the seed of Godliness: our greatest power is in how we choose to assign meaning to the actions which take place constantly around us.")

Friday, February 26, 2010

How did Salem differ from Sodom and Gomorrah? -- Isa 1: 9

"Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah." (Isa 1: 9)

I was struck, this week in Sunday School, by the existence of one righteous city, Melchizedek's Salem, at the same time there are two wicked cities: Sodom and Gomorrah. Maybe it's just coincidence. Or maybe:

In the days of Terah, Abraham's father, there was one great city in the land of Canaan. In it, people were mostly part-wicked and part-good, but disagreed vehemently about how to go about both their wickedness and goodness. They gradually split into two factions, each faction aiming at a different half of righteousness, each officially indulging a different half of wickedness.

As the city became increasingly polarized, it became difficult to keep the peace: shepherds left their flocks wander as they shouted taunts at rival shepherds, water-carriers dropped their jugs in the midst of heated debates, even the midwives had difficulty focusing on births when the subject of factional ideologies came up, and, politics on their minds, would train new mothers to nurse only on one side.

Finally, the leaders of each faction met to decide the future of the city through a debate which would end only when one agreed that the other was right. The debate, however, lasted through the day and then through the night and soon it became an accepted fact of life that the factions' leaders could be heard at any hour roaring so loudly at each other that it became difficult to carry on a conversation over breakfast, to keep one's mind clear during evening prayers, and even simply to sleep.

No one know quite how a certain young boy silenced them, but afterward he became known by the name Melech-Zedek, "king of holiness," for teaching that compromise could be found if each would continue to advocate their preferred half of righteousness, but also be mindful of the other faction's critique of their preferred side of wickedness.

Many of the inhabitants of the city followed these teachings and learned to see their neighbors as the other half of a divine balance or paradox. Others, however, stayed faithful to the full orthodoxies of their own factions, ultimately deciding to create pure cities isolated from their different-minded neighbors.

One faction turned to the left and founded Sodom; the other turned to the right and founded Gomorrah.

Those who still had much in common with the founders of Sodom but would listen to their neighbors, who still had much in common with the founders of Gomorrah, began to call their own city, which was the remnant of the old single city, "Salem" meaning "peace."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Them bones -- Prov 3: 7-8

I was wrong about yesterday's post being the last in this series. One more. Brace yourselves: it's pretty weird.

"Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil.
It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones"

As my wife could testify, I am quite often wise in my own eyes. I even spend excessive amounts of times, some Sunday mornings, staring at myself in the mirror, just checking out how wise I look, and we end up late to church.

Last summer, at an appointment for my testicular cancer follow-up, the doctor noticed that my white blood cell count had been well below normal for as long as they'd been keeping records, and seemed to be dropping. He was a little alarmed, and, as doctors often do when alarmed, suggested that a needle be used to take a piece of me out so that we could both calm down and feel safe again. As usual, I consented.

The subsequent bone marrow biopsy revealed that, in a surprisingly literal fulfillment of Proverbs 3: 7-8, my bones actually have an abnormally high percentage of fat and an unusually low percentage of marrow. It wasn't really dropping, just taking a routine dip in its lifelong course below the bottom end of normal. This is why I get sick a lot whenever I don't sleep or otherwise put stress on my under-producing immune system. This is probably why, in fact, I currently am sick and sitting at home writing this very post!

Now, along with my poor qualities (e.g. excessive intellectual self-admiration), I have many good qualities--some of which I don't need very much at all. My special love of emptying dishwashers and drainracks, for example, has been much more useful since I married a woman with a particular and inexplicable dislike for those specific tasks.

I am wondering today whether God sprinkles trials and their complementary solutions into completely different places and lives in the hope that we'll finally get a clue and put the whole puzzle together. Is it possible that for every problem, there is an answer: but the answers we have are seldom the ones we most need, and the problems we have are not only for our own growth, but to be there for someone else's answer?

Maybe it's this persistent idea that gives me hope in shared/interactive efforts over individual efforts: be they for faith, for writing, or for health care.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Would Universal Healthcare Decrease Free Agency? -- Mos. 7: 32-33

This may be the last post in my recent thread on universal health care and the gospel. I don't want to speak for any specific plan so much as to explore ideas about how the abstract ideal of universal health care interacts with various doctrinal concepts. I'd like to thank you for your patience and for participation in discussion thus far.

"The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency;
And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood" (Mos. 7: 32-33)

If Satan's plan had been accepted, he would have given people choices over what clothes to wear, which restaurants to eat at, whether to go skiing or mountain biking, and every other eternally meaningless decision elevated by capitalism. He would do this to hide the emptiness we would have in the place of our hearts, which would never know love or hate, never know anguish and happiness.

The agency God protected was our fundamental ability to choose love or hate, good or evil.

Taxes can neither increase nor decrease our God-given agency, because moral agency is not proportional to our economic means but is defined by our contextual decisions about love and hate, good and evil.

Even if a tax to support health care seems to be forcing us to do good, the triumph of God's plan means we will still be left with the vital moral choice alluded to in Moroni 7: 8.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Parable of the Simple Disciple--3 Ne 27: 27

I'd like to offer my deepest apologies for turning to the overtly political, but I've heard too many people compare plans in various countries to provide even basic health care to the public at large, regardless of economic status, as against a gospel plan of free agency and personal accountability. I don't want to advocate any specific political plan, but feel compelled to suggest that the gospel may actually be more for than against the abstract ideal of basic universal access to health care. Thank you for your patience over the next few days.

"And know ye that ye shall be judges of this people, according to the judgment which I shall give unto you, which shall be just. Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am." (3 Ne 27: 27)

It happened once that three American businessmen (men well respected in their communities and free of almost every sin except for the sin of pride, which they possessed in overabundance) were on a plane flight to Damascus together when a light filled their airplane's cabin and struck the three of them, out of all the passengers, temporarily blind. Each of the three heard the same voice calling him to repentance, each emerged a radically changed man, determined to live a life more like Christ's.

The first immediately stopped cutting his hair and grew a long, old-style Hebrew beard. He gave his $300 shoes and fine Italian suits to the poor and bought some sandals and a loom-woven semi-course robe. He broke bread and fish with his company's board members instead of taking catered business lunches. He started making plans to relocate to Israel.

The second began to speak, whenever possible, using quotations from the gospels. At dinner, he'd ask his wife to pass "the salt of the earth." He'd answer the phone by saying "What seek ye?" And instead of counting to three when preparing to discipline his children, he would tell them "even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees."

It was not easy to tell, just by watching him, how the third had changed. But the truth is that he let go of the resentment he had once felt for the various taxes he paid, and thanked God instead that he lived in days when instead of simply supporting the household of a king, his taxes were used to help feed the poor and oppressed, to educate all the nation's children and turn none away, to heal the sick and rehabilitate the injured, to make sure that weights and measures were conducted honestly, and that the widow and the fatherless were not turned away.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Luke 9: 11

I'd like to offer my deepest apologies for turning to the overtly political, but I've heard too many people compare plans in various countries to provide even basic health care to the public at large, regardless of economic status, as against a gospel plan of free agency and personal accountability. I don't want to advocate any specific political plan, but feel compelled to suggest that the gospel may actually be more for than against the abstract ideal of basic universal access to health care. Thank you for your patience over the next few days.

"And the people, when they knew it, followed him: and he received them, and spake unto them of the kingdom of God, and healed them that had need of healing."

What was Jesus' primary criterion for healing, according to this verse?


Why shouldn't we work toward a day when our society sees things like Jesus?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Universal Healthcare -- Gen 4: 9

I'd like to offer my deepest apologies for turning to the overtly political, but I've heard too many people compare plans in various countries to provide even basic health care to the public at large, regardless of economic status, as against a gospel plan of free agency and personal accountability. I don't want to advocate any specific political plan, but feel compelled to suggest that the gospel may actually be more for than against the abstract ideal of basic universal access to health care. Thank you for your patience over the next few days as I say things that would probably not be appropriate to say in Sunday School.

"And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?"

We are all partially accountable for the well-being of every one of our spirit brothers and sisters. Even if Cain had not touched Abel but seen accident befall him and then idly watched him bleed to death in his field, Abel's blood would have cried up from the earth against Cain.

Our accountability increases with our stewardship, influence, and means to lend help. Just as we are more accountable for the suffering of members of the church if we withhold our fast offerings and tithes from God, we have an increased accountability to God if we ignore the plight of the sick and the poor in our democratic society.

If we enjoy the material wealth and medical capacity God has given our nation and age and do nothing to see that the suffering are granted access to it, their blood will cry up from the earth against us.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Sign of the Times--Zeph 3: 9

"For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent." (Zeph 3: 9)

When people in church meetings stop speaking in piles of cliches and start speaking and listening with care, with love both for the gift of language and for each other, the Second Coming will be close at hand, even at the door!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What Made Adam's Language Pure?--Mos 6: 5-6

"And a book of remembrance was kept, in the which was recorded, in the language of Adam, for it was given unto as many as called upon God to write by the spirit of inspiration;
And by them their children were taught to read and write, having a language which was pure and undefiled."

What made Adamic a pure language?

Drona used to say that the language of Adam differed from our languages in that each word had only one corresponding and exact meaning. In this way, both misunderstandings and puns were prevented, and that is why we call that language pure.

Teancum Singh, though, said that in Adamic each word had at least seven very different possible meanings, which everyone knew, and that when people spoke or listened to it their minds considered the spaces between each of the possibilities, and how those spaces might enrich the possible meaning, and it is because this language was constantly enticing people to think more deeply and richly that we call it pure.

Nicole said that the language of Adam was pure only for those who wanted to understand what was said, and who spoke with care for words and for those around them, and that when Cain's language became violent and defensive, it ceased to be pure like the language of Adam. But in Zion, she said, everyone listened and spoke with care until theirs was again a pure language, and so it will be when the City of Zion is built once again before Christ comes.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Confounded Language! --Genesis 11:7

"Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech."

This confounding did not consist of splitting one language into multiple languages, and thus rendering only small groups comprehensible to each other. When the Gods confounded the language, it was by replacing the pure Adamic language with a more fallen one, which failed to reliably express meaning the way the old language had. And to this very day, our language is still such that two people speaking the same language often only believe that they are actually understanding one another.

(I have a strong testimony of at least the last sentence of this midrash.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Joseph Smith Translation -- 1 Pet 4: 8

In the King James Bible, 1 Peter 4: 8 reads, "And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins."

The Joseph Smith translation of this verse, probably from sometime between 1830 and 1833, modifies the last clause to, "for charity preventeth a multitude of sins."

The difference in meaning seems significant: covering is retroactive (you can only "cover" after a sin is committed), whereas preventing is proactive (you can only "prevent" before a sin is committed). The shift from the KJV to the JST relocates the scriptural principle in terms of time. That matters--right?

Here's Joseph Smith's most famous use of this scripture, from comments made on 7 November 1841: "If you do not accuse each other, God will not accuse you. [...]If you will throw a cloak of charity over my sins, I will over yours—for charity covereth a multitude of sins." (See History of the Church, 4: 445)

Notice that Joseph uses the King James wording rather than quoting from his own translation. Consequently, the quote's meaning seems far more closely related to the doctrine expressed in the King James version than that expressed in the JST. Why would Joseph do that?

If the JST consists of necessary corrections from inaccurate doctrines (due to mistranslation) to accurate ones (expressed in the new wording), then that famous 1841 quote is doctrinally compromised. If, on the other hand, the 1841 statement, representing "newer" revelation, replaces the "older" translation of the verse (probably from 1830-1833), then the JST markings in our scriptures may not be terribly reliable. The underlying question is whether it's better to read the JST as ruling out the old meaning of a passage knowing that it will also rule out future uses of the old wording, or better to let new use of old passages lead us to dismiss portions of the JST.

Perhaps, before choosing one of the above alternatives, we could consider a possibility that doesn't give in as easily to such either/or thinking:

What if the Joseph Smith translation is not typically designed to replace one meaning with another, but to suggest a richer range of meanings of a passage than can be expressed by a single word in English? In English, for example, "cover" and "prevent," as described in this post, speak to different parts of time relative to the moment of sin. But what if God, who has all time continually before him, speaks a native language that doesn't distinguish between these two? What if, for God, one word encompasses both "cover" and "prevent"? The JST phrasing, then, would not be superior but rather supplementary to the King James phrasing, each hinting at a different aspect of the intent of the text (which, according to this view, cannot be properly translated into a single verb in English).

Would we understand the gospel better if we believed that what God can say in one word often takes at least two apparently contradictory human words to express?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog....

...for this important update from the blog next door.

As many of you know, I keep three blogs: My Life and Hard Times, a surreal blog, Caucajewmexdian, a blog about family history and ethnic experience, and this one.

Twelve days ago my surreal blog was taken over by communists.

That sounds very strange, of course, but it is a surreal blog. I'd been giving monthly awards for the best comments called the "Commie" award with famous dead communists or their sympathizers as "guest presenters." In January, I made the mistake of letting Stalin be a guest presenter, and he promptly frightened all the nominees (myself included) into exile, gave himself the award, and installed a puppet guest blogger into my blog, who has been issuing regular manifestos since.

Even the blog template has suffered. The communists have turned the background an obnoxious shade of red which makes everything very difficult to read.

Brave readers have gone to find my goldbergish-style posts-in-hiding and anonymously posted them as comments on the hijacked "My Life and Hard Times" blog. Someone even broke into my email account to post, defiantly, in my name (I am hoping that was my wife or brother, because otherwise some stranger has my blogger password...)

All of which is to say: if you enjoy a good game, please go review recent posts on the "My Life and Hard Times" blog and join the quest to find the part of me that is the author of that blog. Then help me figure out how to oust Drona and take my blog back.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Why do angels glow? -- 1 Chr 29: 15

"For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding."

Although Godliness has the property of light, our mortal physical state is designed to protect the unprepared from the power of the light within us.* Thus, our righteousness is described not as the full light which is our birthright, but as the shadow--because the existence of every shadow necessitates a casting light.

When bodies are transfigured or made celestial, their structures will be changed in such a way as to allow the natural light to shine forth out of them. The transfigured, the translated, and those resurrected as angels glow not because their essence is changed, but because the structures that obscure our inherent light are removed.

*Just as we would be overwhelmed by standing in the presence of God in our sins, we would be overwhelmed if we stood in the true presence of any human being. This is why love sometimes aches even in simple moments of family togetherness: every so often, when I watch my wife and daughter, a piece of their souls shine through more than usual and I am both overwhelmed and physically moved by it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Jesus on the Cross -- Psalm 22

"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?"(Ps. 22:1)

When Jesus had been on the cross for six hours (according to Mark's account), he cried out "Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?", which is the first line in Psalm 22. In doing so, he was able to say much more to those who knew the psalms and had their hearts open to understanding than those who did not know the Psalms or had closed their minds to understanding were able to receive.

Does God sometimes give us the message on a day when we don't need it and the key to unlock it on the day when we do? When they sang together, what songs did Jesus and his disciples sing, and could they have imagined yet what the same words would later mean?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I Know the Church is True -- Jon. 2: 1

"Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly"

Teancum Singh used to say that as it was in the days of Jonah, so shall it be in the last days. The Lord's servants may make mistakes from time to time, which may lead to some unexpected anguish, but that doesn't mean the Lord isn't always guiding the church.

You don't need to leave the church if you learn that a leader has done something you think is wrong. Even if it is wrong, you can always pray out of the fish's belly and the Lord will sustain you and see to it that things are worked out for the church as a whole in his due time.

As long as you can believe that God is with us, there is good reason to stay. Spiritual experience should trump disappointment with history or policy.

Which also means that history and policy can't make up for spiritual experience.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Truest (and Scariest?) Mormon Doctrine -- D&C 121: 39

"We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion."

Recent events on the Goldbergish blog have me thinking about this principle.

Communism, with all its ideals of exalting the everyday worker, was not immune to it. Corporate capitalism, though more acceptable in most circles, has its own share of blood on the hands as a bitter confirmation of this doctrine.

Religion through the centuries has not been immune. And, as this scripture shows, that isn't something we can just wipe away under the rug as a symptom of the Great Apostasy. This passage is talking about early LDS leaders. Our own leaders sinned in this particularly dangerous way. And I see no reason to believe that, since the late 1830s, human nature has fundamentally changed.

How do you believe in an ideology or support an organization knowing full well that sooner or later some of its leaders will exercise unrighteous dominion--possibly at a terrible cost?

I don't know, but I have faith that there is an answer.

Is such faith essential to staying involved in any party, community, or church today?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bored in Church? --Matt 22: 37

"Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind."

Stephen used to say that all our minds means both conscious and unconscious. It is good to be able to make new connections and insights in church, but even when that fails, the constant repetition of basic gospel truths help our love of God become habitual, thus fulfilling that portion of the commandment.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What makes our days so hard? D&C 82: 3

"For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation."

About a month ago, someone in church repeated a variation on the story that when people of the current rising generation die, they'll be greeted by spirits who are awed that they lived in times when it was so difficult to live the gospel. In some versions of the story, there's a pre-existence element as well: we were Generals in the War in Heaven and thereby proved ourselves prepared for the challenges of 21st century life, or something like that.

The First Presidency has issued letters emphasizing that these stories are neither doctrinally accurate nor helpful, but the stories keep getting told.

I think it's because in a larger sense, we really do feel that we've got a uniquely tough job. We live in a culture of material excess, in an atmosphere of sexual irresponsibility, and get made fun of at school for being Mormon. Who could have it worse?

I'll live it mostly to the reader's study of scripture and history to answer that question. My guess is that careful study will reveal that we:
-worry a lot less about forgetting our faith every time we move, either by choice or because someone took over land, slaughtered thousands of our people, and forced us into slavery.
-have an easier time studying scripture, since we know how to read, and since we don't have to risk our lives getting copies of the scriptures to read from.
-don't live in a culture where every other church in town has ritual prostitutes.
Maybe our times are not so bad after all. Maybe, from a historical perspective, it's downright easy to live the gospel today. Peer pressure probably does not compare to invading armies. The worst of Hollywood probably doesn't hold a candle to the sexual and violent entertainment promoted by certain brands of Biblical-era idolatry.

So what is the challenge of this stage of the last days?

Along with scriptures on the internet comes the commission to preach the gospel in all the languages of the world. Along with the relative political stability we prosper under comes the commission to build Zion before things turn really sour again. Along with a knowledge of numerous gospel laws comes the necessity not only to live them, but also to be ready for more commandments and revelations, to hope for them even.

Unto whom much is given, much is required. That's the real burden of our days.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Foreordained -- 2 Sam 12: 5-7

"And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die:
And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.
And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man." (2 Sam: 5-7)

When God went to choose a spirit, before the foundation of the world, to become the most famous king of Israel, it was of this moment that he thought, when Nathan the prophet would tell the sinning king the parable of the little ewe lamb. Men who would be mighty kings in other lands were passed over: God chose David because the others would have had Nathan killed, his body left for wild dogs to fight over. David had a soul that could face its own sins. David alone, of the unborn kings, would find the strength to say, "I have sinned before the Lord." David alone, of all the kings, would count each subsequent trial as necessary and just.

This is why the Messiah was sent to the lineage of David.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunday School Blues--D&C 88: 122

"Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege." (D&C 88:122, emphasis added)

To say that Sunday School today turned into a conversation between the brother in the front row and the teacher would be to overstate the extent to which the teacher was permitted to contribute.

There's nothing wrong with the brother who monopolized our class; he seems like a very interesting guy, and he doesn't always take over. But today, whatever filter normally prevents him from immediately speaking to almost every question was malfunctioning, and so he single-handedly cut off the participation of most of the class.

According to the scriptures of the restoration, we are all supposed to speak, and we are all supposed to be privileged to hear from the wide range of perspectives available in our classes. Perhaps this is because a living church needs words that are themselves alive: the right answers are not enough; in our classes, we need answers infused with the individual spirits of those speaking them. No matter how insightful one individual may be, if he or she speaks in a way that cuts off, rather than encourages, that participation by other class members, the Lord's directive on gospel education is not being followed.

[Insert embarrassed look here.]

You will probably not be surprised to hear that I fear I am guilty of the very offense I now preach against. As you can tell from this blog, I like to talk about the gospel. A lot. I think my own ideas are cool and that everyone wants to hear them and that I do a service to the world when I talk or write. (Doctors, I think, call that narcissism. It's the -ism I'm best at.) The truth, however, is that church classes are better when people like me are careful not to talk too much.

So, in the spirit of repentance, today I have prepared advice for my fellow over-exuberant class participants. Do you know who you are? I hope so.

Tips for the talkative student:
1) Be aware of your own talkativeness. Do you find yourself speaking much more than others? Do you find yourself wanting to weigh in on every question? Don't be ashamed. That words and ideas come to your mind quickly is a spiritual gift. Do be cautious: this gift is one that sometimes gets in the way of others.
2) Carefully choose when to speak. Because I know that I will want to answer open-ended questions, I avoid volunteering to read scriptures and answering fact-level questions. These opportunities are better left to those who might struggle more to think quickly of responses to open-ended questions, but may find themselves responding to a scripture they themselves read out loud or elaborating on a fact-level answer they give to a question. If I volunteer for everything, I take away opportunities others might make use of to develop their own thoughts, and in the process, rob myself of their insights.
In addition to avoiding those two kinds of participation in most cases, I try to distinguish between responses to teacher questions that will be most useful to me personally and ones that will be most useful to the class as a whole.
I try to avoid speaking on questions that get good responses from my classmates and direct my comments, when possible, to times when they might help improve the class energy and get more people thinking/speaking rather than times when they will get in others' way.
3) Bring a pen and paper to class. If you are at risk of talking too much, this may prove extremely helpful. With a pen and paper, you can respond to every open-ended question the teacher asks, but in a way that doesn't monopolize the class and does give you a record of your insights. You also will have extra opportunities to respond because you can write ideas that come to you because of your classmates' comments. I think you'll also find that the Spirit will help you more when you're trying to help the class be conducted in accordance with the Lord's counsel.
After church, you can talk over your scribbled-down insights at home with loved ones, post them on a blog, or fold them into a paper crane and set it on your windowsill.


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