Jul 27, 2008

The Age Of (Un)accountability

Growing up with younger siblings, I always had a hard time believing that Satan couldn't possess kids under the age of eight. And that goes for myself too, since if what my parents have said is true, I was a bit of a devil child.

But let's look at this a little more seriously because there are some things that I have questions about and I wonder if anyone has any insights they would like to share regarding the Age of Accountability and the role of Satan.

"From latter-day revelation, we know that little children are redeemed through the mercy of Jesus Christ. The Lord said, "They cannot sin, for power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before me" (see D&C 29:46–47). They are not to be baptized until they reach the age of accountability, which the Lord has revealed to be eight years of age (see D&C 68:27; Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 17:11). Anyone who claims that little children need baptism "denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption" (Moroni 8:20; see also verses 8–19, 21–24)." (LDS.org, Topic Definition, Little Children And Baptism)

I've always wondered, then, why some kids under the age of eight can do bad things -- really bad things -- like murder, sexual assault, etc. Although such occurrences are rare, they have happened and I wonder how the doctrine of The Age of Accountability and the power of Satan can explain it.

We believe that God can only influence to do good and Satan can only influence us to do bad. But since "power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before (God)," how are they even capable of doing bad things? That children are influenced by adults and the world around them is certain. Those children under the age of eight who do commit crimes are clearly under the influence of something or someone, but I'm not exactly sure what it is.

A seven year-old who stabs his playmate or sodomizes the little girl next door is not accountable for what he has done and is not guilty of sin in the eyes of God. I understand that. But what is the power driving a child to commit such a crime? If someone is not forcing him to do it, what is influencing him, if not Satan?

Satan's power, or lack thereof where small children are concerned, has made me wonder about something else. I was recently having a discussion with another Mormon about homosexuality. My personal belief is that most homosexuals are born with their orientation, just as I believe I was born with my heterosexual orientation, and that while they can and should obey the Law of Chastity, they shouldn't think that they are doing something wrong if they are living the Gospel and aren't "cured" of their gayness. He was of the opinion that most homosexuals choose their orientation and that most can change it if they try hard enough and should have heterosexual, eternal marriage as their goal. He believed that anyone can be convinced to change their sexual orientation (gay to straight or straight to gay) if they put enough effort into it.

From as far as I can remember (which is about age 4 or 5), I have known that I was attracted to boys. I was too young to know what a heterosexual was or that I was one. I simply knew that I wanted to chase boys. Many homosexuals and transgenders report much the same thing: that they knew from a very young age that they were either attracted to the same sex, or perhaps felt that their physical gender was in conflict with their mental/emotional gender. Even if they were too young to understand the technicalities or significance of these feelings, they were at least able to recognize the feelings in themselves.

So, getting back to how this applies to children under eight and how Satan cannot influence them, it seems to me that in order for this doctrine of the Age of Accountability to be true, my theory makes more sense than the person I was talking to. I'm not proclaiming this as doctrine, I am merely stating my opinion based on how I see it after giving it a lot of thought. If the homosexual feelings or gender confusion (not acts, but feelings) are evil temptations coming from Satan, coaxing them to engage in homosexual behaviour or going through a sex change operation (both of which are potentially grounds for excommunication), then how could a little child under the age of eight ever be capable of experiencing them? If Satan has no power over them, then they can't come from him. But to say they come from God would be blasphemous in the eyes of many. That leaves us with the mental illness theory, which is hard for many to accept.

So, to summarize, I have two questions:

1.) How are some children under the age of eight capable of committing heinous crimes, without being forced into it by anyone, if Satan has no power over them?

2.) How can a child under the age of eight experience homosexual feelings and/or gender conflict if such temptations stem from Satan?

Jul 19, 2008

Should I Pray Or Should I Save My Breath?

Let me start off by saying that I do believe in prayer, despite the fact that I'm not really sure how it works. As Mormons, we're supposed to be creative with our prayers, avoiding "vain repetitions." I've always been mindful of this, but I've always found it a challenge to come up with new things to say. I'm usually thankful for all the same things and hope for all the same things. There have been variations during the different stages of my life, but it's usually basically the same: I'm extremely thankful for a roof over my head, food on the table, good health, and to live in a free country. (I can add many things to this list, the more aware I become of the world around me.) And I always wish for continual good health for me and my loved ones, as well as that we'll all come home safe and sound each day from our individual routines. I will often include someone who's on my mind, if I think they could use some extra help from above. I figure it can't hurt.

So aside from the things I mentioned above, I don't pray for much regarding myself. I've been very fortunate and blessed with the things I mentioned already, but I tend to avoid praying for specifics because I usually don't get them. I'm not angry or bitter about this because I honestly try to believe that God knows better than me what's best, so I leave it in His hands. I told my bishop once that my personal philosophy with prayer is that I think out in my head what's best, tell the Lord I'm going to do it unless He stops me (i.e. if He thinks it's wrong), and then hope for the best. I think he thought I was joking, but I wasn't. I've never gotten answers in the typical Mormon fashion of personal revelations or burning bosoms. It's more like a perpetual "stupor of thought" that I try to trust in and it usually turns out OK in the end. So instead of dwelling on it and getting frustrated, I choose to give things a lot of thought, a little prayer, and just dive in. It has worked out OK for the most part. Before I started taking this approach and just waited around for an answer from God, I felt like a squirrel in the middle of the road that can't decide which way he wants to go, until he usually ends up getting run over by a car.

A couple of years ago, I asked the Lord for something very specific. However, I was very mindful of the fact that it was perhaps wasn't right for us. So although I told the Lord that we wanted this thing, if He knew it wasn't right for us, then we didn't want it because we knew it could easily turn into more of a liability. If it was wrong for us and the answer was no, then we were honestly OK with it. Anyways, we were given what we asked for and were very happy about it for a while until we realized that it wasn't going to turn out the way we hoped. Now a significant sum of money could potentially be lost (or at the very least tied up for a long time) and we're stuck in a situation that we're not very happy with. I think back to the day when I asked the Lord for this, pleading with Him to not give it to us if it wasn't going to work out, because I could foresee happening exactly what has happened now, and I wonder why He gave us this "blessing." I don't want to make this into a bigger deal than it is. I still have a roof over my head and food on the table. Things could definitely be a lot worse! But it's enough to make one question whether God really hears all prayers and whether they really all matter. It makes me wonder why He would want anyone to throw money down the toilet for no good reason when they were willing and ready to accept a simple "no" in the first place.

So all this brings up another point about prayer that I've always wondered about. We know that we should always have an open and humble heart when we pray for something. We have to be willing to accept that what we are asking for is not part of his will for us or the person we are praying for. Let's use the example of a man with cancer. Only God knows whether this person is going to live or not. So we're all fasting and praying for him, that he will live. But does any of it matter? God has decided already whether this person is going to live or die, and the best we can do is pray to be able to accept His will if he dies. Or is God's decision not yet made and is it riding on how many people pray for this man? Could it even be that enough praying can make God change His mind?

So I will continue to pray that we all get home safely each day, but sometimes I do wonder whether I should just save my breath. Or then again, maybe that one prayer will be enough to change His mind.

Jul 14, 2008

Elders, Keep Your Shirts On!

Most of you have probably heard of the shirtless Elder calendar by now. If you haven't, you can read about "Men On A Mission" here:
http://edition.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/wayoflife/07/11/shirtless.mormons.ap/index.html

The creator was excommunicated this past weekend, as you can read here:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080714/ap_on_re_us/shirtless_mormons

When I first read about the calendar, I sort of chuckled at it. But I do see the seriousness of it since the missionary image was being used in rather distasteful way. Had it been a calendar of just shirtless Mormon men in general, it probably wouldn't have bothered me so much. Just as some Miss America contestants have been LDS and paraded on national TV in a bikini, most of us don't really care. But, because it pictured them in their missionary suits and badges, it did seem to me to be inappropriate. The creator of the calendar was obviously trying to see how far he could push the envelope and I think he had probably crossed the line. Thus, I felt that a disciplinary hearing was justified. But I was very surprised to see that he had been excommunicated.

I just want to hear different viewpoints from everyone. What do you think about the calendar? Do you think it was grounds for excommunication? Let's remember that none of us were at the hearing, so we don't know exactly what transpired. The calendar's creator had been inactive for several years and he didn't seem in the least bit apologetic or willing to pull his creation. Personally, I was expecting disciplinary action (which I would have felt was appropriate) but not excommunication. I feel that excommunication is too harsh. But then again, I know much about the grounds or process of excommunication, so perhaps I'm wrong. I generally thought that excommunication was generally for murderers, adulterers, rapists, those who teach false doctrine, or perhaps a few other very grievous crimes.

Anybody care to fill me in?

Jul 13, 2008

Finding My Faith, Obama-Style

I have to admit it. There's something about Barack Obama that fascinates me. Even though I've always been interested in politics and have followed the different campaigns, I've never been one to jump on anyone's bandwagon. I've always been too cynical about politicians to do so. I think I'm generally able to see through smooth-talking guys who just tell you what you want to hear, but Obama excites me like no other politician I can remember in my lifetime. Though I'm naturally skeptical of eloquent politicians, I sense more of a man who has given a lot of thought to deep questions and problems than a man simply perpetuating the usual spew of political rhetoric. Perhaps it's because of his unique background and upbringing, from which I think his sincerity stems, and which I believe to be genuine. It's hard to define who he is and in a way I can identify with that.

I just finished reading this Newsweek article about Obama's Christian journey. It's an interesting read about his religious background and goes beyond the Rev. Wright scandal that has been everyone's main focus.
http://www.newsweek.com/id/145971

As I read this article, it made me think about my own spiritual journey through Christianity as a Mormon. And to be entirely honest, I felt a bit envious. Really, I shouldn't, because I was born into a stable, harmonious home where both of my parents were strong members of the Church. Spiritually speaking, I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth: born into the Covenant, a wealth of spiritual knowledge and blessings just waiting for me to take advantage of them. Compare that to Obama, raised without a specific religion, bouncing around from church to church, a mother skeptical of any One Truth, a Muslim father who was a self-proclaimed atheist. So while I was merrily going about my life as a youth and young adult, always asking questions, yet mostly oblivious to the world of religion outside of Mormonism, Obama was well into his spiritual journey during the same stage of his life. Fast-forward a few years, Obama got youthful rebellion out of his system and found his spiritual home, his faith later weathering the storm of the Rev. Wright controversy. I, on the other hand, find myself somewhat spiritually up-roooted and trying to expell the spiritual rebellion I never really experienced as a youth.

A few years ago, I would have said with confidence that I would have been able to accept the Gospel as a convert. I would have attributed that to the fact that spirituality is part of my nature and that Mormonism answers a lot of questions and gives a lot of clarity that traditional Christianity can't. But now I see the wisdom, if God has truly had a hand in it, of my being born into the Church. I no longer think that I would have been able to convert to Mormonism because I would have been scared off by certain aspects of Church past and present. I could have easily subscribed to a type of spirituality that Obama's mother felt most comfortable with. As interesting and maybe even fulfilling as that may have been, I would have missed out on the vantage point that is unique to the LDS Church.

There's another reason why I feel a bit envious of Obama's spiritual journey. I'm no expert in religion and could therefore have some misconceptions, but finding spiritual peace in his brand of Christianity, it seems to me, carries less of an obligation and therefore less pressure than Mormonism. Mormons are about binding covenants, unwavering obedience, and asking very few questions. I feel that a faith like Obama's leaves more room for wondering and seeking, by shying away from the responsibility of having the one and only truth and only way to Eternal Salvation. Period. A part of me longs for the freedom of seeking and exploring, like Obama, without being guilty of rejecting the One Truth that is Mormonism's alone. Guilty of straying from what's right, only to find out later that the grass is always greener on the other side. I suppose I long for something to fill the void of those problems and questions that Mormonism can't answer. Therein lies the appeal of an approach like Obama's mother, to be free to draw from the positives of each religion and without being bound to one. And although she never found One Truth, could it be that she was, in a way, more spiritually fulfilled than me or you?

Newsweek writes:

Always drawn to life's Big Questions, Obama embarked on a spiritual quest in which he tried to reconcile his rational side with his yearning for transcendence. He found Christ—but that hasn't stopped him from asking questions. "I'm on my own faith journey and I'm searching," he says. "I leave open the possibility that I'm entirely wrong."

I feel that I am on a similar quest, but I could very well have already reached my final destination without really knowing it. Nevertheless, to that last quote, I simply say "ditto."

Jul 8, 2008

Hearing Voices: Of Fruits and Rosaries

Perhaps you have wondered, like myself, how and why God apparently reveals different things to different people of all different faiths. As Mormons, we stress the doctrine of personal revelation through the Holy Ghost. We feel that we are entitled to and that God really does give us personal answers and guidance. However, this sometimes leads to problems explaining how God communicates with non-Latter-day Saints -- if He does at all.

I don't think that too many Mormons would say that God only speaks to us. To say so would go against some very fundamental Mormon beliefs. At the same time, I have to admit that I have often been skeptical of stories and accounts from people not of my faith, who claim various miracles, visions, revelations, etc. Although we believe in all of the above, I think we are very quick to question such occurrences when they don't come from "one of our own."

Those of you who have read my blog previously know that I've been reading a book about Mother Teresa. (For more info, see posting entitled "Becoming The First Mormon Nun.") Reading about her background and the story of how she came to be the "Saint of Calcutta" has left me with a lot of questions.

I will first say that her utter and complete devotion to Christ is mind-blowing and it is something that perhaps no other human being has accomplished. Now, before you say that all the Christian martyrs have outdone her by sacrificing their lives for Christ, may I remind you that she did indeed sacrifice her life for Christ -- virtually her entire life. She was blessed with a long mortal life, but the poverty, hard work and hardships that she willingly sought and endured would have made her life unbearable for most. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that most people would have preferred death to living her life in the squalour of Calcutta's miserable slums.

While reading Mother Teresa's personal letters and accounts of the visions and conversations she claimed to have with Christ, which were the catalyst for her humanitarian work in Calcutta, I have to shamefully admit that I questioned her state of mind. Not only was she willing to endure extreme hardship, she seemingly took pleasure in it and constantly sought more in order to come closer to Christ, to an extent that I've maybe never seen before. In all honesty, it's possible to see why her faithless critics would accuse her of being deluded or fanatical. Even her superiors questioned for a time whether her "inspiration" truly came from God.

We have been taught how to distinguish between good and evil by the scripture that says:

"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit." (Matthew 7: 15-18)

I'm sure that most of us would agree that Mother Teresa fell into the "good" category, which is evident by the good "fruits" that she produced during her lifetime. I personally believe that she was truly inspired by God to do His work, but if this is so, then it poses a problem for me. If good, God-fearing people seeking His inspiration really receive it, then why doesn't He always give them inspiration that is in accordance with LDS teachings? Why are they sometimes even contrary to what we proclaim to be correct? Why doesn't He inspire them to join the LDS Church if it's the only true Church?

During her visions and conversations with Christ, Mother Teresa was given visions of the Crucifixion. The Blessed Virgin has a central role in these visions and is of significant importance in an unmistakably traditional Catholic manner, even speaking to Mother Teresa herself. Jesus also speaks to her personally, often referring to her as "My little Spouse," an recognition of her "marriage" to Christ in the Catholic nun sense. He says to her:

"Little one, give Me souls -- Give Me the souls of the poor little street children. -- How it hurts, if you only knew, to see these poor children soiled with sin. -- I long for the purity of their love. -- If you would only answer and bring Me these souls -- draw them away from the hands of the evil one. If you only knew how many little ones fall into sin every day."

Mother Teresa goes on to tell of a vision where she encounters Mary:

"Again that great crowd -- I could see great sorrow and suffering in their faces -- I was kneeling near Our Lady, who was facing them. -- I did not see her face but I heard her say "Take care of them -- they are mine. -- Bring them to Jesus -- carry Jesus to them. -- Fear not. Teach them to say the Rosary -- the family Rosary and all will be well. -- Fear not -- Jesus and I will be with you and your children."

So while I personally reject the idea that Mother Teresa was simply deluded or made all this stuff up, I feel conflicted as to why Jesus would speak to her and seemingly confirm children being "soiled with sin," a doctrine that we are taught is wrong and even an "abomination," in regards to infant baptism. As well, why would The Virgin Mary tell her to teach them the Catholic Rosary if it's incorrect doctrine?

I am left with two possibilities:

a) Mother Teresa was divinely inspired.
b) She was simply deluded or the inspiration was not from God.

If a) is true, then there is the doctrinal conflict that I mentioned above. If b) is true, then it is in conflict with the scripture from Matthew 7 that I quoted earlier. And on top of that, if b) is true, I cannot help but feel discouraged that God didn't or couldn't lead someone, who was completely willing and able to give her all, to The Truth. Makes it seem all the more hopeless for the rest of us.

What do you think? Are we uncomfortable with miracles and spiritual encounters that don't occur in the "Mormon way?" Are they really from God?