May 18, 2009

Before You Go...

Taking an intermission from our Love Is Not Blind series, I wanted to share something else with you all.

When I first started to get involved around the Bloggernacle, there was a whole new "world" that I had to discover. Not living in Utah and only being a casual follower of Utah news, I didn't know who the September Six were, I had never heard of Sunstone Magazine, and I sure as heck had never heard of John Dehlin (pictured right).

Since I know a lot of those who stumble across my blog and others like it are still new to blogging and perhaps unaware of some of the best that the Bloggernacle has to offer, I wanted to do a post highlighting a few of John Dehlin's pieces that I've found to be extremely helpful.

Although I've never met John personally, my impression of him is one of a thoughtful, caring, open, honest, very intelligent person with tremendous integrity to say the things he does with conviction, yet humility. I especially admire his courage to put a name and face to the highly personal thoughts and experiences he shares with the listener. That takes guts. (I still haven't shown more than half my face. :) He has helped find many Mormons like me a reason to stay, as well as showing empathy and understanding for those who feel that they need to leave. Whether one decides to stay or leave the LDS Church, I wish that everyone who has ever seriously thought about it would listen to his podcasts.

John has been kind enough to grant me permission to link to his work for those of you who will find it of interest.

This telecast, called Why People Leave The LDS Church And What We Can Do About It, is very helpful because:
  • To those who are contemplating leaving the Church -- or even those who already have and are feeling pressured or ostracized by family and friends -- it will either help you find a reason to stay, or help those in your life understand why you feel compelled to leave. Every bishop and stake president in the Church should see this telecast, in my opinion. If you feel that your family doesn't "get it," do whatever you can to get them to watch it. It will help them understand the spiritual transformation you have gone through and -- most importantly -- it will help them to understand what you really need from them. You may also wish to share it with your own bishop or stake leaders.
  • It also does an excellent job of summarizing the journey and transformation that we go through after we've studied the Church more in-depth and are feeling disillusioned, angry, and alone. I once told my mother how after finding out the things that I've found out, I will never be able to look at the Church or Joseph Smith or prophets -- or anything for that matter -- in the same way that I did before. I asked her to watch the telecast. She did, and she said she now understood exactly what I meant.
John shares the story of his life as a Mormon in a three-part podcast series called My Story. I recommend listening to all three parts, which can be found in his podcast archive at Mormon Stories. But if there's one that I wish that everyone would listen to, it's Part 3, "What I Do And Don't Believe And Why I Remain A Mormon." I guarantee that any of you who struggle with some of Mormonism's toughest issues will see yourself in this podcast. If you haven't personally struggled with these issues, then both of these links will really help you understand how some of us "see" things.

Lastly, this essay, entitled How To Stay, is also very helpful, and touches on a lot of what John discusses in the above podcast.

I think my favourite part of the Why People Leave The LDS Church podcast is when he explains what happens to those who have discovered the troubling details of Mormonism. He says:

"Once this happens to you...
  • You never look at Joseph Smith the same way again
  • You never look at scripture the same way again
  • You never look at the church the same way again
  • You never think of "authority" the same way again
  • Your concept of God and Jesus and "the one true church" can change dramatically"
Many of you probably recognize these points as something that you yourself have been through. I think that this is true even in the case of those who remain active in the Church. Making a rash decision to leave the Church can, in some cases, be just as foolish as making a rash decision to enter into it. It's certainly possible to weather the storm and stay, but even if you do so, it's never the same.

Spiritually speaking, the things that were once rocks of your stability are never the same. Suddenly, everything is thrown into question. Everything.

Naturally, as you then begin to re-evaluate things, you start to redefine what they mean to you. And sometimes the change can be dramatic, as John says.

I look forward to hearing any of your thoughts or comments related to what I've shared in this post. I'll leave you with a quote from Part 3 of My Story that really resonated with me:

"I believe that many of the perversions, evils, sadness, and depression in this world stem from people having to hide and cover-up their innermost feelings and thoughts for fear of what people externally are going to think or feel or judge them about. I feel that's unhealthy and wrong."

-John Dehlin

May 13, 2009

Love Is Not Blind - Part II: Ambiguity

This is Part II of the discussion related to Bruce C. Hafen's talk Love Is Not Blind. If you missed Part I, you can read it here.

At the heart of this talk is the concept of "ambiguity." Elder Hafen says:

"The fundamental teachings of the restored gospel are potent, clear and unambiguous; but it is possible, on occasion, to encounter some ambiguity even in studying the scriptures. Consider for example the case--known to all of us--of Nephi, who slew Laban in order to obtain the scriptural record (see 1 Nephi 4:5­18). That situation is not free from ambiguity until the reader realizes that God himself, who gave the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13), was also the origin of the instructions to Nephi in that exceptional case."

God sometimes appears inconsistent in the scriptures -- especially when it comes to killing other human beings -- something that God can do himself, but for some reason that I cannot understand, supposedly orders us to do at times. Mormon Heretic did a great post a while back about whether genocide can ever be sanctioned by God in Joshua's Unholy War. Ambiguous or not, I'm not sure that the order to slaughter innocent human beings -- especially children -- can ever really come from God.

Elder Hafen presents an interesting example of ambiguity and what it can mean for different interpretations of the same story:

"Consider also the case of Peter on the night he denied any knowledge of his Master three times in succession (see Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 18). We commonly regard Peter as something of a coward whose commitment was not strong enough to make him rise to the Savior's defense, but I once heard President Spencer W. Kimball offer an alternative interpretation of Peter's situation. In a talk on this campus in 1971, President Kimball, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said that the Savior's statement that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed might have been a request to Peter, not a prediction. Jesus just might have been instructing his chief apostle to deny any association with him in order to insure strong leadership for the Church after the Crucifixion. As President Kimball asked, who can doubt Peter's boldness and willingness to stand up and be counted when he struck off the ear of the guard in the garden of Gethsemane. President Kimball did not offer this view as the only interpretation, but he did point out that there is enough justification for it that it ought to be considered. So what is the answer--was Peter a weakling, or was he so crucial to the survival of the Church that he was prohibited from risking his life? We are not sure. This is a scriptural incident in which there is some ambiguity inhibiting our total understanding."

I enjoyed this particular theory about the story of Peter. Maybe I'm just strange, but I often find myself feeling bad for the "weaklings" in the scriptures who are often dealt with very harshly for their mistakes. Did they always deserve what they got? Did Lot's wife deserve to be turned into a pillar of salt for simply looking back (Genesis 19)? Did Onan deserve to be liquidated for "spilling his seed" instead of impregnating his sister-in-law (Genesis 38)? Did 42 children deserve to be killed for mocking Elisha's bald head (Numbers 16)? (I used to make fun of David O. McKay's hair or Spencer W. Kimball's pointy ears in pictures that I saw as a kid. Am I lucky to be alive because of that?) Does Peter really deserve being accused of cowardice or betrayal for denying Christ? I think that the suggestion that Jesus was making a request to Peter instead of simply a prediction makes sense. We've probably assumed that a light bulb suddenly went off in Peter's mind when he heard the cock crow, as if he thought, "Oh yeah, I forgot what Jesus said about my denying him three times before the cock crowed. Dangit, he was right!" Surely Peter hadn't really forgotten something as significant as that prediction or, perhaps, request.

Elder Hafen continues:

"Let us compare some other scriptural passages. The Lord has said that he cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (D&C 1:31), yet elsewhere he said to the adulteress, "Where are . . . thine accusers? . . . Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more" (John 8:10, 11). There is indeed a principle of justice, but there is also a principle of mercy. At times these two correct principles collide with each other as the unifying higher principle of the Atonement does its work. Even though God has given us correct principles by which we are to govern ourselves, it is not always easy to apply them to particular situations in our lives."

One of the hardest parts of Gospel application is where justice and mercy collide. I usually lean heavily towards mercy. I admit that if I were a judge, I'd hear the sad stories of people and would want to send them away with a slap on the wrist. In Church settings, I really wish sometimes that we could just cut people some slack. In a lot of cases (not all, but a lot), I think that if we really try to see things from the perspective of another, we would also be able to honestly say, "Neither do I condemn thee." When Elder Hafen says regarding justice and mercy that, "(a)t times these two correct principles collide with each other as the unifying higher principle of the Atonement does its work. Even though God has given us correct principles by which we are to govern ourselves, it is not always easy to apply them to particular situations in our lives," I can't help but think of those who find themselves unable to live the Church's laws concerning homosexuality when overwhelming loneliness takes over. In those cases, I think the Lord knows that some just cannot do it, and so "the higher principle of the Atonement does its work" once the person does all that he/she can do.

Continuing on:

"Church and family life are not the only areas where the right answer is not always on the tip of the tongue. If you would stretch your mind about the implications of ambiguity, you might think once again of the Vietnam War. Should our nation have tried to do more than it did, or less than it did? Or perhaps you could consider whether we should sell all we have and donate our surplus to the millions of people who are starving. You might also ask yourself how much governmental intervention in business and private life is too much. The people on the extreme sides of these questions convey great certainty about what should be done. However, I think some of these people are more interested in being certain than they are in being right."

I think my one of my favourite parts in this entire talk is the ambiguity that Elder Hafen leaves around the question of "how much governmental intervention in business and private life is too much." In fact, I find ambiguity in this matter to be refreshing, since I don't think there is a black and white, right or wrong answer to the question -- contrary to what many members of the Church seem to be under the impression of. I'm open about the fact that my personal political preference is an ideology that embraces certain social democratic values. I tried ad nauseum to educate fellow Mormons about what social democracy really entails around different blogs and groups during the election when Obama was being branded an "evil socialist" by many in the Church. Yes, I think the world would be a better place if every country could adhere to certain social democratic values, and I think that liberalism has at least just as much of a legitimate place in Mormonism as conservativism . But I don't think God is a socialist. Neither do I think He's a Democrat, a Republican, a right-wing libertarian, or a Constitutionalist. Even though we all have our preferences, virtually every political philosophy probably has at least some value that we can learn from and use in our progression -- even those that we would personally never vote for. I don't think it's coincidence that there is enough ambiguity surrounding this question in order for us to be able to reach our individual conclusions in the matter of politics and government intervention -- despite the fact that many members I encountered in various discussions proclaimed that this party or that philosophy had God's stamp of approval.

Thoughts on any of the issues presented in this part of the talk? Do you draw any personal interpretations from ambiguity?

May 7, 2009

Love Is Not Blind - Part I: Divine Intervention

This is the first post in a series I wished to do based on a talk called Love Is Not Blind, given by Bruce C. Hafen at BYU in 1979.

The talk is long, but it's full of great discussion material and so that is why I have decided to "dissect" it here in a series of posts.

First of all, I should tell you all how I even came across this talk.

Recently we had a very special missionary serving in my branch. He wasn't just special because he was the first non-American serving in my branch, at least since I've been here -- he is German -- but because he was an excellent missionary. To me, that does not necessarily mean one that has had any great success in conversion statistics, but rather one who seems to sincerely care about the people around him and seems to be genuinely interested in service and friendship -- not simply baptisms. Many missionaries focus so much on leading people to the waters of baptism or "saving" everyone around them, that they forget to be a friend and thereby miss the opportunity to plant "seeds" -- ones that may never sprout in this lifetime, but may in the next. So, if missionary success is to be measured by seeds of friendship rather than baptisms, I would say that Elder W was about as successful as a missionary can hope to be.

Since Germany is special to my husband and me (it's where we met, and German was our main language of communication for several years), we quickly made a connection with Elder W. He had a good sense of humour, was a good sport with all our German jokes, and always honoured my request to not pressure my husband into further investigation of the Church, but rather just be our friend.

Before Elder W's mission ended, he said that he wanted to give me a talk on mp3 to listen to. So I transferred it onto my mp3 player and listened to it for the first time while flying home to Canada for a visit. I wasn't really sure what the talk was about, but expected it to be just another General Conference talk. It soon became evident that this was not the type of talk that we hear in in conference.

This talk is remarkable for several reasons and it was one that I needed to hear. As I listened to it, I had many thoughts and hope that I can capture just a few of them in this series of posts. I'm sure I'm not the only one who can benefit from it and therefore I wish to share it with all of my readers and hear their thoughts.

The first themes Elder Hafen touches on are prayer, God's involvement in ours lives, and the challenges to spirituality that come with intellectual maturity, as we read in the following excerpt:

"One Sunday morning, the Elders Quorum in our ward held a special testimony meeting characterized by spiritual warmth and personal openness. During that meeting, a fellow law student related a boyhood experience that had occurred just after he had been ordained a deacon. He lived on a farm and had been promised that a calf about to be born would be his very own to raise. One summer morning when his parents were away, he was working in the barn when the expectant cow began to calve prematurely. He watched in great amazement as the little calf was born; and then, without warning, the mother suddenly rolled over the little calf. He could see that she was trying to kill it. In his heart he cried out to the Lord for help. Not thinking about how much more the cow weighed than he did, he pushed on her with all his strength and somehow moved her away. He picked up the lifeless body of the calf in his arms and, brokenhearted, the tears running down his cheeks, he looked at it, wondering what had happened and what he could do. Then he remembered, he told us, that he now held the Priesthood and had every right to pray for additional help. And so he prayed from the depths of his boyish, believing heart. Before long the little animal began breathing again, and he knew that his prayer had been heard.

After relating the story, the tears welled up in his eyes and he said to us, "Brethren, I tell you that story because I don't know that I would do now what I did then. I think I might not expect the Lord's help in that kind of situation. I am not sure that I would believe now, even if I relived that experience, that the calf's survival was anything more than a coincidence. I don't understand what has happened to me since that incident, but I sense that something has gone a little bit wrong."

My friend in the Elders Quorum was not saying that he had lost faith in the Lord; rather, he was simply being very honest with us, I think, in sharing both the childlike and the sophisticated dimensions of his experience. This story reflects the thoughts and feelings that many of us experience, in our own way, during the college years. These thoughts and feelings are an important part of growing toward spiritual and intellectual maturity, as well as an important part of understanding both the strengths and the limitations of a college education."

Most of us probably have wondered if or how much God is really involved in our individual lives. Personally, I have more trouble believing that God hears the pleas of others than my own. I wonder why God will grant me the trivialities of my life -- yes, trivialities like fresh produce or a washing machine -- and yet literally leave others out in the cold without the bare necessities of life. We often say that God doesn't intervene much because he must allow us our free agency. In other words, He couldn't save all those in the depths of Auschwitz's gas chambers and He cannot save the people in Darfur from starvation because the free agency of the perpetrators overrides His ability to intervene, no matter how much the victims plead with God to save them.

So if God allows certain humans to have so much power over others -- on the grounds of free agency -- then why even ask Him to protect us from anything? If a knife-wielding lunatic on the street exercises his free agency and decides he is going to get me, can God do anything about it? If so, then why not at least throw suffering people a bone?

And yet I continue to pray for a blessing of safety upon me and my loved ones. A habit of hope and fear, I suppose. Hope that it will make a difference. Fear that it won't or even can't, because life is really just a big series of one coincidence after another. An intellectual maturity does not necessarily cause us to lose our faith in the Lord's existence. But I think that if we're honest with ourselves, a more sophisticated style of thinking makes us question just how big of a role He plays in our lives, which thereby challenges our spirituality.

What do you think? Was the calf's survival a coincidence? Is the very fact that you are living, breathing and reading right now a coincidence or divine intervention? Is it coincidence or divine intervention that separates your reality from that of the orphan with a shrapnel wound in Pakistan's Swat region?

To be honest, I'm not sure which alternative makes me feel better.