Oh Say What is Truth?

truth At the core of the Mormon founding story is Joseph Smith, a 14 year old boy living in the midst of a religious revival in upstate New York when he received a visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ and was told to join none of the churches. Instead, over the following years, he was directed to translate the Book of Mormon, a record written by ancient inhabitants in America, and then restore God’s church on the earth, the same church that was led by Christ in the New Testament. The telling of this first vision as Mormons like to call it has been canonized in Mormon scripture as part of the Pearl of Great Price.

For church members, a lot rides on how much of what Joseph Smith did and said is actually true. A recent prophet and church leader Gordon B. Hinkley put it this way in an address he gave to the general membership of the church:

Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.

This first vision experience is at the core of the message I taught investigators as a missionary for the church in Alabama. It was in our opening message, that Joseph Smith prayed to find out which church he should join and in response to that prayer, God the Father and Jesus came and directed him to join none of them.

The first Sunday of every month, we have no assigned speakers. Rather, the time is turned over to the congregation to stand and declare their testimony. That Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus in the groves of trees is a fundamental part of most testimonies month after month.

What to make of this? What exactly do we mean when we say the church is true?

Full disclosure, I’ve done this. I have stood up in testimony meeting and at times with great fervor have announced the simple declaration, “I know the church is true” and at these times, I’ve felt something associated with this assurance, which has in my mind confirmed the words.

So, let’s dig into this idea of Mormon truth. Terryl Givens provides some helpful Mormon historical context in his book The Crucible of Doubt.

Many readers of Joseph Smith’s First Vision account feel the sting of a wide-net rebuke, with its reference to the Christian creeds as ‘an abomination’ in God’s sight. Harsh to modern ears, however, Smith’s language fits right into his cultural milieu. Religious discourse of prior ages was a vigorous and, by modern standards, shockingly abrasive and nasty hurly-burly of insults and slurs.

In that chapter, Givens describes the hyperbolic religious language at the time that influenced Joseph Smith’s own writings. But then, sites other writings of Joseph Smith that is more expansive and generous, describing holy men (and women) not found within Mormonism and that how the gospel had never really left the earth but was hidden in the wilderness.

I love this:

It appears that when God lacked prophets, He spoke through poets and musicians, sages and simple men and women of faith and goodness. He spoke through Michelangelo’s Pieta and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry and Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. He spoke through wise men such as the second-century Origen, who taught of our premortal existence in God’s presence, of a God who felt our pain as His own, and of a Father’s love so infinite that it would embrace the whole human family….

And God continues to talk to us in this way, through prophets and poets and musicians and sages and simple men and women of faith and goodness. In many ways, the gospel is still in the wilderness.

Adam Miller in his book Rube Goldberg Machines, talks about testimony and Mormon certainty in ways that I find helpful and inclusive and possible both within and without Mormonism:

A testimony involves a sincere clarify of an ‘I know’ because it is , in its naked purity, subtracted from every sign. It is subtracted from every objective sign because it declares the restoration of possibilities that the facts of the world exclude. A testimony is a bolt of lightning that splits the night in two. Testimonies contravene the stubborn inertia proper to this world. Here, the lost and impossible possibilities revealed by a testimony take hold of and recondition the world. This, though is fundamentally different from the world taking hold of and conditioning a testimony. A testimony conditioned by the world is a sign. Testimonies are not essential because they reveal how things are in the world (this is the task of science). Testimonies are essential because they reveal, in light of the Atonement, how things can be.

Testimonies have to be centered on grace, on the atonement. On a spiritual experience that invokes sanctification and purification. We live in a world with consequences, but testimony describes our experiences when those consequences are circumvented, when we become whole despite ourselves. If we say, then, the church is true, if our testimony is based on an institutional church, for it not to be a sign, it has to be a declaration of an experience with grace within the church. When we say the church is true, we are saying we have experienced Christ at church.

To say the church is the only true and living church is to repeat the hyperbolic language of the early 1800’s Joseph Smith was immersed in. To say the church is true in the way Adam Miller describes is to say we’ve experienced a sanctifying experience that brought us out of this world into an eternal one. It’s to experience living in deep time, it’s to  experience an early resurrection.

But there is one more dimension of truth I’d like to point out outlined in an “On Being” interview with the physicist Frank Wilczek. And I think it’s relevant here:

“You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.”

“And I think that’s the essence of complementarity, that you have to view the world in different ways to do it justice, and the different ways can each be very rich, can each be internally consistent, can each have its own language and rules, but they may be mutually incompatible. And to do full justice to reality, you have to take both of them into account.”

So, adding this idea of complementarity. If Mormonism can indeed be true, in a fully rich and deep way, than even here, it leaves open the actual possibility that other traditions, other ways of living faith, other ways of seeing and living in this world, can also be true in ways that seem incompatible with Mormonism.

What I’m after here is a recognition of a world that I actually experience day to day, that I’ve had deep, meaningful religious experiences both within and without Mormonism. Both at church on Sunday, and in the concert halls on Saturday.  But more than that, I’ve disagreed with prophets and have learned truths from the devil himself.

What I’m offering is a world of complexity, mystery and a recognition that there is more that we don’t know than we know. If that is the world we’re living in, where we have the opportunity to experience deep time, have plenty of walks in darkness, have moments of confusion and doubt, I think we need to accept our own weakness and live in this world with humility and a willingness to learn, both within and without our traditions.

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Republicans in 2018 – A Hypothesis

Cynicism is probably the most common response to politics these days. It’s difficult to defend one’s one political party as it struggles with scandal, bad decisions or failed leadership. A common response is to assume the other political party is no better. This is precisely what happened in the Trump/Clinton election. Both candidates carried significant political baggage, but a large number of voters simply refused to rank one against the other. Some opted out and others voted for marginal third party candidates. Still others just threw their support to their party, hoping the party leadership would constrain the worse impulses of the candidate. From this cynicism and a lot luck, we now have Trump.

Now with Trump’s victory, the mutual blame continues. Republicans control all three branches of government, but democrats share the blame of government inaction, corruption and bloat.

First of all I don’t agree with this assessment. I believe it’s important that we dive deeper, adapt more sophisticated analysis and be open to the possibility that one party at different times behaves worse than the other.

Just some quick table-setting first. All institutions are problematic, corrupt to degrees, and flawed. It’s a truism that none of us are perfect, so obviously the institutions we lead are not going to be perfect either. This isn’t an all or nothing analysis. There are degrees and degradations. We must be willing to dive deeper. We will always vote for the lesser of two evils if we admit that all of us have a bit of evil within us (or the greater of two goods for the optimists among us).

Second, given the nature of our constitutional system, we are stuck with two main political parties. Given this, the ideology of one party tends to dominate at certain points in our history. The other party tends to act as a moderating pragmatic force, tempering the majority party’s excesses. Even as the government’s control alternates, the nation’s political center tends to move the country forward in a fairly consistent direction, prompting some to believe there is no real difference between the two parties, further cementing some of the assumptions outlined above.

To lay this out a bit, let me give a very brief, very high level political history. In the first half of the twentieth century, as the United States transitioned into a global power, helping to lead and win two devastating world wars, culminating in the defeat of European fascism and large parts of the world’s transition to communism. In addition because of the devastating effects of a global depression, the US political center shifted toward globalism, communist containment and the expansion of the safety net. Roosevelt and then later Johnson brought us social security, medicare, medicaid and other government programs that are now broadly popular and have helped alleviate the worse effects of poverty, especially among the elderly. Meanwhile, communist containment and democratic European alignment has been the central strategy of our foreign policy from Roosevelt to Reagan. So, our policies and general political direction stayed on a relatively consistent course as we moved through Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

But the devastations of the Vietnam War, the gains of the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and political scandal started to wear down that consensus. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were weak attempt to maintain the status quo.

But it was Ronald Reagan that led the country into a new era, moving the political center in a conservative direction. During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the marginal tax rates for the highest bracket was at 70%, the economy was experiencing both high inflation and slow economic growth. Significant tax cuts, especially at the highest marginal rates, regulatory rollbacks, increased global trade, and a decreased concern for our national debt helped increased market supply, decrease inflation, and move the country out of recession. The Soviet Union’s collapse and the end of the cold war basically eliminated communism as a global concern.

Further, gains in black civil rights lowered the temperature on that issue while the 1970’s excesses of the sexual revolution placed cultural war issues front and center. Ronald Reagan represented a return to patriotism, free markets, and family values. Being accused a liberal became an insult.

This move to conservatism hurt George Bush Sr. losing a second term primarily because he momentarily worried about growing debt and raised taxes after promising he wouldn’t. Bill Clinton in his first two years, tried to expand access to health care, tried and failed and then lost Congress in a wave election in 1994. America would not tolerate a step back to pre-Reagan liberalism. Not yet. He spent the remaining six years of office with the strategy of triangulation, keeping tax rates relatively low while rolling back, if only moderately, the social safety net with welfare reform, then siding with the conservatives on the cultural wars with don’t ask/don’t tell, and tacking to the right on crime, with his crime bill.

In the new century, the world shifted yet again and quickly. Globalization, automation, increased global wealth, wealth inequality, and an increased dependence on consumer debt. In this new century, a dot com bubble led the world right into the real estate bubble which led to what could have been another great global depression.

The political history in this new century has been a difficult one. The Republican party so far has been holding tight to Reaganism even as its relevance in this new world seems less obvious. How far can you keep cutting marginal tax rates for the rich? How much does this continue to make sense in an era of massive inequality? How much debt can a country really take without serious consequences. Our security threats have become decentralized. All the super-powers are more or less on our side. China’s economy has modernized as its markets have become freer.

Bush’s presidency was marked by 9/11, the single biggest terrorist attack on US soil, pulled off by a ragtag set of terrorists set up in the failed state of Afghanistan. The reaction mired our military ever since in both Afghanistan and then Iraq, setting off tribal war that has engulfed much of the middle east, burning brightly in Syria today.

Obama tried to respond to the new realities with new ideas. Riding high on a momentous victory in 2008, with super-majorities in Congress, he tried to move the country left, proposing a solution to the problem of rising health care costs and decreased access to it with what he felt was a market-based solution. The blow-back was immediate. Although, Obama got a first version of his healthcare passed, a Republican Congress take-over in 2010, halted further progress, and then a Trump victory in 2016 crippled it further.

In summary, given the electoral college map, the concentration of liberals on the coasts and in cities, giving rural areas more relative power than their populations would indicate, Reagan economics and 1960’s style religious conservatism is still political center slightly right. But the data isn’t good in this regard. Debt is growing; economic inequality is growing; automation, trade and globalization has cut into job security; and the demographics of our country is trending less white, less protestant, less religious and more secular. The political center is slowly moving left.

The Trump presidency is a reflection of that. In some sense, Trump’s presidency and the rise of the alt-right comes from a sense of a looming loss. Trump’s version of “Make America Great Again”, seemed much less about strengthening our country to meet its current problems, and more about trying to make America look a lot more like it used to look in the 1950’s – white, protestant, with large factories and mines re-employing the working class who increasingly are finding themselves with few employment options.

His presidency wasn’t really won on Reagan principles at all. Trumpism is national and tribal. He ran on trade wars, strong borders, and more prisons. He felt that the US was in decline and was being played as a global sucker. But Reaganism is the central guiding philosophy of the RNC. So, they made a wager. The RNC would support Trump, as long as Trump appointed conservative judges and signed their legislation.

So, where does this lead my judgment of the two parties? In many ways, it’s still a work in progress. Some hoped Obama would be the Democratic Reagan. Permanently moving the political center left. This could have happened if the Democrats would have won in 2016. Trump was a hail marry to stop it. And its worked for a while as the Republicans are doing all they can to reverse most of what Obama spent 8 years building.

But it’s a reactionary, impulsive desperate attempt to not think about the world as it actually is.

I’m not saying the DNC is in great shape. In some sense the Trump presidency is hurting the DNC as well. But it’s not clear yet. The DNC has two choices. To wait the current moment out. Continuing Obama’s first steps toward a soft turn left, finding ways to address global and domestic problems with a safety net, a tax code and a government designed for the modern day.

I’m not sure how this will end up. But as it stands, the RNC is in worse shape than the DNC, but there is more work on both sides.

When You Disagree With a Prophet

Joseph-SmithMormonism is a church led by prophets, modeled after New Testament church of prophets, apostles, bishops and teachers and all the rest. Part of being a Mormon is to support the church, its hierarchy and the leadership. Basically, to follow the prophet. We have been taught since children, that following church leaders, staying in the boat, and all the rest, will bring with it protection against life’s storms. And we’re warned that if we disobey, we may lose out on God’s blessings. Scriptures are filled with stories of the woes of those who disobey prophetic warnings.

But here’s the deal, prophets are just people too.  It’s easy to glorify scriptural prophets in the ancient world, believing they are more in tune to God then the average person. But even here, they mess up. Jonah had to be swallowed by a whale  before fulfilling the mission God gave him. Peter, in the heat of the moment, denies Jesus three times. Then later, has to be convinced to share the good news of Christ’s message outside of his Jewish tribe.

With the proximity of time and place, it’s easier to find problems with our latter day Mormon prophets. Being a life-long Mormon, by far the two hardest issues to explain are that black people were kept from the priesthood and the temple up until 1978 when permission was finally granted, and that Joseph Smith implemented polygamy, a practice that continued until 1904.

Public pressure ultimately ended both practices. Stopping polygamy was a precondition for Utah to become a state. The church lifted the priesthood ban after years of both external and internal pressure and protest. As the church grew in predominantly black countries in Africa and South America, it simply couldn’t sustain leadership in these areas. And ultimately having to parse out who had black blood in their genealogy proved ultimately to be fundamentally problematic.  Finally, an important article written by a black Mormon scholar was the final nudge that got President Kimball on his knees to pray for a revelation to fix a decades-long problem.

Whenever someone I knew questioned my more dogmatic Mormon claims that, for example, I belonged to the one and only true church of God restored they could simply ask how God’s church could keep temple blessings from black people for so long? Or did God really command prophets to take multiple wives? Over the years, members have come up with various reasons to explain these practices – polygamy was part of the Old Testament church, the priesthood was available only to the Jews for centuries. So, who knows why God is so selective, really, but God has shown himself to be so. These reasons I recycled in the face of such criticisms, but never convincingly.

The problem fundamentally with these sorts of apologetic answers is that they assume the church gets these issues right. The presupposition here is that the priesthood ban was from God. I don’t believe this is true. I believe that the policy was inspired by an American church founded in the midst of a deeply racist nation. In 1830, slavery was still the law of the land, and the country was only decades away from the Civil War.

And then the nearly uniformly white church moved from New York, to Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois before finally settling in Utah absorbing persecution along the way, but finally placing it in the far-reaches of the desert where they could organize and grow within the safe confines of a religious state largely isolated from the rest of the country. And even for most of the 20th century, Utah has remained a largely a white state controlled mostly by a white church.

Rather than defending this practice, it’s so much easier to understand it simply as a mistake. That racism lingers within American institutions is just an inevitably given its history. Let’s accept it, account for it, and learn from it. Importantly, the church has at various times had to be nudged in the right direction by society at large.

But this brings up a bigger, more important point. God’s revelations don’t just come from within the church. In Letters to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller put it this way:

God has been rushing to show us more of this strange world. You name it: fossils, black holes, x-rays, DNA, set theory, one-dimensional strings, Neanderthals, dark matter, brain imaging, big data, evolution, retroviruses, interplanetary travel, the Higgs boson, non-euclidean geometries, Mars rovers, etc. GodUsed to send us an occasional rain. Now the revelations come as a flood. We live in a postdiluvian world, and the rain falls harder every day.

This is revelation. It’s raining down everywhere and the church only directly captures a portion of it. In fact, the more the church isolates itself from the world, the further away from God’s revelatory streams it gets. Both the priesthood ban and polygamy germinated and grew in the churches early days, a time of segregation and isolation. Polygamy was introduced by Joseph Smith pre-Utah migration, but covertly, in secret. And ultimately the primary reason for Joseph Smith’s ultimate martyrdom and the saints resulting migration into Utah. Both practices were jettisoned as the church re-integrated. On both issues, God had moved the world ahead of the church and finally as the church finally came to terms with its place in the world, the church moved to catch up.

Coming to terms with the church’s historical prophetic mistakes puts a faithful member of the church in a quandary. How do you know whether current prophets are not making the similar mistakes now? If the prophet can’t be trusted to be correct conduits of God’s message what good are they then?

Remember, first, that yes, prophets make mistakes, but then so do all of us, egregious mistakes.  Like all the rest of us, Mormons can do crazy things when they go rogue. Which is why we need checks and balances. We need the power of personal conscience and personal revelation balanced by the revelations and wisdom embedded in institutions. We desperately need multiple competing institutions acting in tension with one another, competing and correcting the worst impulses within us individually and institutionally.

If we’re all imperfect and if God works in and through all that is good in the world, I think it behooves us to stay engaged, holding our own ideas with humility. Being willing to be correct ourselves and then when we make mistakes, apologizing and make amends.

In other words, we need each other, we need to be engaged, we need to be connected, we need to share our ideas but also listen to others. I believe in the messiness of an increasingly connected world, revelation and inspiration can exist, in the messiness and not apart from it.

 

Is Trump’s Business Success an Indicator of Presidential Success? Are His Business Failures and Deceipts Impeachment Worthy?

I think the case to impeach Trump is rooted in an ever-growing accumulation of examples of incompetency, corruption and the violation of democratic norms. Much of this predates his presidency. I believe past actions matter in how we treat and react to his current behavior. It sets up a context.  For Trump, the most understandable reason for voting for him was that he was a vote against Hillary Clinton.  I understand this because that’s the primary reason I voted for Hillary.

But if the bar was set that low. If Trump won primarily because of who he was running against, I think it’s more than reasonable to give his presidency a short leash. He entered the presidency without a mandate and with an unprecedented degree of skepticism and weariness. In that sense, then, I think clearing the impeachment bar isn’t quite as high as is normally the case.

The case for a high impeachment bar is rooted in a respect for the democratic forces that placed a person in the executive office. Trump, however, lost the popular vote by 2,000,000 people, squeaking out an electoral victory by slim margins in a few midwestern states. And there was a lot of questionable events that happened along the way, from Russian intervention and Comey’s ill-timed announcements. The democratic mandate barely exists in his case.

Having said that, I believe in redemption. I believe people can change and grow. But past misdeeds impose some amount of obligation on the person. They require an apology, a reasonable attempt to correct past wrongs, and a renewed energy to move forward a changed person.

Trump has a long history of moral failings and missteps, has shown a reluctance to own up to them, rather prefering to attack and defend his behavior through lawsuits and retaliatory defamation, and has shown a willingness to continue his pattern of past behavior while in the white house.

This blogpost is perhaps the first in a series that will lay out the case for impeachment, one dimension at a time.

Luckily I don’t have to write much on each topic, because much of this has been widely reported. I’ll reference a sampling of that here.

I’ll begin with Trump’s wealth. Trump has spent a lot of time and energy hiding both his wealth and the extent and nature of his business entanglements, so there’s a lot we don’t know. I’ll start with what we know and then lay out a few possibilities that have yet to be fully proven:

First, how he made his wealth

Early Success

First and foremost, he was born into it. His father was successful, self-made and well-connected. Trump leveraged this good fortune in a number of ways. He inherited a lot of wealth. He benefited from his father’s political and business connections, and his father lent him money as he pursued his early real-estate investments. He took advantage of these benefits to land lucrative real-estate deals in New York City.

However, his long-term success in New York City, is fairly weak.

He has a record of not paying or underpaying his contractors:

“One contractor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being sued by Mr. Trump, said Mr. Trump underpaid on one large job, at one of his towers, by almost $100,000. The contractor opted not to sue, estimating the litigation would cost more than the losses. The two parties have not done business since.

Lawyers who spoke to The Times had similar stories.”

Bankruptcy

He heavily leveraged early real-estate success into his casinos, however during an economic downturn and an over-reliance on high interest junk bonds, he was forced into multiple bankruptcies, largely protecting his own assets while forcing the brunt of the losses on banks and those who did business with him.

In the late 1990’s, his father died, transferring a huge inheritance to him and his siblings. In addition, he discovered a different business model more in-line with his unique gifts, gifts of showmanship and flair. From here, he found he could make a fortune selling his name.

The USFL

While not directly related to his fortune, what he did to the USFL fits into a larger pattern. He takes large risks fueled by an enormous ego and ends up destroying the thing he’s involved in.

Branding

Many of the properties that bear the Trump name aren’t actually owned by the mogul. The Trump Organization has been known to partner with developers in licensing deals. In such an arrangement, a developer pays Trump a licensing fee; in exchange, they’re given permission to brand their building with the Trump name and logo. Trump benefits by receiving a regular stream of royalties, while the developer can increase the rates she charges because the Trump name signifies high quality and luxury. According to Trump, his real estate licensing deals, intellectual propertybrands and branded development are worth more than $3.3 billion; however, Forbes pegs this number at around $253 million.

A few events in his life really set him up to succeed in this way.

Early Deceipt

First of all, he successfully got himself placed on the Forbes list of richest developers early on in his life. And he did so using deceitful means. Getting him on the Forbes list, helped establish himself as an investor to be taken seriously, helping him to establish beneficial tax benefits from local politicians early on and convinced banks and investors to dump millions of their own dollars into his investments.

The Apprentice

As he transitioned into brand licensing, convincing others that the Trump name is a symbol of wealth and business acumen was critical. He is a genius at this kind of marketing. Getting the Apprentice gig was a particular coup here.

Russian Entanglements

It’s clear US banks won’t lend to him because of earlier bankruptcies. It’s also clear, Trump has a long history with Russia. 

Trump deftly distanced himself from the developers’ troubles, telling the Sun-Sentinel that he questioned their “timing.” But the condo market gradually improved, thanks in part to Russian buyers. A Reuters investigation found that 63 people with Russian addresses or passports have purchased $98.4 million of property in Trump-branded condos in South Florida.

As the new president was taking office, the Trump brand sparkled brighter than ever for Russians. The Miami Herald reported on Jan. 30 that in November 2016, Russians topped the list of foreigners looking for homes in the Miami area.

Oren Alexander, one of the top brokers at Douglas Elliman, explained the post-election trend to the Herald: “There’s no doubt that Russian buyers think America is a good place to be again.” Among the places that attracted Russian purchasers, he said, were Sunny Isles Beach and Fisher Island.

Mueller’s investigation might tell us whether any of these Trump-Russian business connections improperly melded into the 2016 campaign. But at the core of Trump’s interaction with his Russian friends is an insight they have shared ever since Soviet days: Politics may be transitory, but real estate is forever.

Although, it appears to be speculative, it seems like Trump found money to fund his ventures with Russian oligarchs he was unable to find in the US banks.

Using The Presidency to Further His Business

It’s clear Trump is using his position as president to further his business interests across the globe and that is troubling.

Are these impeachable offenses?

I believe so, but I can be talked out of it. I believe Republicans need to decide this and so far they are unwilling to entertain the idea. Trump has developed a religious attachment from his base, which makes sense. In another post, I can describe how Trump succeeded by becoming something of a cult leader. His enthusiastic base is strong enough to punish apostasy within the Republican party.  I get why Republican Senators are loathe to move on him.

A lot depends on how much evidence Mueller and others can bring up in a way that’s convincing enough to the Republican base. Trump refuses to release his tax returns. We don’t really know how wealthy he actually is and how much of that is through unethical or illegal means.

Despite that, I think the body of evidence is enough to convince me. But I’m not the one with the power to decide.

Love Our Enemies

Two weeks ago, we had General Conference with a number of moving, inspiring talks. I was particularly moved by the talk given by Elder Massimo De Feo. In it, he describes an experience with his mother who was struggling with cancer, suffering, in pain and near death. She sensed her son’s concern for her and felt prompted to ask her son if she could pray for him.

Elder De Feo describes it this way:

“As I knelt next to her bed and she prayed for me, I felt a love never felt before. It was a simple, true, pure love. Although she didn’t know about the plan of salvation, she had in her heart her personal plan of love, the plan of love of a mother for her son. She was in pain, struggling to even find the strength to pray. I could barely hear her voice, but I surely felt her love.”

Elder De Feo later goes on and says..

“Brothers and sisters, the gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of love. The greatest commandment is about love. For me, it’s all about love. The love of the Father, who sacrificed His Son for us. The love of the Savior, who sacrificed all for us. The love of a mother or a father who would give anything for his or her children. The love of those who serve silently and are not known to most of us but are well known to the Lord. The love of those who forgive all and always. The love of the ones who give more than they receive.”

Brothers and sisters, I believe this should be the motivating force underlying everything we do as Christians. In fact, this is what I believe is the driving message, ministry and life of Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s not a controversial principle at all. Most people recognize the importance love plays in our lives. It’s a major theme in many of our movies and popular songs. It’s a foundational principle in every religion I’m familiar with. We all have this very human need to feel loved. But with a careful study of Jesus’s life and teachings, you quickly realize just how radical his message is and how really difficult it is to apply.

Let’s think a moment about what was happening in Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s life. Israel, for course, was under Roman occupation at the time. There were two general responses to this occupation. Some wanted a violent revolt against the Roman power to claim what they felt was their divine right to freedom and self rule.  They felt this was a matter of prophecy and that a God-ordained messiah would lead them. Many felt Jesus came to fulfill this role.

Others wanted to embed themselves into the power structure of the Roman empire, forming cooperative alliances. But this sort of cooperation led to corruption and a move away from God and their covenants.

Jesus proposed a third way, summarized within the two great commands – to love God – possibly as a rebuke to the second approach. We show our love for God through our commitments and covenants to the gospel. If we love God, we keep God’s commandments.

The second commandment given is to love our neighbors as ourself – which is an argument against revolt. Let me pause for a bit to really dive in to what it means to love our neighbors.

I think it means to love deeply and unconditionally those close to us. Jesus loved and served his apostles. Think of Jesus washing their feet at the last supper. In the agony of the cross, Christ remembers his mother urging John to care for her. The story of the prodigal son was a lesson of the unconditional love of a father for his son, The father never gave up hope and then quickly forgave him and welcomed him home on his return.

I think it means to care for and remember the stranger, especially those typically forgotten, those on the margins, many who are easy to forget or are passed over. The parable of the good samaritan was emblematic of this teaching. Here the samaritan noticed someone suffering, and at great inconvenience to himself went out of his way to bless and to serve. Jesus, of course, spent his life blessing the sick and giving aid and comfort to those who pressed themselves into his life.

I think it means, and this is the hardest and most radical teaching of all, to love our enemies. Hopefully none of us have enemies quite like the Romans or quite like those near Jesus who betrayed him and crucified him. But it was Jesus who in the moment of agony on the cross pled for the Father to forgive the very Roman soldiers who were in the act of torturing and crucifying him.

For us, perhaps someone in your life has left the church and you feel a sense of loss and betrayal. The other day, I had someone yell an expletive at me because I didn’t get out of his way quick enough on a bike path. We all have run-ins with others and in the moment of tension, nearly anyone in that moment might be seen as an enemy. It’s at those moments, we should try to remember to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.”

Let us not forget to include ourselves in the list of people we should love. Meaning, we should be sure to take care of ourselves, protect ourselves, heal ourselves when we are suffering and in pain. And often times that might mean reaching out to others who might help us do just that.

This is difficult, difficult stuff. It’s been a life-long struggle for me.

I have a natural propensity for anxiety. I’m also an introvert. And just being a human being in a difficult world, I’ve been concerned with finding a footing in it – in terms of building a family and a career. There’s all kinds of reasons to be concerned with my own needs and concerns and not as aware of the needs and concerns of others around me.

I kind of approached my mission this way. I viewed it as a self-improvement opportunity. I knew I had serious gaps in my life. I saw the growth many people  returning home from their missions experienced and I desired that same opportunity. And my mission was great. I grew a lot. But about half way through it, I had this feeling that things weren’t quite right. I was working hard, trying to obey the mission rules. But still I felt like things weren’t where they should be. With these thoughts in my mind, one morning, in my scripture study, I was reading the Book of Mormon and I happened to be reading Moroni 7. Which is a rather remarkable chapter considering the cataclysmic war they were experiencing. It’s a chapter where Moroni was reciting teachings of his father Mormon.  Verse 45 is emblematic:

45 And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

But I knew this this chapter was coming. I loved it, but the message didn’t fully sink in.

That same morning I picked up the New Testament and I happened to be on 1 Corinthians 13.

4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

That hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t expecting it. I knew at that moment I needed to do a better job loving the people I was working with.

Because that’s what the gospel of Jesus Christ is about. It’s all about love. And I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

The Lost Sheep

Luke 15:4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

This story begins with the pharisees and the scribes accusing Jesus of eating with undesirables and sinners. He responds with the parable of the lost sheep. If a shepherd loses just one of his sheep, he immediately leaves the ninety and nine and goes after that which is lost until the sheep is found.

This story is used often in religious settings in a boundary setting kind of way. Those who are found are those in the pews on Sunday, taking the sacrament, attending the meetings, doing home/visiting teaching, paying tithing. Those who are lost are not at church, or perhaps attending the wrong church. Especially so, if they were once attending church and have since stopped.  Are those who have never part of the flock really lost?

But I’m not sure this makes sense to me. It proves alienating to those close to me who have left Mormonism, some who appear far more found than I often feel. And that gets to the heart of it for me. Can someone be lost who actually attends church every Sunday? Can someone be perfectly found who never does? I offer that the answer can be yes to both questions.

Given that, let me put forth an alternative interpretation that perhaps interprets these verses a bit more literally: perhaps we are found, when we are found. Perhaps we are lost when we are lost. In this sense, the act of finding the lost sheep is perhaps both more difficult but also more straight forward. If someone is not truly lost, but we assume they are, the act of trying to rescue that person can cause conflict, confusion, misunderstanding and damaged relationships. If someone is truly lost, the act of rescue will be lifesaving.

Some examples. I have loved ones who have left Mormonism. But I don’t see them as lost at all. I talk to them frequently. We have a close relationship. We visit each other. They aren’t lost. I know exactly where they are. More importantly, they are well connected. They have friends, safety nets, careers, they serve in their community, they are striving in various ways, they are filled with love in their hearts, and they have a relationship with God and with others.

When I think of a category of people who are lost, I think of the lonely and forgotten elderly who are in the last years of their lives, often homebound, not visited enough. Now, there is a phase of life at then end, where this is not a lost state at all. You can be alone and perfectly found. I worry about those who are alone and lonely, sad, and scared. They are among the lost sheep and some of them sit in the pews next to me at church.

Network Theology

I have a soft spot in my heart for Adam Miller. He’s easy to like, a Mormon celebrity of sorts. In his book, Future Mormon, he has a chapter on network theology, where truth and essence is found in processes emergent in networks that exist in our global existence.  If we find God in our network, in our connections, than, it seems to be, we lose religion to the degree that we have become disconnected.

From Future Mormon

In network theology, an understanding of grace as an external, sovereign intervention is out of place. The model of a transcendent, sovereign power would be apt only if God were a king perched at the top of a cosmic hierarchy rather than a servant whose power resides in his solidarity with the poor and the outcast. What, then, might be an immanent notion of grace appropriate to a flat network cosmology?

Here grace can be understood as a systemic excess produced by the complexity of a network’s ongoing, local interactions. In other words, grace in an emergent property of a self-organizing system. Or, again: it is the unintended remainder of an unbalanced equation. This kind of ‘free,’ emergent excess – an excess that cannot be wholly accounted for by any individual relations or locally intended consequences – is essential to the success of any truth. Truths over-write banked knowledge by bringing into play the excess of a grace. By tracing novel pathways in light of a grace, truths open new network connections and new possibilities for productive interaction. It is the essentially productive aspect of any truth that ties truth to grace and grace to the promise of life (and renewed life) that is the heart of the Christian proclamation.

In this sense, then, what we should be striving for is not just individual development, but more importantly interdependent connections. Finding the lost sheep in this sense is to plug isolated individuals back into relationships and communities. Building up the gospel of Christ means connecting both religious (all religious) communities together in mutually beneficial relationships. It also means connecting secular communities into our networks as well. It means binding ourselves to each other both because of shared commitments but possibly more important because of our unique and individual differences and complementary gifts and perspectives.

Sin, in this sense is a move toward isolation. Think of any sin and consider that its effects are isolating. When I’ve been hurt I want to withdraw. Addictions usually happen in private or with strangers. A move to repentance is a move toward connection – we confess, forsake and seek restitution and where possible help others who similarly struggle.

But isolation just doesn’t happen individually. It can happen in our groups as well. Echo chambers happen within disconnected, closed networks of individuals in total agreement. Churches too happen worship in isolation, thankful that they have been separated from their brethren; believing that they have been elected God’s holy children.

For Christians, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Meaning, his life, his example is the way toward salvation. And Christ spent much of his ministry with the disconnected, the rejected. Christ’s mission was to build networks. I think this is the Christian mission as well.

Sodom and Gomorrah

sodomgomorrah

Some Background First

First a few thoughts on Abraham as a historical person inspired exclusively from Introduction to the Hebrew Bible Second Edition.

“In fact, the stories of Genesis do not lend themselves easily to historical analysis. As Hermann Gunkel saw clearly, at the end of the nineteenth century, they belong not to the genre of historiography but to that of legend.”  pp. 89

Regardless of their historical value, the tales of the patriarchs remain powerful as stories. In large part this is because like all good folklore, they touch on perennial issues, such as jealousy between a woman and her rival (Sarah and Hagar) or rivalry between brothers (Jacob and Essau). Many of the stories are entertaining – Abraham’s ability to outwit the pharaoh or the gentle story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24. Others are tales of terror, in the phrase of Phyllis Trible – the command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son, or Lot’s willingness to to sacrifice his daughter’s to the men of Sodom. When the stories read as Scripture, they become more problematic because of a common but ill-founded assumption that all Scripture should be edifying. The stories of Genesis are often challenging and stimulating, but they seldom if ever propose simple models to be imitated. pp. 93

The stories of Genesis are old. Legend has it that Moses was the author, but scholars now believe this isn’t the case. Rather there have been several sources producing multiple stories. These stories originated orally, passed down over a long period of time before they were eventually recorded, intertwining much of these stories into the one we have recorded today.  I’ll leave it at that.

I prefer to read these as folklore. I prefer to read them as stories about ancient views of God rather than about God directly.  I know there is real evil in the world, but I think we often miss context and I hold onto the view that we would view individual circumstances with a lot more compassion if we really knew the full story. For example, I’m not sure any city deserves genocidal destruction as is described in this story.

Abraham and Lot

In addition to the commentary mentioned above, I’m also using the Jewish Study Bible, which has some amazing commentary that really enriches the reading of this story. From that, I’ll quote extensively.

In Genesis 13, Abraham and Lot travel out of Egypt into Negeb. They were both rich, having a lot of “flocks and herds and tents” and so the land they occupied could not sustain them both. In their interaction, time and time again, Abraham shows himself to be the more generous, tolerant and forward looking of the pair. Abraham offers Lot the choice of the land, and Abraham would make do with second best.

From the commentary on page 30:

Abram is characteristically generous and conciliatory, offering Lot the first choice of land. Lot, by contrast, is self-interested and immediately selects what he mistakenly takes to be the best. The narrator’s comparison of his portion to the garden of the Lord, a place of disobedience and curse, and to Egypt, a place of exile and oppression, suggests the short-sightedness of Lot’s choice. His settling near the archetypal sinners of Sodom contrasts with Abram, who faithfully remained in the land of Canaan.

Immediately after selecting the land near Sodom, the land is engulfed in war and Lot is imprisoned. Abraham immediately rescues him.  Which immediately shows Lot’s choice to be the riskier, but Abraham rescues his nephew as an act of courage and compassion.

In Genesis 18 and 19, both Abraham and Lot are visited in succession by visitors from the Lord. In Abraham’s case, the experience ends up with Abraham being told that Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed. Abraham, again with grace, compassion and an extreme amount of gumption, negotiates with God pleading for passion and mercy, eventually getting God to agree to save the cities if ten righteous people could be found there.

In Genesis 19, the messengers visit Lot. The commentary:

19.1-3, The contrast between Abraham and Lot (discussed above, on ch 13) continues. Whereas Abraham sees the Lord (18.1), Lot sees only His two angelic attendants (19.1). Whereas Abraham runs to greet his visitors (18.2), Lot only rises (19.1). Whereas Abraham offers a sumptuous feast (18.6-8), Lot offers unleavened bread (19.3)

and

10. Lot’s passivity is patent and contrasts with Abraham’s daring challenge to God’s justice in the previous chapter (18.22-33). Gen. 19.29 will make it explicit that Lot’s escape is owing not to his own deeply irresolute character, but to God’s reliable commitment to Abraham. 14. Wherease Abraham, taking the impending destruction with the utmost seriousness, functions prophetically in hopes of averting the catastrophe, Lot is taken for a buffoon even by his own sons-in-law and cannot save them.

Lot’s weakness and inconstancy would have done him in, had it not been for the Lord’s mercy on him (v.16). His weakness and self-interest, however result in the sparing of one town. (v18-22), whereas Abraham’s audacious and principled intervention (18.22-33) proved unable to save anyone.

Final Thoughts

So, as we all know, God eventually destroys the region, Lot’s wife is turned to salt, Lot’s daughters bear sons from his father (believing the world had ended with them as the lone survivors).

Lot’s heart I think is good, but he is weak and self-interested. Abraham acts with more depth, graciousness and compassion. When there is conflict over land, Abraham offers Lot the first choice. Lot chooses superficially, seeing the natural beauty and resources, but missing the risks of trying to live in a  hotly-contested, occupied land rich in natural resources. He is almost immediately captured in war. And then eventually loses everything when the entire region is destroyed because of the wickedness of the people there.

Abraham, by contrast, remains in the land promised him by God. He is quick to recognize God’s messengers. Quick in hospitality. Quick to think and act compassionately, trying to prevent destruction.

I’m not sure this story is really about obedience. Rather, it’s about kindness, compassion, wisdom, and understanding. Lessons that are learned over a lifetime of struggle, study, searching and growth.

I’m wondering if it would have been possible to save Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m wondering how the story would have been different if Lot had chosen to remain in Canaan forcing Abraham to find another place. Would Abraham have chosen Jordan? Would he have done better in finding ten righteous people?