The Church Is True

An Introduction

In a recent Saturday Night Live episode, Dave Chappelle joked “The Democrats were sore losers. I’m a Democrat and I’m telling you as soon as he (Trump) won, they started saying that he’s colluding with Russia, he’s colluding with Russia. It was very embarrassing as a Democrat. But as time went on, we all came to learn, he was probably colluding with Russia.” The point of this joke is that yes, at some level the obsession about Trump’s Russian collusion charges were false and born out of partisan bitterness from losing the election and that gave Republicans good reason to critique and jeer. With a deeper analysis, however, you find a deeper level of truth.

In a similar way, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) projects a restoration theology that inspires both reductive faithful expression and a resulting and very vocal reductive critique of that expression. The case I will try to make here, though, is that while I agree there are good reasons to object to some of these truth claims, and that Mormon critics often have a point, there is also, actually, a deeper truth found within the restoration church that came out of those early nineteenth century Joseph Smith revelations and that continue to inspire the church today. To hijack Chappelle’s joke in a different way, “I’m a Mormon and I’m telling you that I get very embarrassed by the overconfident and insistent expression of truth claims, but as time goes on, I believe it’s possible to both appreciate the utility of those church claims as well as understand they point to deeper and beautiful truths” – doesn’t quite hit as well as Chappelle’s version, but oh well.

In a typical church meeting on a typical Sunday morning, it’s not uncommon for one to hear a member emphatically profess that the church is true. I’ve said it myself many times throughout my life, most notably, while serving a two year mission in Alabama. I remember believing in a certain magic behind a simple statement of faith that could, if properly delivered, shake the foundations of the church’s worst critics. If the phrase, “the church is true” could be declared with the proper amount of confidence, I felt, nobody would be able to deny it and after hearing this declaration the hearer would find themselves in new territory, either to affirm the truth claim or forever reject something they’ve felt and could not honestly deny.

Since, I’ve gone through a bit of a faith deconstruction. I’ve examined some of the words I’ve been taught to use in my testimony to see how they still align with an evolving inner conviction that drives my actual faith. In my religious tradition, we reserve the first Sunday of every month for testimony meetings, something I’ve dubbed “open mic”, allowing members of the congregation the opportunity to get up and share brief expressions of their faith. Not wanting to be misunderstood, I’ve tried to find language that reflects authentically my convictions, perhaps something less tied to any institutional church and more tied to general desires to feel love, connection and goodness. I desperately want to be a good person and I believe a “true” spiritual practice is designed to do that. Everything else is ancillary. My testimony then has become more expressions of that desire – more expressions of faith, goodness and gratitude and less concern for certainty in specific truth claims.

However, like Dave Chappelle making his journey through embarrassment for his fellow sore losing Democrats to a deeper appreciation that maybe they had a point, I’ve seen glimpses that perhaps the original statements of faith I declared in my youthful journey may have some deeper power and energy. Maybe there is a profound way in which the church is true that can navigate through the critiques of the church’s most sophisticated critics.

Adam Miller’s explanation of “I know” from Rube Goldberg Machine

A lot of my faith deconstruction came while trying to read everything Adam Miller wrote. Adam Miller is a faithful member and academic with a philosophy PhD. He has written books and articles that are often helpful for those who are struggling with their faith but still want to find ways to stay connected. He is such a beautiful writer, with ideas that resonate with me, I couldn’t help but step into them. I was particularly intrigued with his attempt to explain why we use the phrase “I know” in our testimonies, in his chapter on Atonement and Testimony in his book Rube Goldberg Machine.

A testimony involves the sincere clarity 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.

There is an irony, then, to the kind of certainty proper to the sincere clarity of testimony. The certainty of a testimony depends on purifying it of the actual in favor of the previously impossible. Against the tyranny of a world broken by sin and sorrow, a testimony must unwaveringly maintain the certainty of its own foundationless restoration of possibility. A testimony, in order to be true to its unmitigated reliance upon the Atonement of Jesus Christ, must accept the indefensible weakness imposed upon it by its own boundless certainty.”

Adam Miller, Rube Goldberg Machine, From Chapter 7 Atonement and Testimony

When most people hear the recitations of testimonies on the first Sunday of every month, they flow like a template, but often go in one of two directions. Those properly trained to not cause a stir will stand up with as much conviction as possible and recite a series of “I know statements”. I know the church is true. I know Jesus Christ is my Savior. I know that my Redeemer lives! (to quote Job). Those raised in the church, accept this tradition. Some, who leave it, look back on these experiences, wondering if this was a symptom of cultish mind-control, an attempt to convince ourselves of things we know in our hearts cannot be true. Others will use the time as a sort of therapy session, a chance to be seen and heard. Usually, motivations for getting up and expressing a testimony comes from a mixed set of motivations. I just know that for some, testimony meanings can impose a burden and a hurdle, coming off as boundary setting and tribal.

Adam Miller links testimonies to the atonement. You don’t recite a testimony, you bear it. Meaning testimonies impose a burden and a responsibility, forcing the person who holds it into a new life as a public witness and a Christian servant.

Do you see the theme here? Testimony meetings offer a challenge and an invitation. They offer hope and demand a wrestle. In an uncertain world, testimony meetings invite a pathway onto solid ground, an invitation into a theology and a community of support. Being able to express “I know God loves me” even when you’re not fully sure of it, being willing to step into the darkness by saying “I know” even if the certainty of something unprovable and unknowable seems unfathomable, can seem like a lifeline, bringing someone into a community of support and love. It’s a two-edge sword, in a sense. Building a community around a willingness to express overly certain faith can be both unifying and divisive.

For those willing and needing the community, those hurdles can be overcome and a step into an “I know” conviction of faith does bring the comfort of community and support. Others, confused by the so easy expressions of certainty, balk and many turn away from that invitation altogether. Many others, living within the certainty Mormon bubble for a time, eventually encounter and absorb the critical arguments that challenge their earlier convictions. Rationale argument used to disprove Book of Mormon historicity or the injustice inherent in a patriarchal church or questions of past racism and polygamy can pile up leading someone bound to the community to leave it altogether.

When someone says that they know The Book of Mormon is the word of God what often follows from that is an affirmation that Nephi, Lehi and the other characters in the book actually lived in America, and then everything hinges on archeological and DNA evidence of early Christianity in ancient American civilization, something not accepted outside of Mormon thought. Adam Miller addresses that impulse:

because a testimony is a testimony only to the degree that it is a direct response to a first-hand encounter with atonement, testimonies do not depend on the indirect mediation of second-hand signs. Where testimony-seeking exposes our vanity to the insistence of God’s grace, sign-seeking takes cover behind the ego-massaging facades of mediating figures….

To have a testimony of the Book of Mormon can only mean that through it one has experienced the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The same follows for Joseph Smith, President Monson, tithing, the word of wisdom, the Church as an institution, etc…. Who would be more horrified by the idea of people having a testimony of Joseph Smith than Joseph Smith? Who would be more horrified by the idea of people having a testimony of the Book of Mormon than Mormon? We may be justified in making certain inferences about Joseph Smith, President Monson, or the Book of Mormon based on our experience of God’s saving grace in connection with them, but this is not the same thing as having a testimony that refers directly to them.”

Adam Miller,Rube Goldberg Machine, From Chapter 7 Atonement and Testimony

I served a two year mission in Alabama. While there were times I tried to prove the truthfulness of the church through rationale argument, those attempts failed every time. There was a reason missionaries were taught not to interact in this way. When talking with prospective converts, we shared very basic principles from our core teachings, we described our standard living requirements necessary before we could permit baptisms and we invited them to accept a commitment to live within covenant and accept baptism. They had to have a “testimony” but the way we asked them to get that testimony was through reading the scriptures, through prayer, through coming to church and seeing if this is where God was calling them. They had to come to know the church is true, but true in the sense of atonement and not in rationale argument.

They didn’t have to accept prophetic infallibility. We never asked them if they thought Nephi was historical. They could join while still having reservations about historical polygamy, current patriarchy or racism. They didn’t have to be a Republican. They just needed to feel a conviction through prayerful revelation that this is what God wanted them to do.

Church Critics

In this core sense, both a fundamentalist interpretation of testimony and a critique of that interpretation falls apart. This line of reasoning is completely beside the point. I’m a pretty consistent listener of John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories podcast and even made an appearance on it many years ago now and I hear him say pretty consistently, that the secret sauce of Mormonism is community. This is not unique to him. Many, many people pick up on this facet of Mormonism. It’s embedded in our culture and comes out of the way it’s organized. With some exceptions, the lion share of the work done running the church is voluntary. Most of the work is performed by the sacrifices made by members who are unpaid. The church runs from donations and members are encouraged to reserve ten percent of their income to the church. Still additional funds are donated to help the poor. We go to the congregations we are assigned based on where we live. We think of our congregation as an extension of our family, providing support, love and encouragement. Helping out with rent if we find ourselves in a bind, receiving regular visits from members who want to make sure we’re doing ok, and being asked to volunteer to teach, administer, and perform other activities that keep the lights on and the church operating.

This sort of service and sacrifice binds people to each other in community. It’s the heart and soul of the church. Everything else is ancillary. God’s love is felt through our relationships. The countless hours Mormon Stories spends on Book of Mormon or Biblical truth claims in actuality has little to do with why people join and remain in the church. The community in a very large sense is the most truthful part of the church. It’s not a side-benefit. It’s core.

What’s odd is that even church members forget what brought them into the church and then what keeps them coming week to week. We fall into the critic’s trap, exchanging our testimonies of faithful, covenant belonging, to a belief in the real life of Nephi. A testimony bound to the reality of golden plates found in the earth of upstate New York is a testimony based on signs, something Joseph Smith explicitly preached against.

What Critics get Right

Just because the church is true does not mean that it’s perfect, just as much as my relationships are true but not perfect. There’s a historical defensiveness in our church that we struggle to shed. We should shed it. We should own up to our mistakes while remaining true to both our convictions and our aspirations. The restoration project has never been a project where everything was revealed and resolved during Joseph Smith’s life and now we remain statically content. We’re still trying to establish Zion. We have not done so yet. Much, much, much more work remains.

In this sense, it’s trivially easy to find fault with the church and critics notice and aren’t shy about pointing it out. We should readily own up to it. Adam Miller calls this fearless Mormonism. Let me just say, its far easier to point out problems than it is to come up with solutions but it’s important to be honest about where our church community fails to live up to its potential and then we can collectively work toward solutions. The first step is admitting you have a problem. Here’s my list of the most important of them:

1) The church is too patriarchal. This shortcoming is something we inherited from the American and Christian culture Mormonism comes from. Women need to be a much bigger part of our core theology, our leadership and our decision making. I don’t accept the more extreme feminist views that deny gender differences, and I think there are good reasons to have some gender segregations in certain situations, but I don’t accept the patriarchal premises of our church.

2) The church has no adequate answers for LGBTQ. For our church to truly reach our aspirations for Zion, gay members of the church should be full participants in our community. The church will never reach this goal to the extent we exclude others based on who they are.

3) The church, at times, gets stuck in fundamentalist trappings, with un-Biblical ideas that the prophetic calling can only be held by the top leaders of the church, even though Moses, himself would that everyone was a prophet and a Testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of Prophecy and that the Biblical and even Book of Mormon prophets often came from outside of the institutional church, including Jesus himself. But still we get stuck in these kinds of ditches, here where Kevin Hamilton makes no distinction between a flawed church and its people and God. This sort of logic will never lead us to Zion. We will never get there with a few leaders at the top figuring everything out while the church members simply do what they are told.

The Church is Still True

I don’t have this all worked out yet, let me be clear. The essence of this post seems to be making the claim that the church is true because of its community, a claim that is certainly not original with me. Eugene England makes this argument much better than I do with his famous article, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel“, but I don’t want to reduce the church’s truthfulness to its community. There is something more to it.

I felt this as I taught Sunday School the past four years culminating in the Old Testament and as I read various biographies on Joseph Smith. I felt the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. I felt the authoritative, scriptural voice of the Book of Mormon and other restoration scriptures. I especially felt the grand vision embedded in the story of Israel in the Old Testament at the heart of many of our world religions including our own. I feel something at work driving the world toward something good, expansive and holistic.

The work is true but we need to think bigger. I don’t have my finger on all of this so I’ll keep reading and writing. But most of all, I’ll strive to live my very Christian covenants to be a good and kind person.

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The 2022 Year In Review

2022 has honestly been a challenging year. There’s been changes, some close calls on some big changes and plenty of continued uncertainty. Rebecca, our youngest, made a significant transition from a homeschooling do it all, to a full time student at Tempe Prep for her 6th grade year. She’s doing well academically but still struggling to find her place in a school full of people she doesn’t know. Luckily, her older sister still attends, starting her 8th grade year. Hannah is well-entrenched with really close friends and participating along with Rebecca in choir and soccer. She is also aiming for a part in her school play. Joshua started his senior year at McClintock High and found he had some room in his schedule to load up on music. He continues participation in his school orchestra but also joined two school choirs as well as a choir at Chandler-Gilbert Community College and continues to participate in the Phoenix Boys Choir. He’s also busy applying for colleges and will likely attend Arizona State next year but not to study music. He’s getting all of that out of his system now. Lizzie began her second year as a voice major at Snow College in Utah, continues to write her own music but still doesn’t really what she wants to do when she grows up. Sara, now she’s no longer homeschooling, was recruited to help out in various capacities at Tempe Prep, including directing the junior high choir. She’s also still our ward’s primary president and puts her heart and soul into everything she does. I’m still holding on at PayPal and praying for steadiness as we manage our way through a difficult macro-economic environment. Through it all, we are enjoying each other. Most of all we wish you all a Merry Christmas.

My 2022 Ballot

OfficeMy VoteDescription
US State SenatorMark KellyMark Kelly didn’t really make a name for himself in the Senate, but he’s a reliable democratic vote. Blake Masters meanwhile seems to have inherited MAGA type of ideology, seems rather squishy and is mostly a Peter Thiel acolyte.
US Rep in Congress District 4Greg StantonSimilar to Mark Kelly, a reliable democratic vote in the house.
State GovernorKatie HobbsShe’s been a dissapointing candidate on the campaign trail but Kari Lake has spread misinformation about vaccines and Trump’s election. She’s MAGA through and through and that is disqualifying.
State Senator District 8Juan MendezGoing with the democratic slate.
State Representative District 8Athena Salman, Melody HernandezGoing with the democratic slate.
Secretary of StateAdrian FontesAn experienced politician. Finchem was literally in the protest on January 6th. He’s the worst person on this ballot with a close runner up being Hamadeh.
Attorney GeneralKris MayesMayes is extremely experienced. Hamadeh tricked Trump into an endorsement and that is the only way he won the nomination. He’s a joke.
State TreasurerMartin QuezadaKimberly Lee has gone full MAGA, I’m out.
Superintendent of Public InstructionKathy HoffmanTom Horne won’t go away. He should.
State Mine InspectorPaul MarshRunning unopposed.
Corporation CommissionerSandra Kennedy, Lauren KubyAll four seem pretty good, but I’m throwing my hat in with the democrats.
Clerk of the Superior CourtJeff FineRunning unopposed
Justice of the Peace KyreneSharron SaulsRunning unopposed
Constable KyreneBridget Bellavigna
Central AZ Water Conserv DistAlexandra Arboleda,
Alan Dulaney,
Shelby Duplesis,
Benjamin Graff,
Donovan Neese
Of the candidates, these seem to have the most relevant experience.
Maricopa County Community College District At-LargeKelli ButlerWell, Randy Kaufman suspended his campaign due to a scandal.
High School Governing Board MemberAndres Barraza
Question 1Yes
Question 2Yes
Question 3Yes
Tempe Elem No. 3Yes
Prop 128YesIf a proposition is judged to be un-Constitutional, this gives the legislature a chance to rectify it.
Prop 129NoProposition can only be single subject. I haven’t noticed this to be a problem.
Prop 130 YesGives property tax exemption for veterans no matter when they became Arizona residents.
Prop 131YesCreate a Lieutenant Governor who will take over from the same party.
Prop 132NoGetting 60% of the voters to pass a proposition in order to get a tax increase is too high a bar.
Prop 209YesGreater protection for core resources from creditors.
Prop 211YesGreater disclosure requirements for campaign media spending.
Prop 308YesIn state tuition for dreamers. Definitely.
Prop 309YesVoter ID
Prop 310YesA slight tax increase to support fire.

My Very Quick Journey to the Abyss – A Review of John Shelby Spong’s Book Jesus for the Non Religious

I recently picked up Spong’s book from the library. I also returned it after reading it so this review will be taken completely from memory. I feel like it’s important to dive into what I both loved about the book and struggled with the book because it hits on some of the ways I think many areas of modern Christianity both gets right and wrong with how they reconcile faith within modernity, secularism, scientific evidence and scholarship. Spong wrote this book with the non-religious in mind, making the case that Jesus is still powerfully relevant even to those people who cannot accept him as the Messiah or believe in his resurrection. Therefore, I’m not sure the conclusions of the book completely reflect Spong’s positions, so this blog is my response to those conclusions, perhaps unfairly because I am religious and have had a lifetime relationship with Jesus so perhaps not the target audience. Nonetheless, onward.

The Good Parts

Spong spends the majority of his book deconstructing literalist and fundamentalist interpretations of the Jesus narrative. I’m not in the scholarly world of New Testament study, but I believe his core arguments to be widely accepted within academia if not broadly known by believing Christians. I’ll list a few from memory.

The four gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death and, with the possible exception of Luke, were not written by the people ascribed to them. As a result, none of the writers of the gospels were witnesses to the life of Jesus. It’s likely none of his followers were witnesses to Jesus trial and death because they all abandoned him for fear of their own lives. The earliest records we have written about Jesus are the writings of Paul who barely talks about Jesus’ life and vaguely describes his death and resurrection. Mark is the first authored gospel written around 70 AD shortly after the Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem and likely written in response to the siege. Mark is the shortest gospel, leaves out Jesus’s birth story, begins instead with Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist. Additionally, the gospel of Mark can be mapped onto the Jewish holidays “from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) through Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) to Passover, about half of the year”. Matthew and Luke were written ten years later and expands Mark’s writings m adding further insights from the oral traditions that did not make it into Mark. They extend the Jesus narrative to include the rest of the Jewish holidays in the year, adding the Jesus’ birth narrative, the Sermon on the Mount and a more expansive resurrection.

Additionally, reading the gospels account from the last supper to the burial, you can see a very clean pattern of 8 events each taking three hours expanding through the 24 hours before his death. Beginning with the last supper, the journey to the garden where his disciples fall asleep, the betrayal, the Jewish trial, Peter’s thrice denial, the Roman trial, the crucifixion and burial. These events are exquisitely timed to make theological points, for example timing the betrayal right midnight, the darkest moment of the day.

Spong makes the clear case that these gospels were never meant to be taking literally historical. They were meant to be read liturgically, to instill faith in Jesus as a central figure in a new faith. Before the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem and the Jewish state, many of the followers of Jesus still lived and operated within the Jewish culture and tradition, remembering Jesus through their temple worship and Jewish holiday celebrations. The gospels became a way to solidify the story of Jesus theologically and carry his message to the world without the stability of a nation.

While I already knew some of these points, many of the details described by Spong were new to me. Most of this I found exciting. Religion does not have to be in tension with scholarship or science. Liturgy does not compete with science, nor should it. The miraculous healings, Jesus walking on water, raising people from the dead, cursing trees, casting out devils – all of the events described in the gospels that defy scientific explanations do not have to be taken literally because doing so paints someone into real theological corners. How can we believe in a God that has the power to heal sickness but yet fails to do so time and time again? Why don’t these things continue to happen today?

But this sort of repurposing the gospels away from literalism ultimately pushes the reader to a confrontation with the resurrection, death and the ultimate state of the soul and with it, our existential self. These questions lead me to the Bad Parts.

The Bad Parts

Once Spong finished with his deconstruction of literal interpretations of Jesus, he transitions to making the case for Jesus to a non-believer. But first of all, what does it mean to be a non-believer? Spong describes the scientific consensus summary of the deep history of time, from the big bang, the creation of the universe, the beginning of life, to the creation of consciousness. The beginnings of religion comes out of the deep insecurity humanity experiences when they develop the capacity to come to a deep understanding of our mortality. What happens after we die? The animal kingdom shows no capacity to even understand the point of asking this question. Humanity does. We develop relationships, we care deeply about our individual capacities, our abilities to develop and grow, to experience love, pain, sadness, and joy. We want deeply to be connected to the infinite realities of a universe that seemingly never ends. We want to be as infinite as the universe. And I say that in a literal sense. I want my existence to persist.

Spong gives me nothing to hold onto in this regard. For him the phrase “three days” from Jesus’s death to his resurrection was only ever meant to connote a period of time and could reflect the time taken for his early followers to come to grips with his death. The resurrection, in this sense, could be a metaphor for a Christ return into the lives of his early disciples who found a renewed vigor and ability to embody his teachings within themselves. In Acts, Peter and others show the same type of miracles Jesus performed.

What Spong is doing here is that he comes right up to the limits of science and stays with science. There is simply no conclusive scientific explanation for human consciousness, no clear answers for what happens to it after death, and no way to know if there’s anything beyond this life. Science looks at the vast story of deep time and offers no universalizing meaning or purpose behind it. It’s just a random accident all the way down. Our lives on this planet at this time was completely dumb luck. I understand that, science can’t go further. But religion can. And religion should.

I believe in the resurrection. I believe in miracles. I accept mystery. I absolutely accept that my life has a purpose that is meaningful and that will continue long after my death. I cannot accept any other possibility. After reading Spong I peered over the pit of disbelief and it filled with me with deep sorrow. I backed away. I can’t accept it. I can’t explain my rejection other than my commitment to walk by faith.

Tulsi Gabbard’s Reason for Leaving the Democratic Party Part 1

This post is my response to Tulsi Gabbard’s podcast to explain why she’s leaving the Democratic Party. She is promising future episodes to dive deeper into each issue so perhaps I’ll get more to respond to in future episodes, but for now let’s take this one issue at a time.

Accusation One (4:34) The Democratic Party is Dangerously Pro-War Leading Us to the Brink of a Nuclear Holocaust

“The pro war democratic party of today has led us to the brink of of nuclear war. This party is led by warmongers who firmly in the grips of the military industrial complex.” She goes on to accuse President Biden of risking World War 3. She claims that in 2020 she ran her presidential campaign on this issue. It’s possible that’s true but I don’t remember it. She was a marginal candidate at best and so didn’t get a lot of attention.

I can only imagine that she’s talking about Putin’s invasion into the Ukraine, the west’s severe sanctions imposed on Russia in response, the west’s willingness to help fund and arm Ukraine’s resistance, and the Ukraine’s success in preventing Putin from accomplishing his goal of subjecting Ukraine to his over-arching influence and control. As a result of Putin’s failures thus far, he has threatened to use nuclear weapons to get what he wants. If those are the facts of the situation, how are the Democrats, or Joe Biden warmongers? Clearly that label belongs to Putin. National self-defense is one of the reasons the vast majority of people believe to be a just reason to go to war. The United States and Europe, thus far at least, have meticulously avoided direct confrontation and have been careful to contain involvement within a tolerable level. We care about Ukraine, we would never go to war ourselves over Ukraine. But at the same time, we cannot allow the threat of a nuclear strike be a reason to concede to a tyrant. That kind of concession would only invite its use in the future, leading to a more not less dangerous world.

Gabbard leads off with an argument that is the most difficult for me to swallow. If she is going to take a position like this one, she needs to do a lot more work to explain and defend it. Additionally, to make the claim that its the democrats who are warmongers and this is the example is difficult to fathom. The Republican party would be doing precisely the same thing. Now, it’s possible the Trump Republican party would not be doing the same thing. This Republican party is not the party of Reagan, Bush Sr., and Eisenhower. The Trump Republican party admires and aspires to have strongmen leaders like Putin. It’s possible Trump would have wanted to concede to Russian demands. It’s more likely he would have been coerced into a response by pressure from his own party.

Accusation Two (6:21) Today’s Democratic Party Rejects the Rule of Law

Here she makes two points. First she claims Democrats have “weaponized the security state and federal law enforcement for their own partisan political ambitions” and second she claims Democrats have undermined police authority with calls to defund them. Both claims are in tension with each other. If a political party wants a security state to go after political opponents, chances are they wouldn’t want to defund them. Authoritarian countries famously have a really well-funded police state that they throw at political opponents in order to maintain power. Defunding the police state works against that ambition. I don’t think Gabbard is thinking too deeply here, though.

Democrats are Calling for Defunding the Police

This claim was true during the summer of 2020’s George Floyd’s protests. There were calls, largely by activists, to defund the police. In my conversations and deep dives, this mostly meant, diverting at least some of that funding toward mental health services and other types of first responders that could intervene without weapons for situations where weapons were not necessary. In other words, this was a slogan that didn’t actually reflect well the actual policy proposals. Nonetheless, the United States has the highest incarcerations rates in the world. During the heat of this issue, I read the book Injustice for All that described how desperately in need of reform our justice system is. Our country routinely violates the fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth amendments and the brunt of this abuse is felt by poor and black communities. George Floyd’s death opened the eyes for many of these injustices and calls for reform did lead to modest reforms but far more work is needed. Now, most if not all Democratic politicians and activists have stopped using “Defund the Police” slogans and the police were not, in fact, defunded. But conservatives continue to accuse them of doing so, as Gabbard does here, because they view it as a winning political issue. It’s pure cynicism.

She also talks about liberal prosecutors who refuse to charge violent criminals and then blames Democrats for rising crime rates and for rising firearm purchases. I’m not sure how accurate these claims are honestly. I would like to see examples sited by credible, non-partisan sources. To the extent they are true, they are happening in deep blue cities, within the democratic fringe. More broadly, crime rates have risen modestly after significant and longstanding decreases for reasons that aren’t deeply understood. Most notably the rise is happening across the country, in red states and blue. Rising gun purchases can credibly be pinned on conservative fearmongering.

Democrats are Using the Police State to Target Conservatives

She uses the following examples. 1) Obama used the IRS to target conservative groups. 2) Biden’s department of justice recently indicted 11 pro-life activists for blockading an abortion clinic. 3) Biden’s newly formed domestic terror unit are targeting parents who are vocally standing against radical curriculums in their children’s schools. 4) Biden gave a speech that Trump supporters were extremists threats to our democracy. 5) Elizabeth Warren is saying the supreme court is illegitimate because they disagree with their rulings. 6) Biden did nothing while activists protested outside the homes of Supreme Court judges after they overturned Roe.

This list is a rapid fire of anecdotal and disconnected cases woven together to make the broader claim. First of all, Warren calling the supreme court illegitimate is an unrelated example to that point. The Supreme Court clearly loses their legitimacy if they become clearly and obviously partisan. That is happening, but worrying about a partisan court does not undermine the rule of law. Having a partisan court undermines the rule of law. The rest of the claims can be disputed individually but notably they are anecdotes that even if true does not indicate widespread abuse.

But let’s take each one by one. The IRS is an independent agency. Obama simply does not have the power to control the IRS actions. What happened was the laws changed in terms of which types of political organizations can receive tax exempt status. As a result of Obama there was a surge of conservative groups filing for this status and the IRS did not handle the audits and approvals well.

Eleven abortion activists were indicted for breaking the law and face criminal charges. The charges are obstructing patients and medical doctors from entering an abortion clinic which apparently happened. This seems relatively straight forward.

Gabbard’s accusation that Biden is using a domestic terror unit to target parents is a lie. I need to find out more about where this comes from but according to Heritage, school boards were worried about increasing threats of violence at school board meetings over mask mandates and CRT curriculum and sent a letter to the FBI asking for help. There was some response that led some conservatives to react but in no way does this mean that the federal government are actively targetting parents for monitoring their school’s curriculum. A complete lie.

Biden, in his speech, made some effort to target the fringe of the Trump MAGA movement who call for violence to overturn election results. He wasn’t describing “half of America” Gabbard claims.

Garland’s decision not to arrest protestors protesting outside of SCOTUS homes is also not a clear cut issue. There is a federal law against it but there’s also a risk of enforcing this law too aggressively in ways that undermine freedom of speech. Intervening was a judgment call.

Now it’s fair to assume that a Democratically controlled executive in charge of the justice system may show some political bias and it’s trivially easy to find examples of crimes with a partisan tilt being prosecuted by the opposing party. To show an egregious pattern of using the police state in the way Gabbard describes requires far more evidence than she is providing here.

Accusation Three (10:17) Today’s Democratic Party Does Not Believe in Free Speech or Freedom of Religion

She accuses democrats of calling speech they dislike misinformation, hate speech or violent speech. Disagreeing with speech is not the same as suppressing it. Calling out misinformation is not speech suppression. She then accuses Democrats with working “hand in glove” with corporate America to “smear and silent political opponents”. I don’t really know who she’s talking about. Who is this cabal of democratic elites controlling all aspects of America. It’s certainly true that many leaders of our most notable corporations today are democrats and have democratic sympathies. But corporations are far more beholden to profits than they are to ideology and that is a simple fact. It’s true that in response to Trump’s January 6th’s attempts to overthrow election results, they responded by kicking off many who supported these efforts from their platforms. It was an extreme response to an extreme act. It’s also true that there is a lot of legitimate hate speech out there and social media platforms have to moderate it. It’s definitely true that because of the liberal bias, that bias comes through. That’s not a cabal working “hand in glove” with democratic politicians. Like many of these claims, Gabbard is exaggerates far beyond reality.

She then tries to make the case that Democrats are hostile to religion, using as an example, a case where “under God” was removed from the democratic convention which is another distortion. Religions and people making religious arguments are not protected from criticism and many deserve the criticism they get.

The Gathering of Israel – My Interpretation

Introduction

In recent years, my religious tradition has placed a renewed emphasis on a concept we call the gathering of Israel. Gathering is a core belief in my faith codified succinctly if not slightly confusingly in our tenth of twelve articles of faith, articles that state core tenants of my faith. Like many ideas in religion, everything has a historical, orthodox, fundamentalist, and alternative interpretations and applications. Here I propose a way to interpret gathering that is expansive, inclusive and that speaks to the specific challenges facing people today.

Gathering – Definitions

We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisaical glory.

Article of Faith 10

The word “literal” in this sentence imposes quite a burden. Scripture and theology takes a much richer place in my life as metaphor. I am perfectly free to ignore the “literal” claim imposed by this phrase but perhaps I should at least try to take it seriously as a jumping off point. Israel has a literal meaning in terms of geography, history and people. The twelve tribes of Israel organized originally by Moses and Joshua after they left Egypt, fleeing as slaves. They eventually create a tiny, ancient nation subjected to the forces and temptations of surrounding nations to whom they would ultimately succumb. The Israel nation begins slowly as a set of twelve affiliated tribes governed loosely by different judged until they organize themselves into a kingdom, only to have that kingdom split into two – the Northern/Southern kingdoms. The Old Testament documents the scattering of the Northern tribes by Assyria who most likely assimilated into the surrounding nations, losing their identity as descendants of the Genesis patriarchs and as inheritors of that religious covenant. Judah, Benjamin and remnants of Levi survive through exile, scattering, and violence but continue to this day as a Jewish people with a rich history, theology and an ambition that includes the reconstitution of a Jewish state in Israel.

The Latter Day Saint faith, more so than most Christian traditions, attempts to graft a purely Jewish notion of history and nation into Christianity by claiming its own connection to Jewish heritage. Faithful members receive a patriarchal blessing and as part of that they are assigned membership to one of the twelve tribes. Most are assigned assigned membership to the tribe of Ephraim, one of the lost ten tribes. The tribe of Ephraim, Mormons believe has been designated to gather Israel in the last days. The Book of Mormon, in fact, is record of a remnant of the tribe of Manasseh and will become a key vehicle from which this gathering can occur. These tribal assignments could be literal, but mostly we accept membership through adoption, itself sort of a metaphor of a binding familial tie. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believe as adopted members of the tribe of Ephraim, we have been designated to lead the effort of gathering Israel in preparation of the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Current Interpretations

The current prophet and president of the church, President Nelson has placed an emphasis on this gathering. Shortly after being called as prophet, he said to the youth of the church:

My dear young brothers and sisters, these surely are the latter days, and the Lord is hastening His work to gather Israel. That gathering is the most important thing taking place on earth today. Nothing else compares in magnitude, nothing else compares in importance, nothing else compares in majesty. And if you choose to, if you want to, you can be a big part of it. You can be a big part of something big, something grand, something majestic!

When we speak of the gathering, we are simply saying this fundamental truth: every one of our Heavenly Father’s children, on both sides of the veil, deserves to hear the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. They decide for themselves if they want to know more.

President Nelson

Reading that tenth article of faith is difficult to understand, but here President Nelson simplifies it – gathering is the work of being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which involves taking on covenants through ordinances like baptism and temple and then inviting others to do so as well. The additional work of geneology and proxy ordinances is also included in the work of gathering. This definition implies Israel is within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the gathering work amounts to bringing people within this particular church.

I don’t want to extrapolate too much. President Nelson does not necessarily limit gathering to missionary and geneology work, nor did he say explicitly that Israel can only be found within the church he leads. What he says is that this is part of the gathering work, but perhaps a small part of something bigger. And I should hope so. Just like Moses’ Israel was a tiny nation with limited geographical reach, the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a tiny branch within Christianity, a tiny strand within one of a number of other global religious movement. There is no way that the burden of gathering can be born on the shoulders of this church alone.

Is There a Better Interpretation?

Perhaps not a better interpretation, but certainly a more expansive interpretation. To think of what it means so gather, I think it’s helpful to think of what it means to scatter. Perhaps other words might help think about this idea differently – inclusive vs. divisive, building bridges vs. burning them down. In this sense, think of all the ways we scatter, at macro vs micro scale.

Scattering Activities:

  • Rejecting a loved one because they fail to live up to expectations. Kicking a member of the family out because they are gay. Rejecting a family member because of their religious beliefs.
  • Trump supporters who believe Democrats are driving the country to destruction. Democrats who cancel Trump supporters. Cancel culture. Talk of RINO’s.
  • Closed borders. Reducing immigrants wanting to come to America to work in pursuit of a better life as criminals.
  • War
  • The rich who live in housing within gated communities, sending their kids to private schools, and pressuring local governments to defund public schools.
  • Religious claims that elevate one faith over another.
  • Addiction. Excessive online activities. Isolation.

Gathering Activities

  • Interfaith organizations that cooperate to uplift their communities.
  • The rich giving away their resources to uplift marginal people and communities.
  • Bi-partisan efforts to find compromise legislation that includes the concerns and best ideas from both parties.
  • A humble recognition that no single perspective is looking at a complex world without bias and blind spots.
  • A recognition that black lives matter and because they do all lives matter as well.
  • We need to enforce our borders but we also need a robust pathway for continual immigration and we also need legitimate avenues for asylum claims.
  • The best way we can respond to war is to provide a safe haven for those most affected by it – we should be doing all we can to welcome Russian refugees fleeing Putin’s failed leadership.
  • Finding ways to reconcile and include the best ideas of science, art, humanities and religion. The university and the church cooperate in a give and take in search for both truth and the kind of truth that provides meaning and well-being in people’s lives.
  • Yes, we need individual churches to seek converts but we also recognize that different people will find the journey more satisfying in different faiths.
  • So many more ideas.

In Conclusion

The gathering of Israel is another way of pursuing something that has also been part of my faith – establishing Zion, creating a world where division dissolves and inequity disappears. Individuality blends with pluralism to create a world where there are no poor and where everyone can reach their potential as we support and sustain each other even if we don’t always understand or agree with one another. A world where we end exploitation, where we give up on the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake, and a world where we seek abundance broadly shared and broadly enjoyed. This is the work of gathering, and we can’t do it alone. We need everyone.

To bring it back to literal Israel, the Abrahamic covenant, the founding covenant of Israel, was to create a nation founded on the rule of law with a commitment to bless the entire earth. The promises of that covenant still exist but only as we thing bigger. Gathering of Israel means gathering everything that is good, united and linked to nurture and care for all who have been gathered.

And the Lord will create upon every dwelling place of mount aZion, and upon her assemblies, a bcloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming cfire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defence.

And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of arefuge, and for a covert from storm and from rain.

Isaiah 4:5-6

Come Follow Me: Proverbs/Ecclesiastes

Proverbs 1

My summary

We need to seek wisdom and understanding but sometimes this might meen we need to confront ideas that seem like “dark sayings (verse 6). Having a sense of wonder and awe (fear of the Lord) is really a precondition for even starting on the journey of obtaining knowledge (verse 7). We need to pay careful attention to the instruction of our parents and of those from the preceding generation. Their wisdom will adorn our heads with grace (verse 9). We must be careful to avoid those who would entice us toward sin or anything that seeks to gratify our own selfish desires through the exploitation of others. We will be tempted because we live in a world filled with needs. We hunger, we need shelter from at times brutal elements, we need medicine. At times we feel we are at risk of depravity, degradation or isolation and we desperately need comfort and support from others. But choosing a life of sin over wisdom is a trap that will serve us poorly in the end. In fact, if we do reject knowledge, we will do so with wisdom’s ever-present beckoning, imposing its offering upon us at every turn, coming as it does from the pull at our hearts when we feel or experience suffering and injustice, or simply as we notice unread books or an untaken class, or an un-pursued degree. Or when we find ourselves in conversations with others who seem to be further along than us. We can scorn our deficiencies and turn away from these learning opportunities but we do so at our own peril. At some point, our deficiencies will be exposed and we will experience real suffering and it will be too late to really deal with it.

Key verses

  • verse 3-4 subtilty to the simple
  • verse 6 – dark sayings.
  • verse 7 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.
  • verse 9 – ornaments of grace
  • verse 15 – turn away from evil
  • verse 20 – wisdom crieth without
  • verse 28 – then shall ye call me and I shall not answer

Proverbs 2

Successfully obtaining wisdom requires immense effort and sacrifice. Think of the most precious treasure imaginable, the most desirable riches you could desire, seek for wisdom as if it were more precious than even that (verse 4) and only then will we find the knowledge of God (verse 5). To obtain wisdom requires one to be righteous and requires a person to seek for goodness for its own sake. You cannot obtain it for selfish purposes but only in the service of God and others (verse 6, 7). The pursuit of wisdom is righteousness and pursing righteousness produces wisdom. These principles are mutually reinforcing. Pursing this type of life will be enriching and “pleasant to the soul.” (verse 10).

There’s safety in this type of life. “Discretion preserves, understanding protects” (verse 11). Wickedness is to “forsake the guide of our youth” (verse 17) when we forget the covenant of our God (verse 17). This is deadness in the end. It’s no way to live and worse can be the end of us (verse 22).

Key verses

  • verse 4 Seek knowledge as if it’s silver.
  • verse 5 Understand the fear of the Lord.
  • verse 9 – Understand every good path.
  • verse 17 – Forsake the guide of her youth and the covenants with her God.

Proverbs 3

How do we really learn wisdom? It takes time and effort. We have to find a way to get truths and wisdom bound around our necks and written upon the fleshy tables of our hearts (verse 3). We will never be enough on our own, recognizing that in our journey “we have to trust in the Lord with all of our hearts, leaning not unto our own understanding (verse 5). How do we do that? We need to be ever-willing to recognize our own weakness (verse 7). We cannot get to hung up with our possessions. How do we do that? By donating them to the poor (verse 9, 10). We have to accept correction, recognizing that it’s a sign of love to be cared for, watched after and guided (verse 11-13).

The goal, always is wisdom. Happiness comes through its pursuit (v13). Wisdom is better than anything on earth, more precious than rubies (verse 15). Wisdom is the “tree of life” (verse 18). Creation is possible only through wisdom (verse 19, 20). We can find confidence in the Lord (verse 26). Wisdom requires righteous living so avoid evil (verse 29, 30, 31, 32).

Key verses

  • verse 3 Bind truth and wisdom around thy neck and upon our heart.
  • verse 5-6 Trust the Lord.
  • verse 9 – Honor God through charity.
  • verse 12 – Accept correction, for the Lord loveth who he correcteth.

Proverbs 4

We depend so much on our parent’s instructions. We need to listen for the good doctrine (verse 2), pursue wisdom (verse 5), forget it not (verse 5). Get wisdom, get understanding (verse 7). Exalt it and wisdom shall promote you in turn (verse 8). With understanding we can find straight paths, we can run without stumbling (verse 12). The path of the just is recognizable because it is full of light (verse 18) whereas wickedness is darkness (verse 19).

Proverbs 15

How can we live a good life? Be gentle with others, especially with those who don’t reciprocate it (verse 1). The righteous are pure inside and out and you can see it in the way they talk (verse 2, 4), their tongue is the “tree of life”. You can see it in their willingness to learn from their parents (verse 5), in their willingness to teach others (verse 7), through the way they pray (verse 8), the way they take correction when they make mistakes (verse 10). You can see it in their countenance (verse 13), their attitude toward new knowledge (verse 14), in the way they approach life (verse 15), the way they eat dinner with others (verse 17), the way they treat their parents and others in the preceding generation (verse 20), the way they take counsel (verse 22).
Verse 28 says the righteous studies toward an answer but the wicked just spout off nonsense.

Key verses

  • verse 1 – Soft answers
  • verse 4 – Wholesome tongue
  • verse 7 – Lips of the wise disperse knowledg
  • verse 13 – A merry heart
  • verse 17 – A modest dinner with love.
  • verse 28 – Righteous study to answer

Proverbs 16

The Lord requires effort. Prepare one’s heart (verse 1) and watch our tongue, this is of God. We think we’re clean but the Lord will truly make that judgment and we need to allow that to happen. Our works should be consecrated to God in the service of others (verse 3). Lifting oneself above another and especially above God is wrong. Our only hope is through the mercy and truth of God (verse 6) and its within righteousness we can find peace even with our enemies (verse 7). We should always follow the path of right (verse 8) even when we suffer financially for it. Our heart determines our path, rely on God to establish our path (verse 9). God is just (verse 11). Power ups the ante and those with power have greater responsibility given the influence and impact (verse 12). Wisdom is better than gold (verse 16). Pride will destroy us (verse 18). Be slow to anger (verse 32).

Key verses

  • v2 Everyone thinks they are pure, the Lord knows.
  • v6 Mercy and truth iniquity is purged.
  • v16 Wisdom better than gold.
  • v18 Pride before the fall
  • v19 Better to be humble with the lowly.
  • v32 Slow to anger

Ecclesiastes

1:18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

2:16 For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever

3:11 There is a time for everything, but the world is planted in our heart, and it is hopeless to understand it.

3:21-22 There may be nothing else, so enjoy our work now.

5:13-15 A warning against hoarding riches.

5:18-20 Enjoy what you have

6:7 All of our labor is for us to enjoy,

7:2-4 Funerals are better than parties, sorrow better than laughter, better to mourn than to laugh.

7:14 Enjoy prosperity, be mindful during adversity

8:1 A man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine.

8:17 There are things we will never be able to come close to understand.

9:9 Live life joyfully with those you love while your alive. That is our work.

9:11 Everything we get i by chance.

10: 16 Woe to the world when the king is a child

10:20 No matter what, curse not the king, curse not the rich, a bird shall carry thy voice…

11: 5,6 We don’t know anything so just work.

12:1 Remember God

12:13 Fear God and keep his commandments, that is all we can do.

Come Follow Me: Job

William Blake’s engravings illustrating the book of Job.

Introduction

Most people’s superficial knowledge of Job comes from the basic story illustrated within Chapters 1-2 where Job loses everything and then in Chapter 42 where everything is restored. The 38 chapters in between contain an incredibly rich, incredibly complicated, incredibly difficult to read poem that captures a debate between Job and three of his friends about why Job is suffering, God’s role in that suffering, and how one should respond and interpret suffering generally.

Job is inserted at a particular point in the Old Testament narrative. In the Christian version, it follows Esther, preceding Psalms, but it actually resides outside of time and place. Job is arguably not a part of the covenant Jewish people, though his book stands prominently within their sacred text. Much of the Old Testament connects personal and national righteousness to happening and a thriving life and nation. Israel desperately wants to understand its destruction to Babylon and believes it’s come from their own wickedness. The Old Testament makes that case pretty clearly. Job’s argument is different, that suffering often has no clearly understandable cause. Job is righteous but still loses everything anyways.

The Prologue

In the very first chapter, within the span of three verses, Job loses everything, all of his possessions, all of his children. Neighboring tribes steal his possessions. Fire reigns down on his sheep. A wind blows his house down killing all of his children. In chapter two, he loses his health. His wife, who shares much of his burden, suggests that he curse God and die. All of this comes, inexplicably from a wager between God and the adversary to see if Job would endure through inexplicable loss. Chapter two ends, when three of his friends come to comfort him. When they discover they cannot even recognize him, they weep and mourn, tear their clothes and sit with him for seven solid days in silence.

Job 3: Job breaks his silence

Finally and abruptly, Job breaks the silence. Here the narrative transitions from prose to poetry, pulling the reader into the emotional space of someone in deep pain, wanting reprieve that only death can bring, cursing the day he was born. Why did he not die at his birth (v11) he wonders. Death seems to be his only reprieve, the place where prisoners are at ease and even the wicked cease in troubling (v17, 18). His groaning is his bread, his roars pour forth as water. The phrases pour out poetically. Job here seems to be following the advice of his wife, or perhaps he despairs because his friends have nothing to offer him.

Job 4-28: The Grand Debate

Job’s eruption starts an incredibly long, emotional and escalating debate between him and his friends. These men seem to have a notion of a God who rewards the righteous and punish the wicked. They trust in a just world and a just God, with rules that make sense. None of them truly understand Job’s suffering and that suffering seems to push their understanding of God. They don’t give up what they think without a struggle. The wrestle begins.

Chapters 4-5, Eliphaz jumps in, encouraging Job to keep the faith and to trust in a God of justice.

Chapter 6-7, Job responds saying that his calamities are beyond what he can bare. He’s already at his breaking point. Pretty much immediately, Job loses faith in his friend’s ability to sustain and support him. In every response, Job shifts from his friends to confront God and bemoan his fate.

Chapter 8, Bildad makes an attempt, wondering that while Job is righteous, perhaps his children did something to warrant their fate. He suggests that he can learn something through his suffering and to trust in God.

Chapter 9-10, Job wonders if God even cares. Perhaps God doesn’t even hear him. He points out that God wounds him without cause and that this happens all of the time. God destroys the blameless and the guilty. Why, he wonders, if God created Job, why would he treat him in this way?

Chapter 11, Zophar wonders if Job is really so innocent. Perhaps there is some indiscretion Job does not know about and that if God would help him see it, Job can remove it, perhaps finding the healing and recovery he seeks.

Job 12-14, Job responds. He knows what they know. He complains that his friends are incompetent and demands to talk to God himself. If a man dies will he live again, he wonders? (14:14)

Job 15: Eliphaz jumps in again, warning Job that his speech betrays his sinfulness that his lips testify against him. Are not God’s consolations enough? God is just, the wicked man is in torment all of his days.

Job 16-17, Job again dispairs, his face is red with weeping (v16-17). He wonders if he’s lost all hope. (17:15)

Job 18, Bildad is inexplicably offended. Does Job think of them as brutes? He assures him the light of the wicked will fail. Again testifying of the justice of God.

Job 19, Job continues to dispair. Their words crush him, humiliate him. They all know God is at fault. He demands their pity. He testifies that redemption will come (19:25)

Job 20, Zophar jumps in yet again, again testifying to the justice of God. The joy of the wicked will be brief and it will perish.

Job 21, Job just asks his friends to listen to him. They are wrong, the wicked prosper all the time.

Job 22 – Eliphaz jumps in, wondering about Job, accusing him of his own guilt, pleading with him to stay close to God, to be wholehearted and good things will eventually come.

Job 23-24 – Job’s strength is spent. He wants to make his case to God but cannot find him. At this point, Job’s lens widens and realize the world is full of unjust and unnecessary suffering.

Job 25 – Bildad jumps in yet again. Saying that Job has got this wrong. All of humanity is guilty. No person is right with God.

Job 26 – Job stays firm. He condemns the help his friends give him. Until his death, he will affirm his integrity. He knows the truth. He is innocent and does not deserve what’s happening to him.

Job 29-31: Job’s Closing Remarks

In 29, Job remembers how good he had it earlier in his life. In 30, he laments his suffering. He’s become a byword, derided, condemned, no hope, just darkness. in 31, he affirms his innocence. He’s always been good, he’s cared for the poor, has been watchful of his actions, never taken for granted the blessings he has. His case is clear. He’s suffering and he does not deserve it.

Job 32-37: Elihu Jumps In One Final Time

At this point, Job finishes, he friends give up, but then Elihu, whose been listening to this exchange, realizing it’s coming to an unresolved conclusion jumps in and for six solid chapters makes his case. God is greater than man, God cares for us, remembers us, speaks to us, but we so often refuse to hear him. God is just if we would only commit ourselves to service. God is greater than we know. This argument is left without a response from Job.

Job 38-41: God comes in a whirlwind to respond to Job

Finally, finally, after all of that God appears in a whirlwind, but he ignores the entire argument, never addresses Job’s questions or demands. Instead, he pummels Job with questions. Who is he? Where was he when the universe was created? What does Job even know? Can he even begin to impugn God’s justice? He points to the leviathon and the behemoth, two beasts in nature, uncontrollable and beyond understanding, who can tame them? No one. The world is big, complex, massive, much bigger than Job’s world.

Job 42: Job’s Concession and the Epilogue

None of Job’s questions were answered but nonetheless Job’s interaction with God has deepened his knowledge. There’s something more there to learn. Job drops the case.

Here God condemns Job’s friends. Among all of them, only Job spoke truth. The story ends with Job regaining his friends, his health, he gains new possessions and has more children. But in the end, like the rest of us, Job dies.

Come Follow Me 1 Kings 17-19

Introductory Timeline

After the timeline of judges, where the Israel had spread out upon the land but were not cleanly united behind a single government, they institute a kingdom, rules in succession by Saul, David and Solomon. Solomon rules for nearly forty years, known for his wisdom and over the course of his reign becomes extravagantly wealthy. That wealth and power leads him into sin, forgetting his people, imposing burdens on them. On his death, his son Rehoboam reigns. The people plead with him to ease their burdens. Instead he doubles down, increasing the burdens provoking a rebellion already fermenting, splitting Israel into two. Rehoboam rules the south, populated by Judah Benjamin, Jeroboam rules the north, populated by the remaining ten tribes.

The Northern kingdom is much more volatile than the south. Jeroboam leaves the kingdom to Nadab, his son. Baasha overthrows Nadab to gain the kingdom and then passes it on to his son Elah. Zimri overthrows Elah to gain the kingdom only to lose it to Omri who eventually passes it on to Ahab. It’s here the confrontation between Ahab and Elijah begin.

1 King 17 – Drought

None of the kings in the northern kingdom are righteous, but according to Kings 16:30, Ahab was the worse of them all. He marries Jezebel, the daughter of the Ethbaal king of the Zidonians (31) and brought Baal worship into the Northern kingdom, building altars and groves dedicated to the worship of Baal.

The story kicks off abruptly. Elijah (whose name means My God is Yahweh) confronts Ahab, promising an extended drought in response to his wicked reign, ironic because Baal is a god of fertility and rain. Immediately after this briefly described encounter, Elijah flees, finding sustenance in isolation by the brook Cherith where he is fed by crows. After some time, the creek dries up and he’s told to seek sustenance from a widow in Zarephath. This detail is also interesting because this city is near Sidon where Jezebel is from and outside of Israel. He finds the widow gathering sticks, asks her first for water then for a morsel of bread. The widow tells Elijah, she has just a handful of meal and a little oil and she, at that moment, was preparing a final meal for her and her son before they would die. Eljiah promises her that if she feeds him first, that barrel of meal and cruse of oil shall not fail until the rain comes again. The widow believes and provides and receives the blessing promised.

This is an interesting story that leads to all sorts of questions, here are mine:

  • Why does Elijah transition from being sustained by birds and a river to a widow? What do we learn from isolation in nature? What do we learn from connection?
  • Why do you think Elijah goes all the way to Zarephath? Why do we sometimes need to learn from outsiders?
  • Why does Elijah choose a poor widow to sustain him? Why is it in the moments of our weakness we are asked to serve others?
  • What does the widow have to teach Elijah?  What about us?

1 King 17 – The Widows Boy Dies

Some time later, out of the blue, the widow’s son dies. The widow understandably questions this turn of events. Why would God save them at the moment when their food is about to run out only to later allow her son to die? Elijah has a similar question. He takes the boy and prays to God that the boy revives. The prayer is answered, the boy revives, and the widow declares her testimony to Elijah’s God.

  • Why does tragedy descend upon us even when we are in Gods’ service?
  • Here the son is revived, but this doesn’t happen. How can we recognize God’s hand in the face of tragedy? How can we move forward when it doesn’t seem God answers are prayers?
  • How does this experience prepare Elijah for his confrontation with Ahab?

1 Kings 18 – Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab

Three years into the drought, God tells Elijah its time for rain, but first, Elijah must confront Ahab, the cause of the drought. Elijah’s travels to Samaria. At this moment, Obadiah, a governor of Ahab’s house but a dedicated servant of God and protector of prophets whose life Jezebel sought, was asked by Ahab to help him find land for their flocks to feed, since water and grass were scarce. They went different directions in this search and it’s here Obadiah meets Elijah. Elijah asks Obadaih to tell Ahab he is here and would like to meet. Obadiah fears for his life. If he tells Ahab Elijah is here but Elijah does not present himself, Obadiah would die. Elijah promises he will follow through.

Elijah meets with Ahab who immediately accuses him of causing the drought. Elijah responds saying, no, Ahab was the cause. And then challenges Ahab’s prophets to a contest. Whoever’s God can reign fire upon an altar will be proven to be the true God. Ahab gathers 450 of Baal’s prophets. They kill a bullok, dress it and lay it upon wood. They spent the day crying out to Baal, leaping upon the altar, cutting themselves. Elijah mocks them, perhaps Baal is on a journey or sleeping, perhaps they need to cry louder. Still, their best efforts are unsuccessful.

Now, Elijah’s turn. He builds an alter on twelve stones to remind the people of the twelve tribes of Israel. He builds a trench around the alter, and drenches the wood with water three times, filling the trench. At the time of the evening sacrifice, he offers a quiet prayer, asking for God’s intervention that the people might turn their hearts to God. Immediately a fire drops down on the altar consuming it. Elijah kills the prophets of Baal by the brook Kishon, gets on the top of Carmel and predicts rain. After looking seven times, the clouds form, the rain comes and the drought is over. Questions

  • How do we halt between two opinions in ways that lead us from God?
  • What can we learn from Elijah’s method of making the sacrifice (full of symbols), prayer and the nature of prophets? 
  • In the face of suffering (drought in this case) what can we do proactively to address the causes of that suffering in ways that are effective?

1 Kings 19 – Elijah’s Sorrow

When Jezebel hears of this encounter, she vows to take Elijah’s life. Elijah flees for his life down to Beer-sheba, leaving his servant there, and he continues on into the wilderness. He prostrates himself by a tree and wants to die. An angel comes and gives him cake and water, strengthening him. He goes into Horeb into a cave and continues to wonder of the futility of his efforts, sorrowing. Elijah experiences strong wind, an earthquake, a fire, but God was in neither. He finally feels God in a still, small voice.

God tells Elijah, first, that he’s not alone, that there are 7000 others in Israel that have not bowed to Baal. Further, he tells Elijah he has more for him to do, to anoint Hazael king over Syra and Jehu king over Israel, and Elisha shall be anointed prophet.

Elijah obeys.

  • How can we turn to God when we feel isolated, alone, frustrated or otherwise depressed?
  • How does it help to know we are not alone? 
  • What does God’s intervention teach us? How can we feel God’s spirit? How can being called into service help with depression?

Come Follow Me – Judges

Introduction

Judges cover the hundreds of years between Joshua’s death and the beginning of the Israeli Kings beginning with Saul. The book has three sections: an introduction providing a basic overview of the purposes of judges (Judges 1 – Judges 3:6), an overview of twelve judges (Judges 3:7-16:31) and concludes with two stories of lawlessness and idolatry. The judges described were not actual judges in the way we think of judges. Rather, they were regional leaders, sometimes called by God to deliver different parts of Israel from oppression from neighboring tribes. The stories have a regular pattern. The people feel oppression for a number of years, cry to the Lord for deliverance, at which time a judge is called by the Lord to deliver their people, the people enjoy a period of rest and peace. The book describe a few judges in great detail, the rest of them are mentioned in passing.

War

The book of Judges is extremely violent in often disturbing ways. The purpose of Judges is not to provide a model of righteousness, but rather how difficult it is to fulfill the promises of Abraham – to build up a covenant nation whose purpose is to bless the earth. The Israeli’s are commonly falling into bad habits of those around them, resort to violence and other serious ethical failings. They do have a national memory, consistently remembering their deliverance from Egypt, God’s hand in that deliverance, and with that, as times become desperate, they call on God for deliverance, often coming through violence. But this never results in long-term peace.

God’s alternatives are clear. God desires peace.

Therefore, arenounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to bturn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children;

Doctrine and Covenants 98:16

Blessed are the apeacemakers: for they shall be called the bchildren of God.

But I say unto you, aLove your benemies, cbless them that dcurse you, do egood to them that fhate you, and gpray for them which despitefully use you, and hpersecute you;

Matthew 5:9

Judges 2

This chapter offers a nice introduction of the theme of judges. In verse 1, an angel promises that God “will never break my covenant with (Israel)”. Israel is warned about the non-covenant people they share the land with that will be “as thorns in (their) sides” (verse 3) when they stumble. After Joshua’s death and as that generation passed on, the next generation after them “knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel” (verse 10). In their rebellions, they fall into the hands of their enemies.

Nevertheless the Lord raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them.

Judges 2:16

Each time to people forget God, they fall under the rule of neighboring tribes. A number of years pass and they pray for deliverance, the Lord raise up judges who find a way to deliver the people. They people enjoy peace for time until they again forget God, rinse, cycle repeat (verse 16-19).

Questions:
Why is it so hard to pass on knowledge of the Lord to the next generation?

How can we be influenced by good and influence for good as we are naturally integrated into a broader society that does not live within the same covenantal relationship with God?

Judges 3 – Ehud, the left-handed judge

Judges 3 spends most of the chapter describing the judge Ehud, a left-handed judge who confronts Eglon king of Moab who ruled over Israel for 18 years. Eglon is fat, Ehud is lefthanded, both facts are relevant to the story. Ehud makes a small two edge dagger and hides it under his clothes on his right thigh. In this sense, being left-handed is an advantage considering the people who would protect the king would expect and search him for weapons on his left side not realizing he’s left-handed. Ehud and his people present an offering for Eglon. Ehud sends everyone away, saying he has a secret errand for the king. Unsuspecting, Eglon allows Ehud to come to him alone at which point Ehud thrusts the dagger into Eglon’s stomach. Eglon’s fat “closed upon the blade” preventing Ehud from pulling it out. Ehud flees. His people assume, with the doors locked, that Eglon was disposed, giving Ehud an opportunity to escape. They finally break in discovering their dead king.

With the Moabite king dead, Ehud organizes his troops for battle and “Moab was subdued”.

Judges 4 – Deborah, the prophetess

Deborah is the only female judge sited in Judges, the only one who actually is said to offer judgment and the only one described with prophetic gifts. She is not, however, a war general, and instead calls Barak to deliver their people from Jabin king of Canaan, whose captain and key the story is Sisera. Barak refuses unless Deborah joins him. Deborah agrees, but prophesies that the glory will go to a woman deliverer.

At Deborah’s urging, Barak’s army confronts Sisera’s army, defeating them. Sisera flees leaving his people but pursued by Barak. Sisera seeks rest at the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, believing he’s found an ally and a source of support. Jael plays the part at first, offering him milk, shelters him and even covers him with a blanket. Once asleep, she drives a tent nail through Sisera’s temple, fulfilling Deborah’s prophecy.

Question:
How can unusual, looked over or unexpected gifts or circumstances be the means for accomplishing God’s plan for us?

Judges 6-8 Gideon

This story opens with the Midianites harrasing the Israelites like “grasshoppers for multitude”, devastating their livelihood. In verse 6:6, the Israelites cry to the Lord. An angel of the Lord visits Gideon saying the Lord is with him, a mighty man of valour (verse 6:12). Gideon questions the angel, remembering God’s past willingness to deliver Israel, wondering why God forsakes them now. God calls Gideon to be the deliverer. Like Moses, Gideon shrinks at first, saying “my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (verse 6:15).

Gideon, still unsure, asks for a sign as assurance (verse 6:17). Gideon prepares food, places them on a rock, the angel touches the rock and a fire rises up out of the rock and consumes the food, giving Gideon the sign he seeks.

The first thing God tells Gideon to do is to tear down the altar of Baal and built up an altar to God in its stead, offering a burnt sacrifice on it, something Gideon does with ten men in the middle of the night. When the Midianites discover this, they quickly realize it was Gideon’s doing and demand his father, Joash, to turn Gideon over so that they can put him to death. Joash defends his son telling them to let Baal fight his own battles.

The Midianites and the Amalekites gather for a battle, and Gideon gathers people from Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali. Additionally, he asks for further reassurance involving a fleece of wool on the floor. Assured, Gideon prepares for battle, but the Lord tells him he has too many people. In response, Gideon tells anyone who is “fearful and afraid” to leave. 22,000 people leave, but still with 10,000 left behind, the Lord still says Gideon has too many and offers an extremely random an unrelated for battle filtering mechanism. The army are told to go down to the river to drink. Any of them who drink the water with their hands can remain. Those who get on their knees to drink straight from the pool are dismissed. This left 300 soldiers remaining, sufficiently small enough to go to battle.

Three hundred Israelis against the Midianites and Alalekites who “lay along in the valley like grasshoppers” (verse 7:12). Gideon in preparation went down with his servant, Phurah to scout things out in secret and overhears a man tell another about his dream, who then interprets it. This dream assures Gideon of their impending success. He returns, divides the 300 men into three companies and stations them around their enemies’ camps, with a trumpet in one hand and a lamp in another, but notably no weapons. In the middle of the night, just at the beginning of the middle watch, they blow their trumpets, hold up their lamps, injecting chaos into the minds of their enemies causing them to flee.

In chapter 8, Gideon is shown to be a much more decisive leader, completes his overthrow of his enemies and is ultimately offered the position of king, , “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: The Lord shall rule over you.”

Questions:

How can we rise up to our challenges when we feel overwhelmed?

How does knowing God is with us help? How can we get that assurance?

Can we over-prepare? How come sometimes the Lord asks us to become more vulnerable? Can you think of applications?

Judges 13-16 Samson

Chapter 13 focuses on Samson’s mother. With previous judges, they are called into action as adults, directly by God through a prophet or by an angel. With Samson, his mother is called to bring forth a child that will be dedicated to called as a Nazarite. Even from the womb, she is not to take “strong drink, neither eat any unclean thing: for the child shall be a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death.” (Judges 13:7). Manoah, the father, is not included in the original vision but wants in and asks God for that visitation. The angel comes again, but again to his wife. His wife summons her husband and they, together, encounter the angel. Like Gideon, Manoah offers a sacrifice upon a rock, and like with Gideon a flame consumes it and the angel disappears, confirming the angel’s divine mission.

The remaining chapters in this section focuses on Samson who over and over again uses his gifts not for the benefit of Israel but for his own purposes. In Chapter 14, he desires a woman from the Philistines. On his way, Samson kills a lion unknown to his parents. Later, on a return trip, he sees a swarm of bees with honey in the lion, eats and takes honey for his parents.

Still later, at the wedding feast, his prospective wife brings thirty companions to which Samson offers a riddle they have no hope in answering, wagering thirty sheets and garments as part of the wager. His to-be-wife’s companions badger Samson’s wife to find out the answer or risk having their house burned down. She badgers her husband for seven days and finally he tells her. When the companions successfully answer the riddle, Samson expresses anger to his wife, goes to Ashkelon and kills thirty men in order to honor the wager. In response, the wife is given to his companion.

When Samson discovers he lost his wife, he catches three hundred foxes and sets them loose on the Phillistine corn, destroying their crops, vineyards and olives. The Philistines respond by killing Samson’s wife and father. Samson response by killing them with “a great slaughter (Judges 15:8). The Philistines respond by threatening Judah. They convince the men of Judah to deliver to them Samson. Samson allows the men of Judah to bind him and deliver him to the Phillistines promising him they will not attack him themselves.

Bound and delivered, Samson uses his strength to break the cords. He sees a nearby jawbone of an ass and kills one thousand men with it. After the battle, he is thirsty and for the first time, calls on God to provide water, which is provided.

The final chapter (16) begins with Samson sleeping with a harlot. The Gazites want to kill him and wait for him in the gate of the city. Samson waits until nightfall and takes the doors of the gate and the two posts and carries them to the top of a hill. After that, he falls in love with Delilah.

The Philistines see an opening through his wife and offers her a lot of money to find out how to weaken Samson. After multiple attempts to discover Samson’s strength, Delilah finally discovers the secret is his hair and she has it cut off. The Philistines subdue Samson, gouge his eyes and imprisons him.

The story ends when the Philistines bring him brought him out of prison and tie him between two pillars in order to mock him. Samson finds renewed strength, brings down the pillars killing him and all those who were there celebrating.

Questions:

What lessons can we learn from Samson’s birth and the way it echoes Abraham’s, Jesus’ and John the Baptist?

How does this echo the birth of our own children?

Samson has obvious gifts but uses them for selfish purposes. What are the difficulties, dangers and temptations of having gifts that put us in positions of power and authority over others?