What is the Good News of the Gospel as Taught by Jesus of Nazareth?

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This question is harder than I expected. There is the Sunday school answer, that Jesus died to save us from sin and death.

I hope this is true. I’m having trouble with it in my day to day my life. I seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. Those who have to live with me are well aware and have mostly learned to worked around them. There have been consequences but most people are gracious and forgiving or else they keep their distance. I’m also very limited, though I’m not sure that is the same thing. It’s possible Jesus could eventually save me from these sins, but I’ve mostly tried to learn how to work with more compassion within them. This kind of living in sin doesn’t seem to be that scriptural, but it’s the only way I know how to get up in the morning, to live with my regrets and to face a future knowing more mistakes are coming.

I know I’m going to die. It could be soon, but it feels like I’m going to live forever. My dad’s death is the closest thing to it I’ve come, almost seven years ago now. It was a pretty close encounter. At the time, my dad was living in a group home. Previously he had suffered from a pretty serious stroke, had spent weeks in a nursing home trying to recover before graduating to a group home. I still had hopes he was immortal, thinking he would eventually recover to where he was before. He made progress, but there were a lot of setbacks, repeated trips to the emergency room. He broke a hip, he required a pacemaker. I was the decision maker everytime, or more accurately, they made me think so, couching my decision within a framework where he either would die or they would intervene.

When he finally collapsed for the final time in the group home, I was the first one called. I rushed to the hospital and found his lifeless body in the hospital bed surrounded by doctors trying to resuscitate him. I held his hand for a moment before telling the doctors it was ok to stop trying. These years later, he still feels very much like my dad. I still remember his deep love he expressed in a number of ways when he raised me. That love very much is present now. I hope I’ll see him again but I can’t even fathom what that would be like now, his dead body decayed in the earth.

What’s front and center for me right now, isn’t sin or death, it’s connection and belonging. I think more about my mom now than my dad. She lives alone, with few friends but a very caring ward. I’m her only close relative nearby. I know she feels lonely often. She calls me often, usually confirming when I’ll be there again. It seems like loneliness is often the biggest challenge of old age.

Or maybe of any age.

I think most people just want to be heard, understood, loved and cared for. They want to feel like they belong and have a purpose in their life. The saddest times in my life were always those times when I felt disconnected, lost or alone. My biggest worry now is that I’ll be disconnected, cast out, forgotten and left alone.

What does this have to do with the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Jesus was born in a cave, grew up obscure and uneducated and disconnected from power. His ministry focused on those even more marginalized then him – the sinners, the affirmed, the sick, and the poor. When he lost his temper, it was always toward the powerful. His central message was love, a kind of love so radical that it extended even to his enemies, even, in his case, to the people who were crucifying him.

I think this is the good news of Jesus of Nazareth. This is something I can sink my teeth into in my day to day life- that we are loved, that we belong, that we matter, irrespective of accomplishments, positions, or talents And that as I try to live the good news, it is my job to help others feel like they belong as well. And truly embodying the good news means I should frame everything I do into helping others feel this deeply, either directly or indirectly.

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My Praise for Middle Way Mormonism

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Introduction

There’s been a lot of talk among “progressive Mormons” about how to walk the path known as “Middle Way Mormonism”. Here is a recent article on the topic. There are other words for it, New Order Mormon, for example. Cafeteria Mormonism is sometimes used to describe this way of being in the church, somewhat pejoratively. Some of those who have already left the church believe those that self-identify as  “Middle Way Mormons” are merely there temporarily, before they eventually leave the church.

Others believe those living this way have been rebuked by scripture, in Revelation 3: 15-16:

15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Or  they say, it’s impossible to play both sides, pick one already, Matthew 6:24:

24 ¶ No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Quotes from a recent prophet, President Hinckley doesn’t make this any easier, on Joseph Smith:

PBS: Our film [features] a very strong statement you made. You are talking about the foundational story of Mormonism and why it must be taken literally, that Joseph Smith had the vision he described and obtained the plates the way he did. You said there is no middle ground. Other churches are approaching their foundational stories and turning them into metaphor at times and going perhaps for the essence of the meaning. But that isn’t true for you or for this church. I’m wondering if you can develop that idea: Why can’t there be a middle ground in the way those foundational stories are understood?

President Hinckley: Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall. But we don’t. We just stand secure in that faith.

Another Way of Looking at It

Could Middle Way Mormons be another way of saying “the Narrow Way Mormons”. In Matthew 7:13-14:

13 ¶ Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad isthe way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Or Simply “The Way”, in John 14:6:

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

Mark Crego, in a recent Sunstone presentation, describes being a Middle way Mormon in exactly these terms.

Being In the Middle Way is Hard

Middle Way Individualism

Certainty has a definite appeal. There’s something satisfying about being part of a faction or tribe. We need each other and being in relationships is the only way to survive and thrive the brutality of existence. The US prison system’s use of solitary confinement is known as torture for a reason. However, drawing strength from our relationships quickly devolves into cliques at a small scale or into tribalism at a larger scale whenever we elevate dogma or define hard borders between us and the other. Walking in the middle way requires courage, courage to include and accept, to listen and to recalibrate. It requires a willingness to say or do things that might be unacceptable to one’s peer group. It requires a balance between individualism and loyalty to our groups.

Middle Way’s Devotion to Truth

Middle Way Mormons are not afraid of truth, no matter the source. This means finding a balance between religious faith and a devotion to empirical evidence. Being willing to evolve and adapt one’s view of things as one encounters new evidence.

Listen to this brilliant interview with David Bokovy, here and here. Bokovoy’s academic background is in Biblical studies. Through his deep study of the scripture, especially his use of “higher criticism” of the scripture, which means reading the scripture from the point of view of the writer, trying to take seriously what the book is actually saying, treating the scripture as it partially is, as an historical document. Doing this, Bokovoy found scripture filled with anachronisms, contradictions, and other problems. He also found scripture filled with beauty, depth and writings from a people in a deep wrestle with big issues. This deep encounter with scripture did not destroy his faith, but rather forced him to re-calibrate his understanding. It moved him into greater depths of understanding.

On the cusp of entering this course of study, his advisors told him to avoid Biblical studies because no one survives such a study with their testimony in tact. Bokovoy further claims that most evangelical leaders pursues academic studies in topics tangential to Biblical studies so they don’t have to confront the problems head on. This kind of testimony preserving avoidance is not part of the middle way. It devalues a testimony that cannot survive deep study of scripture.

Middle Way Testimony

What does a testimony start to look like when forced to walk the middle way? Adam Miller gets to the heart of a testimony in his book, Rube Goldberg Machines.

There is an irony, then, to the kind of certainty proper to the sincere clarity of a 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.

Find the middle way, being able to absorb empiricism while preserving faith, requires a recalibration of what it means to have faith. It requires a certain kind of purifying, distillation process of what it means to have a testimony. We must remove aspects of a testimony that do not belong there.

How can I have a testimony of Joseph Smith’s near infallibility when I deeply struggle with polygamy. “Who would be more horrified by the idea of people having a testimony of Joseph Smith than Joseph Smith?” asks Adam Miller in Rube Goldberg Machines. How can I have a testimony in the Book of Mormon’s historicity? This is a historical, scientific claim that must live or die empirically.

My testimony can only be founded within God and grace. Joseph Smith taught this:

“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”

And even here, testimony is not empirical, rather it’s transcendent. Atonement and resurrection deal with fundamentally religious concerns – death, dying, sin, mercy and grace. Being forgiven even when we don’t always deserve to be. Being transformed when our best efforts fall to be good fall short, time and again.

Conclusions

I don’t think walking the middle way is being luke-warm, complacent, or avoiding difficult doctrine. It requires a constant balance, being willing to wrestle with difficult ideas, having the courage to face problems head on, being as honest as we possibly can, being true to our inner-callings, while being humble enough to listen to mentors, teachers and those with earned authority. Being willing, at times, to speaking truth to power. Perhaps it’s impossible to walk the middle way completely. It takes time and maturity and many mistakes and skinned knees along the way.

We can work our whole lives to purify our testimony, to rid ourselves of our prejudices, to be true to our inner voice, to forgive others, to love our enemies, to know when to speak up and to know when to forgive quietly graciously.

Finding the Middle Way is difficult and it looks different for everyone. It can be a lonely and isolating experience at times. But I think we’re all called into it. Our churches and institutions, at their best, are structured to support us in our journey along the Middle Way. The church is built for us, not us for the church.

What Happened to Bill Reel?

I really don’t know. I wasn’t a consistent listener to his podcast and didn’t carefully follow his online ruminations.  My understanding of his journey is flawed at best. When he was still a Mormon bishop he came onto Mormon Stories and provided a fairly standard orthodox defense of the Mormon church if I remember it correctly. Shortly after John Dehlin’s excommunication, he started his own podcast, Mormon Discussion, to try to fill the void Dehlin left of someone offering a faithful perspective while digging into the tough issues.

I remember early on listening to his podcasts and thinking that I found a kindred spirit, someone whose relationship to Mormonism is similar to mine. His testimony shared on an early podcast episode, for example, echo some of the same elements of my own. I didn’t listen to his podcast regularly though. Perhaps I should have, looking at his archives, he’s had some interesting ones – great guests, interesting topics.

That is why it’s so sad to hear that he’s about to be excommunicated. I listened to him describe the events that led up to it on a podcast interview on Radio Free Mormon. Scanning his recent posts, it’s easy to see that he’s gotten a lot more negative.

What to make of this? First of all, Adam Miller teaches that “if your religion falls apart in your hands, don’t without further ado assume that this is because your religion doesn’t work.” Rather, the “disintegration may itself be the clearest manifestation yet of the fact that your religion is working.”   In the same article he continues to say that “Mormonism cannot bear the weight of itself. If you ask Mormonism to be about Mormonism, the weight of that inward turning and the redoubling of that self-regard will stifle it.”

In some sense I think this is what is happening here. Bill Reel’s extra-careful scrutiny into Mormonism caused the religion to fall apart in his hands as he realized that Mormonism is incapable of bearing the weight of itself.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately on what seems to be the collapse of our political systems. Newt Gingrich deserves a lot of the blame. Gingrich took what was a shared responsible between two political parties at tension with each other to still govern the country and turned it into a winner take all, us versus them zero-sum game. The problem is the legislative branch does not work this way and because of that Gingrich has had very little legislative success. He was able to get elected by vilifying the democratic party. But the beast he created eventually turned against him.

The GOP’s impeachment crusade backfired with voters, Republicans lost seats in the House—and Gingrich was driven out of his job by the same bloodthirsty brigade he’d helped elect. “I’m willing to lead,” he sniffed on his way out the door, “but I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.”

The great irony of Gingrich’s rise and reign is that, in the end, he did fundamentally transform America—just not in the ways he’d hoped. He thought he was enshrining a new era of conservative government. In fact, he was enshrining an attitude—angry, combative, tribal—that would infect politics for decades to come.

This is the crucial problem with becoming a crusading critic of an organization. They are all unjust to various degrees. Everyone lies. Everyone is corrupt. We all have shadow work to do. If you want to find problems in a church, political party, politician, prophet or other leader, you will. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” If we don’t do this carefully, out of love, full of compassion, we’re at risk of being consume by it ourselves because realistically, we largely no better than those we criticize.

There is a balance here. We need our critics. Our institutions need to be held accountable. I understand and honor the impulse. In the liturgist podcast, Michael Grunger talks about how Christianity needs protest. Religion needs some people to walk away from it. For Christianity to survive and thrive, those faithfully within need to listen to those who faithfully leave. Those of us who remain in the church need to be fearless in our thinking. We need the type of “resistance that refuses to allow the enemy to be the enemy, that refuses to allow the enemy to be positioned as what must be excluded or opposed.”

Something is happening in our society right now and it isn’t good. We’re sorting ourselves, online and geographically. Right now a terrible candidate can squirm his way into the presidency behind an enthusiastic base using the quirks of the electoral college map to propel him into the office despite deep objections from the other side. This isn’t good and it’s a sign that we’re no longer getting outside of our echo chambers. Worse, that more of our institutions are becoming our personal echo chambers.

This isn’t good.

Religion comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. To the degree that church becomes an echo chamber it fundamentally stops performing this vital role. Mormonism needs all types of adherents – the orthodox, the conservative, the liberal, those struggling with belief, those firmly rooted in belief.  We need big-tent Mormonism. The only fundamental requirement to belonging should be, as it says in D&C 4, a desire to serve God.

So, what happened to Bill Reel? I have no idea really. In the interview I heard he was obsessed with truth, honesty, integrity. He had a list of questions and he wanted answers to them. He kept pushing them. He called Elder Holland a liar and devoted an entire podcast explaining why. I’m not sure what to make of this approach. Perhaps this sort of accountability is good. I don’t certainly don’t have good answers to his questions. I don’t expect the institutional church to spend time answering these questions. Maybe someday it will, I don’t honestly how it can right now.

I’m sad he couldn’t make it work and it seems he’s about to be firmly rooted in the ex-Mormon community. Again, I think that Mormons need its critics. I hope that criticism comes from a desire to strengthen and make better rather than a need to “burn it down”. There are far too many people in the world trying to burn things down. The world is already burning. We need to put out fires not start new ones.

It’s Not About Me

Nash

A Little Personal History

Growing up timid in an obscure corner of the Arizona desert in a marginalized family –  a father in a life-long employment struggle and an Asperger mother who preferred to spend most of her time inside her house, left me feeling shall I say, a tad vulnerable, isolated, ignored and forgotten.

My goal, then, was to find a way into the center of other people’s attention.

Sports

From a young age, I wanted a bigger voice, a bigger platform – I wanted people to notice… me. I had hoped sports might provide that. I played youth football, basketball and baseball, the sports my friends were playing and the professional sports I followed most closely growing up. Athletes garnered the greatest respect among my peers. I authentically loved sports, so my motivations were complicated, but feeling like I had to use sports to worm my way into glory and adulation is not a good reason for competition.

Of course it didn’t work. I wasn’t a good enough athlete. I worked pretty hard and I did reasonably well in the recreational leagues I participated in, but I was never good enough to get off the bench on the school teams nor did I make varsity teams as a senior.

Mission

I’ve had a life-long struggle with social anxiety. Day to day, I think I make everything higher stakes than the normal person. On top of that, I’m a bit weird, a little off, slightly unorthodox, I don’t always present myself well. It takes a lot of confidence being me and confidence wasn’t something I was born with. I’ve gotten more confident over the years.

A two year religious mission in Alabama was the most significant thing in my life that actually got me to step into myself. I felt the urgency of what I considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I talked to everyone, worked as hard as I could, tried to follow every mission rule precisely, and annoyed many of my mission companions along the way. Most of this was just what I needed to do, even if it wasn’t exactly a recipe for missionary success in terms of finding Mormon converts.

And it was especially difficult for my companions who had their own ideas, their own way of doing things. I was senior companion in my second area. I trained brand new missionaries four times. I think my mission president recognized I needed these two years being in control. It was my first significant effort to find my voice, to find my place. I wanted control over that. I didn’t really know how to calibrate myself with another person. I was a solo act and had no idea how to perform in a band, or even a duet. I just needed someone to tag along, so my Mission President largely accommodated me – giving me very young companions mostly, who could spend a couple of months with me to get a feel for how things could be done, then could go off on their own direction.

It’s Not About Me

These experiences were prelude for the central thesis of this blog post – that it’s not about me. It has never been about me. It will never be about me. Never. From Adam Miller:

Consider an analogy. Say that I’m concerned about my own life, about whether this life is good, whether I’m being true to the things that matter to me, and whether I’m on track to finding real happiness.

In this case, I’ll be tempted to fall into the assumption that if I’m worried about my own well being and happiness, I should put more and more time and effort into making sure that my own happiness is secure.

The temptation here is to think that my life is about me.

But I think this is a fundamental mistake: my life is not about me. And the more I focus my life on my own happiness, the worse off I’ll be, the farther from happiness I’ll be, and the more fraudulent I’ll feel (and be).

This move is a bit counterintuitive, but a willingness to swim upstream against the flow of this natural assumption – the assumption that my happiness is best secured by aiming directly at my own happiness, the assumption that my own life is, of course, about me – is crucial. Our willingness to swim against the flow of this assumption is the lifeblood of faith. It’s what keeps the heart of a religious life beating.

As Jesus puts it, I can only save my life by losing it. If I try to save my own life, then that life will inevitably be lost.

Famous People

The other day I was thinking about some of the books I’ve read, some of which have really meant a lot to me. In the moment, I realized how little I knew or cared about the lives of the author of those books, they are really just names. Many of those authors are dead and gone. I know nothing about their lives. I have no relationship with them at all. I enjoyed their books, but they are not their books.

Of course, we are all more important than the work we produce. We have families, people who value us for who we are, even if we do nothing of significance. When we die, people morn, even if it’s just a few people. Someone cares, or should care. No one should die alone.  . As human beings we are bright stars in a flat, complicated relational network, each human just as important as the other.

But the work we do is different. A famous author writes a book and if the book is good enough and recognized enough, it continues long after the author dies. The book lives independent of the author.

Steve Nash

Steve Nash was a famous point guard for the Phoenix Suns when they were good. He won two MVPs. He was small and quick and among the best shooters and passers in the world, among the best in NBA history.

I heard him give an interview once about his propensity to over-pass. His coach told him he was being selfish by not shooting. He was among the best shooters in the world and he was hurting his team by not taking more shots. It wasn’t about Steve Nash, it was about the Phoenix Suns. But not really, it wasn’t about the Phoenix Suns, it was about the NBA. But not really, it’s not even about the NBA, it was about the millions of people worldwide. Fans who love watching great teams compete at the highest levels. He was only going to be able to play at an elite level for a few years. He was blessed with a combination of very unique skills that just happened to be extremely useful in this particular way. He was at his best when he was able to serve humanity in this capacity. For the good of mankind, Steve Nash needed to shoot the ball.

A Night in a Cafe

Last week my wife and I went to a cafe to play some chess and Go (my latest obsession). This cafe tends to have live music and I thought it would be nice to play some brain-stimulating games, listen to music and enjoy each others company.

That is exactly what happened. A random couple, a man and a woman, maybe they were married, who knows, I’ll never see them again, came into the cafe, set up their sound systems, got out their guitars and started playing. There were just a handful of us in the cafe. We mostly forgot to clap after she finished a song. When one of us remembered, no matter how soft the clapping was, she gave an appreciative and enthusiastic thank you. Her voice was beautiful, the songs were good, and she made the evening more pleasant. But she didn’t really do it, well not directly. She made the choice to be there, to sing,. Earlier, she practiced and learned an instrument. She learned music, learned how to sing well, learned how to tune and control her voice. She was able, in that moment, produce a performance. The performance lives on in my memory. I don’t even know her name.

A Personal Experience

I recently had the honor (and I love this podcast so it was an honor) to be invited on a Mormon Matters podcast about the October session General Conference. It was a last minute invite, so I had no time to prepare. I only had the opportunity to watch Sunday’s two sessions. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the first choice. He actually had two other very dynamic, outgoing women on with me. The women’s session was emotional, the two women guests spent a large portion of the podcast discussing the session of conference I hadn’t watched. I didn’t get much time on that podcast. They were Steve Nash putting up shots. I was a role player hanging around the rim trying to get rebounds in case one of them missed. They rarely did. The resulting episode was great, a gift. It wasn’t about me, at all.

Conclusions

Where does that lead me now. I often see someone doing something and thinking, dang it, I wish I were doing that. But why? Why does it matter if I do it as long as its getting done. Its my job to figure out work that’s not getting done and do that. Some of that work is of such a nature that I’m the only one on this good earth that can do it. And when the work is finished and I move on to the next thing, if I’ve done it right, it might last a while, living in the world in such a way that no one quite remembers who put it there.

Meanwhile, I do have people who care about me. I have people I care about. That matters no matter what.

My Sample Ballot for the 2018 Election

 

Office Candidates My Vote Arizona Republic’s Choice Commentary Debate
US Senate Kyrsten Sinema, Martha McSally Kyrsten Sinema Kyrsten Sinema Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally are both credentialed, qualified, moderate and pragmatic. McSally has taken a hard turn in Trump’s direction especially in her campaign. That’s enough for me. AZ Senate Debate
US House Dist 9 Greg Stanton, Steve Ferrara Greg Stanton Greg Stanton was a good mayor for Phoenix and as far as I can tell a pragmatic, get things done moderate lefty in the mold of Kiersten Sinema. Ferrara was a little to partisan right for my taste. Congressional Debate
Governor Doug Ducey, David Garcia David Garcia Doug Ducey Both are quality candidates, but education is the most important job in state government, taking about half of the budget. David Garcia has more experience in education and understands the issue deeply because of it. He’s veered too far left for my taste and I worry about his effectiveness, but I trust he’s competent enough to work thorough the political and economic constraints that will act as a real damper to his progressive leanings. I think the state could use some democratic leadership at the top after a long drought. Governor Debate
State Senate District LD26 Rebecca Speakman, Juan Mendez Juan Mendez I’m still open to Rebecca Speakman, but I wasn’t impressed with her debate performance. She did not make a case (at all) why she would be a better choice for the position than Juan Mendez, the incumbent. I needed to hear something. Debate
State House District LD26 Raymond Speakman, Isela Blanc, Athena Salman Isela Blanc, Athena Salman Isela Blanc is the best of the bunch by a large margin. She’s experienced, passionate and articulate. She expresses her positions as if she’s dipping into deep knowledge of the issues, something I don’t see quite as much from the other candidates. I was open to voting for the Republican here, but Rayond Speakman was less than inspiring. Debate
Secretary of State Steve Gaynor, Katie Hobbs Katie Hobbs Katie Hobbs The AZ Republic makes a great case for Katie Hobbs. I refer you there. Debate
Attorney General Mark Brnovich, January Contreras January Contreras Mark Brnovich Update, this seat has become politicized and Brnovich has politicized it. Given my personal politics, I’m voting partisan here. And Contreras is certainly qualified.

This is a toss up for me and I reserve the right to change my mind. They are both imminently qualified. I hate some of the partisan ways Brnovich used the office and that is almost disqualifying for me. I kind of feel like challengers to an incumbent, especially an incumbent with a single term, should be thrust out by a better candidate. Tie goes to the incumbent in this case.

Attorney General Debate
State Treasurer Kimberly Yee, Mark Manoil Kimberly Yee Kimberly Yee Yee is smart, driven, experienced and hard working. That’s enough for me. Debate
Superintendent of Public Instruction Frank Riggs, Kathy Hoffman Frank Riggs Kathy Hoffman I think Frank Riggs has a good approach to the position, he has a more well rounded experience, that includes political experience. I think he would do a better job at the position. Debate
State Mine Inspector Joe Hart, Bill Pierce Joe Hart Some Good Information I was going to vote for Bill Pierce because Joe Hart refused to participate in the debate, but then I heard him in the interview on PBS… Probably safer to stick with the incumbent. Mining Inspector Debate
Corporation Commissioner Rodney Glassman, Justin Olson, Sandra Kennedy, Kiana Sears Rodney Glassman, Sandra Kennedy Olson, Kennedy I think we have four quality candidates for this position. I think Rodney Glassman is credentialed, confident with unique perspectives and expertise. Kennedy has been there before and has a record of challenging the utilities. The commission has a record of corruption. That and a move to alternative energy is high priority. Corporation Commisioner Debate
Clerk of the Superior Court Jeff Fine, Roberta Miller Jeff Fine Fine has a really good record with relevant experience. Some good info
Justice of the Peace Kyrene Bob Robson, Sharron Sauls Sharron Sauls Sauls has more relevant experience and education to the position. Reasons not to vote for Robson – looking to boost his pension perhaps.

Reasons not to vote for Sauls, a domestic violence related felony conviction in her past.

Constable Kyrene Brandon Schmoll, Kent Rini Kent Rini He’s the democrat. There’s not much at all in this race except their respective websites. Brandon Schmoll is the incumbent but not much on his website except this. Kent Rini has been a real estate agent and a volunteer silent witness for Paul Penzone.
Central AZ Water Conservation District Ronald Sereny, Rory Vanpoucke, Chris Will, Frank Archer, Lisa Atkins, Jim Ballinger, Alan Dulaney, Kerry Giangobbe, Terry Goddard, Jim Ainnuzo, Heather Macre, Jennifer Martin, April Pinger, Daniel Schweiker Atkins, Goddard, Macre, Dulaney, Martin Atkins, Goddard, Macre, Dulaney, Schweiker Going with the incumbents and two of the remaining with the most water experience.
Maricopa County Community College At-Large Roc Arnett, Kathleen Winn Roc Arnett Arnett’s experience seems deeper and more relevant for the position he’s running for. In his answers to the questionnaire, he seems more passionate about growing the effectiveness of junior colleges. Winn, however, seems more concerned about tax payers. I’d like a junior college board member to negotiate for funds rather than conceding. Allow the legislature to balance Junior colelge needs with other competing claims on government funds. A good questionnaire of the two candidates
Tempe Union No 213 High School Governing Board Andres Barraza, Don Fletcher, Brian Garcia Andres Barraza, Don Fletcher Brian Garcia is a law student with obviously less life experience. I’ve heard great things about Don Fletcher. Andres Barraza has a unique perspective to provide a different perspective on the board. Good info
Tempe Elem No. 3 School Governing Board James Lemmon, Patrick Morales, Charlotte Winsor Patrick Morales, Charlotte Winsor I happen to know Charlotte Winsor personally and she would be excellent at this position. I watched the debates in person and all three candidates are solid choices, I preferred Patrick Morales of the remaining two.
Proposition 417 Yes I’ll vote for funding for the arts all day everyday.
Proposition 418 No The criteria listed for removal is far too vague. What does due process mean in this case? A council member will already be removed if the due process of the judicial system convicts a member for a crime. What more do they want? There are ways voters can recall a council member, or just vote the person out in the next election cycle. This seems sufficient.
Judges No for Arthur Anderson, Warren Granville, Howard Sukenic, yes for the rest. Use the www.azjudges.info to make the selection. Using the www.azjudges.info, I’m voting no on any judge who received a “Does not meet” vote. See here
Proposition 125 No
Proposition 126 No No Removing an entire segment of the economy from paying taxes is the wrong approach. We need to fund our government as efficiently as possible, that requires broadening the tax base as much as possible with as low of a tax rate we can muster. More revenue should come by broadening the tax base not narrowing it as this does.
Proposition 127 Yes No I want to vote yes on this, but 50% of all retail energy of utilities from renewable energy that excludes pre-1997 hydropower or any kind of nuclear???? Why exclude nuclear from these percentages? Ok, global warming is a huge problem, I’m voting yes anyway.
Proposition 305 No I think both candidates for superintendent of schools were against this for different reasons. I think both reasons are valid, I’m voting no.
Proposition 306 Yes Seems like a reasonable thing to me.

How Much Should Joseph Smith’s Life Matter to a Mormon Testimony?

book-of-mormon.jpgFor some context, I’m making my way through a recent Mormon Stories podcast with Kathleen Melonakos on her recently published book, Secret Combinations Evidence of Early Mormon Counterfeiting 1800-1847. I need to re-listen to segments and more importantly, I feel the need to read the book. It’s a pretty devastating criticism of Joseph Smith.

First of all, let me lay out a fairly obvious faithful critique of the book before we start – she has a clear critical bias. In the interview, the author explains both her Mormon roots and her long-ago departure from the faith. She is clearly approaching her research from a critical perspective. This fact doesn’t mean her book isn’t valuable, isn’t worth reading, or doesn’t provide important insights to the early church. However, it may also explain her less than generous interpretations of the cited historical evidence.

The main point of the book is to put the early Mormon church in historical context, but more importantly to find some answers to the fundamental question every critic of the Mormon church seems to want to answer – how did Joseph Smith do it? How did Joseph Smith write the Book of Mormon? How did he get so many people to follow him and to sacrifice so much for his cause? How did he come up with so much theology that extends and expands upon the consensus Protestant Christian position?

The faithful Mormon answer to all of these questions is pretty obvious and easy to summarize in a one hour presentation every Mormon missionary has memorized and gives to an investigator within the first couple of visits. Joseph Smith as a fourteen year old boy was confused by all all of the religious contention happening at the time. He wanted to join a church but couldn’t decide which one. In the midst of the confusion and as a response to reading in James that if “anyone lacks wisdom they should ask of God”, he went out into the grove of trees to do exactly that. In direct answer to his prayer, he saw God and Jesus Christ tell him to join none of the churches. Soon after, visits from angels came, guided him to buried plates where he translated a historical scriptural record through the gift and power of God, the Book of Mormon, a record of the ancient Americans. From there, Joseph organized a church of early believers, recruited others, expanded westward until he was assassinated. Brigham Young led the church to Utah and the rest is history.

I am Mormon now largely because I descended from very early converts to the church, Theodore Turley on my dad’s side, Carl Carlquist  on my Mom’s side among so many others. I inherited this religion, my faith extends back into my ancestry.

Melonakos’ book, however, is pretty devastating if taking at face value. Her answers to the question, how Joseph Smith did it is well basically that he didn’t, at least not all by himself. His theology had early pilgrim roots, much of his theology innovations have their genesis  Dartmouth college of which Hyrum Smith had some connection. Ideas for the Book of Mormon were in the air at time time, pulling from sources like the View of the Hebrews and the Spaulding Manuscripts. Much of this is not new to Melonakos, but her contribution is to find Mormon connection to early counterfeiting that was reasonably common in the area of the time, and that Joseph Smith, with his family, participated in these activities, and that they are at the heart of how Joseph Smith founded the church.

In this view Joseph Smith was a fraud, convinced others, including the three and twelve witnesses included in the Book of Mormon, to go along with that fraud, used Masonic rituals to bind participants to secrecy.

My fundamental issue with this view is that this fraud would have to be powerful enough to inspire countless others through the generations, culminating in the modern, global church with millions of members worldwide, all finding inspiration and strength as members of this deeply American faith.

Elder Holland responds similarly, describing how Hyrum and Joseph took comfort in the book they supposedly made up just moments before their death. Could a book they made up really provide this kind support for so many?

A faithful Mormon response to this type of critique is to outright reject it. The church actually has their own take on early Mormon history, the book entitled Saints, written by scholars employed by the church describing early church history from a decidedly faithful perspective.

What should I do with these competing narratives? I’ve already read what I consider to be among the most important Joseph Smith biographies, Rough Stone Rolling written by the faithful Mormon scholar, Richard Bushman, with his own biases. I’ve also read Mormon Enigma, another really well-researched book with a focus on Emma Smith that corroborates much of Bushman’s book describing the same events through Emma’s eyes.

I think there is value in understanding our early history. I think history can and should increase our faith in God and deepen our appreciation and love for the sacrifices of our forebears. I’m not a descendent of Joseph Smith, but my early ancestors had a deep faith in his message and made deeply significant sacrifices to help build the church he founded.

I don’t think it’s useful to ignore the critics. I think their arguments are worth considering, especially those done in good faith based on careful research. More fundamentally, though, I think Mormonism can and should survive whatever we might discover about Joseph Smith. I don’t believe the church should live or die on the credibility of a single person. There were far too many people involved in the church, past, present and future.

More importantly, I think Mormons should be fearless. Increasingly, every member of the church knows and loves someone who has left the church. I think being willing to have interfaith conversations, conversations between the critic and the believer, conversations in good faith with a willingness to learn from each other, can lead to deeper understanding, wisdom and a better world.

What does it mean to minister?

homteachingHome Teaching

Home teaching was a significant part of my Mormon life. My parents were relentless, never missing a month, like clockwork. I remember when I turned 14, old enough to be my dad’s companion, I dreaded these visits. They would last an hour typically, and it was mostly my dad talking endlessly to the adult members of the family we were visiting, with me sitting there next to him, bored out of my mind. In my Mormon church experience, boredom was my most common emotional experience, home teaching included.

Some of you might be asking, home teaching, eh? Home teaching is a church program where men are divided into companionships, and then assigned three to four families to visit monthly, giving a gospel message, and offering whatever assistance might be needed in that home. Visiting teaching is basically the same program for the women.

There is a lot of theoretical potential with home teaching. In reality, it is often difficult, requiring the coordination of three different schedules (both companions and the family) to visit a single family every single month. Then multiply this by three or four depending on the number of families assigned, the logistical coordination problem is the biggest challenge. Most of the time, it’s done out of obligation. Leadership give constant reminders, determine who were actually visited and then report the results up the hierarchy.  What typically happens, is that most people are busy trying to squeeze all of their visits in at the end of each month. Ward families often understand the obligation and try to make room for these visits even though often times it can be inconvenient on what often is already a really busy Sunday to have to fit in yet another spiritual message on a day already filled with them. More typically, though, the visits aren’t made at all as percentages are often below 50%, month to month.

Sometimes, though, it can really work. I’ve had times when I’ve developed really deep relationships with the families I was assigned. And even when something is done out of obligation, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was a waste of time. Even a short visit can be meaningful. The effectiveness of the program is really all over the map.

But in my experience, the magical home teaching moments where deeply meaningful relationships result are fairly rare. Admittedly, this is potentially more about me than the program. Who knows?  I’m speaking mostly from my own experience.

Ministry

About six months ago, this program, a program as deeply entrenched into Mormon culture as any we have, was replaced with something that was supposed to go beyond checklists, obligatory monthly visits and weekly nagging, a program called ministry. When I heard this, I jumped for joy. I’ve been feeling pretty frustrated with home teaching and was trying to figure out ways to make it more meaningful and effective.

My interpretation of the program is that it prioritizes relationships over simply visits. And how do you develop a relationship? Well, I’m not sure. It’s difficult. It takes time and it requires people on both sides to make a willing effort. It’s bi-directional, requiring a give and take in both directions. There has to be time, a willing to sacrifice, a listening ear. Phone calls, shared meals, conversations, activities. Teaching is not often a part of friendships, at least not intentional teaching. Relationships work best when both sides view the other as their equal. Most of my friends have come at work or at school. Hours together, working on a project, or struggling to learn a complicated topic. Hours together at work lead to hours together outside of work, simply enjoying each other’s company.

Why the Church is As True as the Gospel

Eugene England wrote a famous and beautiful essay that gets into what makes Mormonism so uniquely beautiful at its core. That the gospel of Jesus Christ can be found in the messy work of trying to make it work in a congregation.  Mormon congregations are organized around lay ministry with borders drawn up geographically. Where I live determines what congregation I attend. When I attend, I am asked to serve along with others who live nearby. In other words, the church divides up its membership into congregations and then utilize the resources in the congregation to fulfil the purposes of the church.

There are certainly challenges in this arrangement. There’s no shopping around for just the right congregation, so if things get difficult, we’re mostly stuck. Not completely, there are exceptions, but exceptions are purposely difficult to get. The reason for this is because these congregations are designed to act like families, Mormons view the work of salvation to be both an individual and a collective endeavor. And congregations are organized to help individuals and families help each other find salvation. We’re in this together.

I bring this up because ministry is at the heart of what Eugene England describes here. Ministry, at its core, is the most important part of being a member of this church.

Criticisms

Some of the concerns I’ve heard about the new program is that it’s highly likely to end up just like “Home Teaching” with a different name, so how is that really all that revelatory significant? Leaders are going to struggle giving up the control they had with home teaching – the assignments, the reporting, the nagging. The only reports required for ministry is whether or not the leaders are doing the quarterly interviews. In other words, are leaders helping the congregation minister to each other? That is the important question, more important it turns out, than what people are actually doing. Rather than pushing people into doing something specific like home teaching visits, can they just encourage relationships to bloom?

Another concern is the forced/assigned nature of the program. There have been plenty of people I really wanted to be friends with in my life. Many of those friendships have not worked out. They take both sides wanting them enough to sacrifice the kind of time required to make friendships work. Sometimes I want the friendship more than the other person.

My Suggestions

I’d like to think ministry is a fundamentally different program than home teaching. If the program is an attempt to make sure no one in the ward family is friendless and if in time of need, there is at least one person nearby with enough built-up authentic concern for that person to be there in a meaningful way, providing love and support built up through years of effort.

If that’s the framing of this program, we need to think of this program completely different. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  1. Make the assignments bi-directional: The families I’ve been assigned to minister should also be assigned to minister to me. This may change, in certain cases the nature of the relationship. I’m trying to minister someone trying to minister to me. That sounds exactly like the precondition of a deep relationship. Why not make that the intention from the beginning.
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel: Allow friendships developed organically to continue. Relish in the ministry that’s already happening in the congregation. That counts, to use Elder Holland’s words.
  3. Priorities the Friendless: Some people make friends easily, many do not. Make sure those disconnected from the ward have the same opportunities others do. Assign the most energetic, charismatic member to those who are living on the margins.
  4. Give the people a say in who they minister:  Inspiration can come from anywhere, but mostly from where it matters most, on the ground. If someone feels called to minister to someone specifically, let them do it.
  5. De-prioritize the companionship (or better yet eliminate them):  Assigning families to companionships makes the entire thing less authentic, and increases the difficulty building deep relationships. Rather than companionships, connect families where possible.

Conclusions

If we want ministry to work, I think it requires a deep re-thinking of what ministry is. If I’m right and if it’s more about establishing relationships, we need to think about how relationships begin and flourish and provide the right kind of environment to make sure that they do.

We should set up the environment and hope for the best. That’s as much as we can really do.