Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I Am Sad Today

It's a beautiful day in Kentucky. The Sun has been out and the landscape is lush and green. I managed to successfully organize all of my documentation for work today in a new R package that should make a very smooth process for compiling our required reports. And I got to run around the back yard with the girls and play board games with Julie. It really seems like the perfect day.

But I am sad.

I am sad because I looked at my Facebook feed and saw friend after friend celebrating a woman giving her son a beating when she found him participating in the Baltimore riots.

I suspect this will irritate some of my favorite characters, but why the hell are we celebrating this?

I get that we are tired of riots. I understand the calls for peaceful protests. But the stench of hypocrisy is overwhelming when we condemn violence by those with whom we disagree but celebrate it by those with whom we agree.

There are serious social issues coming to head, and instead of listening to each other, we're looking for self validation. Aren't we just all so wonderful!

So let's set the record straight right now. Violence is wrong. Full stop.

Even when it is justified, it is wrong.

Even when it is necessary, it is wrong.

Even when it is unavoidable, it is wrong.

Violence of all forms invariably harms the bodies, minds, and souls of both the attacked and the attacker.  And when we participate in the celebration of violence, we do damage to our own souls.

Please, let's stop this.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

We Must Not Pull Up the Tares

The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. 
So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? 
He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? 
But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. 
Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (Matt. 13:24-30).

Jesus was a story teller.

For practically two millenia, people have been mining his stories for deep, hidden truths.  His parables are known throughout much of the world and are the focus of books, articles, web pages, and sermons.

There is both beauty and frustration in Jesus' stories, because his stories are typically classified as parables.  Unlike the parable's cousin the allegory--for which the correct interpretation is generally believed to be the author's intended interpretation--the parable can mean different things to different people.  For that matter, a parable may mean different things to the same person at different times.  Parables are, by their nature, vague and polymorphous.  Like Play-Doh, a parable can be shaped to fit the needs of a situation or of a particular person.

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, which I read earlier, is the second of seven parables given in that chapter.  And those seven parables definitely had a theme.  The Wheat and the Tares is the first of six parables to be prefaced with the words "the kingdom of heaven is like unto."

Something unique about this parable is that it is one of few parables that Christ interpreted for us.  So, we could make this a really short talk and just read Christ's interpretation.  The wheat are the righteous and will be saved; the tares are the wicked and will be burned, yadda yadda yadda...but how boring.  So I'm going to argue that at best, this interpretation is useless; and at worst, it is wrong.

The 'at best' qualification involves interpreting the parable at a general level.  Although Christ eventually gave the interpretation, he only gave the interpretation to his closest associates.  We understand that, at the time, there were a number of Jews looking for a savior to redeem Israel from Roman rule.  They wanted a savior that would release them from political bondage and restore Israel as a political force in the region.  For them, the parable of the wheat and tares would have been an early introduction to the idea that perhaps there wouldn't be a political savior; and that the Kingdom of God could still thrive under foreign rule.  To His closest associates, the parable may have been an early introduction to the idea that the Gospel would be taken to all people, not just those of Abraham's lineage.

This general level interpretation isn't very useful to us.  We as a church, and Christianity as a whole came to terms with this interpretation nearly two thousand years ago.

The 'at worst' interpretation involves assuming that each person in the world is either a wheat or a tare.  And this, I believe, is a flawed and dangerous interpretation.  It runs contrary to many of Christ's other teachings. And based on the fact that this and several other parables were prefaced with "the kingdom of heaven is like unto," I don't think Christ ever thought of individuals as either wheat or tare.

The problem with that interpretation is it assumes that some people were wicked the moment they were born into the world.  We know this isn't true: "For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil" (Moroni 7:16).

This interpretation also bars the possibility of change.  But Nephi tells us, "I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ...He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved" (2 Nephi 31:13, 15).

It's time we moved past the wicked/righteous dichotomy.

Now, if the kingdom level interpretation is useless to us, and the individual level interpretation is wrong, we need a new interpretation.  We need an interpretation that fits our needs, our culture, our unique challenges.

Fortunately, Christ offered us some insight into how we might reinterpret the parable.  A woman was brought before him, and her accusers challenged Christ to make good on his parable.  "Destroy this tare," they dared him.  The woman caught in adultery was thrust before him and they asked if she should be stoned.

After a brief moment of quiet contemplation, he dispelled her accusers.  "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."  As the accusers dispersed, hopefully having seen a bigger picture, Christ turned to the woman and comforted her.  "I do not condemn you," he said.  "Go, and cultivate your wheat."

The power that comes from our parable is not in seeing individuals as a single wheat or a single tare, but in seeing each individual as a field full of both wheat and tares.  We are each rich, fertile soil full of both of right and wrong choices; of good and bad ideas.

I learned a valuable interpretation of the wheat and the tares a few years ago when I was attending the sealing of my best friend.  It is one of only a few opportunities I've had to see two people sealed to each other in the temple.  We were ushered into the sealing room, my friend and her husband came in after and before the ordinance, the man performing the sealing spoke to them.  For ten minutes, he spoke to the groom about his responsibility to protect, provide for, uplift and teach Marie and their future family.  And then he turned to Marie and said, "All that applies to you too."

I. was. livid.  Livid isn't a strong enough word, but I do believe we're discouraged from using the language that would accurately describe how I felt at the time.  Marie had served a mission, earned a doctorate degree, was brilliant, accomplished, generous.  And in what is said to be one of the most exquisite moments of our lives, she got six words for no reason other than she was the wife.

Yeah, I was livid.

So after the sealing--and a few (or 30) minutes outside in the parking lot to calm down--I went back into the temple to do an endowment session.  In the presentation of the endowment, the creation of the world is presented and some of God's rationale behind His creations are stated.  And at one point that day (and I admit, I might have still been brooding over the sealing), I remember the Spirit slapping me in the back of the head and saying, "Hey, pay attention here.  You're about to learn something."  And that was when the narrative explained that the earth would be created with mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, and streams, "that there may be beauty and variety on the face of the earth."

In that moment, I was taught that people have different ideas.  People have different beliefs.  People have different interpretations.  And all of that diversity gives beauty to our church.  All of that diversity gives beauty to the kingdom of heaven.

I've spent the years following that experience trying to learn more tolerance and appreciation for ideas and opinions that differ from my own.  I'm usually wildly unsuccessful, but I'm trying.

And I don't mean to say that all ideas are good.  Certainly, I think there are a lot of bad ideas out there.  If you talk to me for any length of time, you'll hear a lot of griping about politics, the Church, and people in general.  Some of my thoughts are wheat, some are tares.  And some of those things I gripe about are wheat, and some are tares.

Now here's the really, really hard part.  We must not pull up the tares.  Remember, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a field of wheat and tares.  Our task is to build the kingdom of heaven.  But when we engage in crusades to root out disagreement and dissent, we root out the wheat as well.  And keep in mind, sometimes the disagreement and the dissent are the wheat.

Our task is to build the kingdom of heaven.  That means studying both the wheat and the tares.  That means we need to be more open about our thoughts, beliefs, and experiences, as well as more sensitive about how we present them.  We need to speak with the intent of building the kingdom of heaven.

For the past several years, I've taken to observing Lent.  Lent is a traditional Christian period of fasting that lasts 40 days leading up to Easter.  In one of my first years observing Lent, another Mormon, apparently bothered by my observance, made a snarky remark about how Mormons do it better because we fast all year round, not just one time a year.  This person was then bothered that I defended the practice.  Keep in mind, Mormons may fast throughout the year, but as an organization, we fast for twelve days a year, less than a third of the time of Lent.  But to this person, it seems that Lent wasn't 'Mormon enough,' and so I was in need of correction.

What's important to recognize, though, is that there is value in both of those traditions.  The Mormon fast has applications in charity and sacrifice as it is tied to fast offerings.  The Christian Lent has applications in self improvement, as forty days of giving up something is long enough to establish a habit.  Sure, both traditions have their weaknesses, but both traditions also have their value.  We should look to identify the wheat in both of them, and cultivate those aspects.  And rejecting one because it isn't 'Mormon enough' does nothing to build the kingdom of heaven.

On the other hand, when I say things like, "I don't like Mormons enough to vote for one to be president" -- yes, I really said that.  And I regret it, because even though it may bear some resemblance to how I might actually feel, the way I said it is divisive and hurtful.  It does nothing to build the kingdom.  We desperately need to stop doing these kinds of things to each other.

Instead, we need to see that even when we may disagree about how to build the kingdom, we are all committed to building it together.

So, there it is.  We need more kingdom building.  We need more debate with friendship.  We need more discussion with less preaching.  We need more disagreement with laughter.  We need more time together.  We need more compassion.  We need more empathy.

In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare that I am convinced that this is the Kingdom of God.  As frustrating, backwards, and unpleasant as I sometimes feel it is, I am still convinced that we are building God's Kingdom--that we are all building God's Kingdom.  And I believe that the authority and the keys to bring individuals to exaltation lives here.

So here is the challenge I leave for all of you (and all of me).  Let she who is a field of pure wheat pull the first tare.  Otherwise, go.  Cultivate your wheat.  Build the Kingdom of God--do extraordinary things; think extraordinary thoughts; build extraordinary friendships--that there may be beauty and variety on the face of the earth.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Advent and Anticipation: Hastening the Lord's Return

I had a plan.  It was a good plan, too.  This would be a Christmas celebration for my congregation like we'd never had.  We've still never had it.

When I was asked to plan our ward's Christmas party, I had this crazy idea to extend the celebrations beyond just one single night.  Why not celebrate for a whole month!?  And so I read about Advent and concocted an idea of how to implement the season into our worship and our celebrations in a way that was consistent with Mormon meeting schedules. I chose readings from the liturgical calendar that adapted well into Sacrament meeting talks.  I suggested that we invite the members of the congregation to come to church dressed in traditional colors (purple, blue, red, and gold) to build a sense of unity and anticipation.  We would focus on the expectation of the arrival of our Savior, think on what His arrival meant to us collectively and individually, and look forward to His return.

In a stunning irony, the plan was shut down because, apparently, asking men to wear colored shirts to church is "too traditional1."

Coming up with the idea has been hugely beneficial to me personally, however.  I got to ponder the following scriptures in the context of the coming of the Savior:


  • Isaiah 64:19
  • Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
  • 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
  • Isaiah 40:1-11
  • Psalm 85:12, 8-13
  • 2 Peter 3:8-15
  • Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
  • Psalm 126
  • John 1:6-8, 19-28
  • Luke 1:26-38


This Advent focus on Christmas has really enriched my understanding of the Christmas season. Advent is a time of anticipation. It's a time where we can put ourselves in the mindset of those who were waiting for the Savior to come; of those who were looking forward to being saved. And I was able to ask, "what do I expect he will save me from?"  

As I thought about this question, and I'm still not sure I have a good answer to it, I ran into a few conversations that discussed the state of "the World2." More specifically, about how the world was going to hell in a handbasket and that we would need Christ to return to earth to save us from all this wickedness. "We are seeing the signs of the times!" goes the refrain. The phrase that hit me like a ton of bricks was "[in that day] the love of men shall wax cold" (D&C 45:27).

What really struck me, though, were the examples that were cast about as illustrations of the World's wicked state.

President Obama's executive action on immigration, for instance, was used as an example. Apparently, we need Christ to come redeem the earth from the tyrannical impact of immigration reform. The outrage seemed to be split between the gall of the executive action itself and the idea of permitting anyone a path to citizenship after coming illegally3. And as I listened to these comments, I couldn't help but notice just how wrong-headed Americans (Mormons and non-Mormon alike) are about this issue. For the die hard conservatives, let me just point out that building a wall and mass deportation are idiotic ideas. For the die hard liberals, let me point out the all-out amnesty is an idiotic idea. In fact, every immigration reform idea I've heard in the past year is idiotic. Because not one of them deals with the problem.

We talk about immigration like it's a burden on us poor, victimized Americans. Many in the church talk about the imperative to obey, honor, and sustain the law (Article of Faith 12). I agree that we should obey the law. But when push comes to shove, there is no wall I won't scale, no border I won't cross, and no law I won't break if it means feeding and clothing my children. I'd go to hell and back--or even just take the one way train to hell--to prevent their suffering. Why would I expect Central and South Americans to behave any differently?


That is to say that our immigration problem doesn't reside in the US. It resides in poverty and corruption stricken countries. It resides in those areas of the world where there is so little hope and opportunity, that people will risk everything to escape to the US where they might live "comfortably" on a minimum wage (or less) job. The solution to our immigration problem isn't more bureaucracy; it's relief from poverty. But we seem to be too self-absorbed in "American Exceptionalism4" to grasp that.

In that day, the love of men shall wax cold.


In the past weeks, I've listened to a number of Mormons complain about the racial divisions being promoted by those protesting the results of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths. "These people were criminals!" they say, and it is a vindictive racial political machine that is turning this into an issue for the sake of money and power. Some of that may be true. Objectively speaking, in the case of Michael Brown, perhaps he wasn't the best poster child for racial tensions in the USA. But it's an incredible leap of hubris to say that there aren't deeply seated racial issues at play here. And it takes either ignorance or malice to claim that the rage that is boiling over is the result of pure opportunistic money grabbing and not decades of abuses and frustrations.

I live in a ward with African American members who personally witnessed crosses burning and klansmen riding. They remember the fear and intimidation that was used as a weapon to gain their submission, and they remember the government and law enforcement institutions that looked the other way. This is recent history! and the scars have not had time to heal, nor have the after effects been resolved. But we seem to be too self-absorbed in our post-racial America to believe it.

In that day, the love of men shall wax cold.

Over the years I've been in my congregation, I can't remember how many times I've heard someone say, "I can't wait until the day that we have a temple in Kirtland." Kirtland, for those of you who aren't familiar with the geography of northeast Ohio, is about a 30 minute drive out of the city of Cleveland. It is an affluent city with no major public transportation lines. A temple in that area would be great...for people with cars; for people with good, stable jobs; for people with money. A temple in Kirtland is no more accessible to the poor and those desperately in need of the Temple's blessings than the temple in Columbus (2.5 hours drive away). But a temple on a major public transportation line in Cleveland would be too ugly a location in "a bad neighborhood." It would be beneath the sensibilities of the privileged, affluent Mormon to go to such a location to worship.

In that day, the love of men shall wax cold.

And now, all of a sudden, I'm wondering if we have this whole Second Coming thing right. I'm pretty sure we don't, as a matter of fact. Sure, I have no doubt that "the World" could turn so wicked that Christ has to come back to save us from tearing the Earth to pieces. But I don't think that will be a happy day.

As I've pondered the arrival of the Savior this Advent, I've made the connection that so many people at the time were looking forward to the Savior's arrival to rescue them from political entrapment; to save them from the Romans; to establish them as a free nation again. They were looking for a Savior to save them from "The World."

But Christ didn't save them from the World. Christ chastised the religious developments and the zealotry. He completely upended the religious institution. He effectively said, "You screwed up my Church, and I'm here to fix it."

If the world gets so bad that Christ has to come back to save us from it, I expect he'll greet us with the loving chastisement of, "Wow, you guys really screwed this up."

But I think there's another way. I'm not convinced any longer that the World devolving into wickedness is a prophecy that must come true. Instead, we were given the promise that if it did come to that, Christ would rescue us. But I don't believe that he has to rescue us.

What if we could change the story? Could we take seriously the words of Isaiah:
Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness, those that remember thee in thy ways (Isaiah 64:5)
What if we were to change the way we think, and how we approach our problems?  What if we were to try to think outside ourselves more and develop the kind of knowledge and understanding of each other that would build bridges and solve difficult problems?

I believe that we could build a world that is so righteous that Christ will return not to save us from wickedness, but to celebrate our righteousness.  I believe that we can build a world that would be so pleasing to the Savior that he would meet us and celebrate with us.

But to do so, we have to stop looking to be saved from the external. We have to stop seeing the problem as The World and start seeing the problem as Ourselves.   We must not let our love wax cold, but set it afire with the flames of empathy, compassion, and cooperation.

I posed the question earlier, "what do I want the Savior to save me from?"  And I said earlier that I didn't quite know how to answer that.  I think now I do.  I want the Savior to rescue me from selfishness, from greed, and from my own predjudices.  And it's a good thing we believe in an infinite Atonement, because it might take every bit of infinity for the Savior to rescue me from myself.





1 There is a long cultural tradition of men wearing white shirts to church, much like Mormon missionaries. This tradition is so engrained that some call the white shirt, tie, and suit coat the "uniform of the priesthood." (gag)
2 For Mormons, the World is pretty much anything not Mormon and is typically used as a pseudonym for anything perceived to be uninspired or ungodly. Like celebrating Advent.
3 The Church's official stance on immigration policy is actually quite moderate and admirable. But it's a position that seems to be lost on many individual Mormons.
4 If ever I've heard a vomit inducing phrase, that would be it. How about "Human exceptionalism?" But even that is sullied by human depravity. But I digress.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The First Time in Ten Years

Playing football on Thanksgiving morning is a tradition I've enjoyed every year since 2003. No matter where I've been, I have sought out or organized a football game. I have played in rain, snow, mud, and ice. Every time I've come home with a massive headache, extreme soreness, and fatigued enough to require a nap.  I've loved it (although Janelle is generally less enthused by the time I spend napping instead of helping prepare the house for company).

It won't happen this year, though. My streak is over.  There is a game happening. I just won't go.

I'm not going because the email invitation sent to my congregation's men's group read, "Be there... or consider attending the relief society [the women's group] next Sunday."

I'm not going because the use of this stereotype is inappropriate and offensive.

Don't get me wrong--my feelings aren't particularly hurt. I'm not having a tantrum about this. But I don't feel it would be right to quietly boycott the game.

So let me tell you a little about me and explain how I came to learn why this stereotype is offensive.

I have a long history of making sexist jokes. It's a miracle my high school advisor never slapped me. I used to making all sorts of chauvinist remarks just to get a reaction out of her. Ms. Stanton was wise enough never to give me a reaction and I justified my attempts at humor by saying that it was obvious I didn't believe what I was saying.

Part of me wishes Ms Stanton had called me on it and taught me why I was in the wrong (the other part if me thinks she might have known me well enough to know that I was too arrogant to be taught at the time). But what I did was shameful, because I was inflicting pain on someone for my own enjoyment.  Even if she knew that I didn't believe what I was saying, it is wrong to toy with someone's emotions like that. It is wholly inexcusable.

I see the same action in the wording of the football invitation; I don't believe there is any malice behind the joke. I don't believe that the person who said it believes the stereotype.  And that's precisely why we need to stop using these stereotypes as comic material.

It is never funny to imply that women are frail just because they are women. It is never funny to imply that men aren't tough because they don't desire to participate in a ritual of aggression or competition.  It is never amusing to suggest that any person should participate in any activity for any reason other than they want to, are interested, and their company is desirable.

And if we don't believe these stereotypes that we use for humor, then it is imperative that we stop perpetuating them. Stereotypes will never, ever die so long as we continue to repeat them. This is true regardless of what we believe about their validity.

So for the live of all that is holy, stop repeating them. Stop thinking them. Stop laughing about them.

And for the record, even if I did play football tomorrow, I would love to attend the women's meeting on Sunday. Show me a men's group that is more friendly to sharing our deepest emotions; show me a men's group that will cry with me, laugh with me, hear my goals and ambitions, and stand by me even in disagreement; show me a men's group that is a little more like the women's groups you mock and dammit! That's the men's group I want to attend.

So, I will proudly say that I will not be playing football with my men's group tomorrow. I'll stay home and do something that doesn't imply any person should fit into any box not of their choosing.

And if there are any women reading this who enjoy playing football, please go to Laurel School on Thanksgiving at 8:30 AM and knock a few guys on their asses.  And if they say anything about playing soft against the woman, knock them on their asses again. Keep doing it until they knock you on your ass. Maybe then they'll start to understand.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Those Things I Don't Believe

As you may have noticed, I'm an evidence-based kind of guy. I like data, and I like a well reasoned and justifiable logic. This is certainly influenced by my professional career, but I like to think that it confirms well to the whole gentleness, meekness, and persuasion thing (would you like fries with your justification?)

One of the benefits of being so evidence-based is that it is relatively easy for me to realign my beliefs when presented with new and better evidence (the 'better' qualification is a crucial element).  If you provide me with better evidence, I'll respond with better beliefs. 

It was the process of gaining more evidence that led me to abandon my belief in a worldwide flood. There were just too many holes in the story. Too many reasons it couldn't be true and not enough reasons it could. I found that as I asked questions about the flood--how could there be enough water to 'baptize the earth?'; wouldn't the elevation change cause asphyxiation?--the apologists' answers became more and more implausible.

Evolution was another issue that gradually grew on me.  First, I was a pure creationist, then I bought into the six creative periods. Next it was some conglomeration of creationism and evolution (probably not unlike Intelligent Design) and finally settled on evolution. At  this point, I'm a fairly strict evolutionist. 

The implications of these modified beliefs are, I imagine, exactly like what strict biblical interpretationists feared about evolution. Evolution has crushed my confidence in certain beliefs that are widely accepted as simple fact in orthodox Christianity and/or Mormonism.

Let me list a few. 

First, I don't believe Adam and Eve actually existed. At least not as we envision them in our canon. I don't believe in the first-humans-ever-and-distinct-parents-of-the-human-race mythology.  Rather, I suspect the man we know as Adam was the first man God chose to be a prophet. And he was likely chosen at a time when God observed the evolution of a species capable of the moral reasoning on which agency is based.

Things snowball from there. Reject the Adam-as-first-man philosophy brings into question numerous other beliefs. And so I find it unlikely that Eve was formed from a rib; or that the Garden of Eden was on the American continent (or that it even existed, for that matter).

It seems so much more plausible to me that Adam and Eve were the first leaders chosen to establish gospel teaching. That they did so at the very earliest stages of Humanity's development, and that the Flood was a literary device to bridge the gap between oral and written history. It seems more plausible that Moses (and the actual biblical authors) used the common creation myths of the day to convey eternal principles.

This has added a subtle new dimension to how I think about some things. Not too long ago, I came across an online discussion about Eve's motivations for taking the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. I can't really comment on Eve's motivations because I don't believe there was an actual Tree or actual Fruit. I think the more relevant question is, what were the motivations of the person who wrote the allegory in designating Eve as the first to partake? (And that is a separate entry entirely).

I suspect that I will get a certain amount of pushback about rejecting the Adam and Eve story. The Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement are crucial aspects of the Mormon narrative. I suppose the argument goes that if there is no Adam and Eve, the there is no Fall. And if there is no Fall, there is no Atonement. But I don't think that's true.  If the Creation story of Genesis is an allegory--a teaching device--and we acknowledge a loss of information between oral and written histories, then it seems perfectly plausible to conclude that the Fall--being the representation of when Man became accountable for their sins--happened in some other and probably boring way (the same boring way children become accountable?)

It's also possible I'm completely wrong about all of this. Which is fine. I don't particularly care if Adam and Eve were a real thing or not (so why write all this, you ask?  I was bored and cranky).

So let me wrap up with those things I do believe.  I believe that God recognized that we wouldn't be able to live up to His strict and perfect expectations.  I believe that God had the wisdom to comprehend the competing needs of justice and mercy.  And I believe, in His eternal pragmatism, He provided a Savior that could balance those competing needs.  Most importantly, I believe that even with zero understanding of how God established His presence among humanity, those things I do believe are far more valuable than those things I don't.