Thursday, April 27, 2017

On Conversations about Faith Crisis

I think a lot of us struggle with how to converse about our journey amid faith crisis with our traditional believing LDS family, friends, and church leaders.  Often, traditional believers want us simply to come back to traditional belief and set aside our doubts -- to "doubt our doubts" and retrench into reading, praying, and attending -- and all will be well.

Oh, if it were only that easy!

In contrast, when we come to realize that the dominant narrative of our whitewashed history and "the prophets cannot lead the church astray" is not true, then we feel compelled to share our perspective with our traditional believing friends and leaders, in a hope that they'll understand why we are having such challenges.

And the moment we open our mouths to question the dominant narrative, they stop listening, and we've gone into a different kind of relationship -- one where we hide our true feelings, "tolerate" each other, or simply part ways.

Is there a way through this impasse?

I believe there is a Middle Way through this -- a way of conversing about our faith journey in a way that helps our traditional believing friends understand us better, and helps us feel more inclusive and included with them.

Empathy requires us to put ourselves into the position of the other, to feel what they feel, to look back at ourselves through their eyes.  It's obviously a mutual process, but we cannot ask others to be empathetic.  We must learn to speak in a way that they understand.  We need to use the language of faithful Mormonism to express our journey as "part of" a faithful Mormon journey, rather than a "transition away" from true belief.

How do we do this?  How do we *honestly* talk about "faith crisis" while using terms, concepts, and language of Mormon faith?

I believe that the doctrines of our church have the answer to solve this riddle.  I do not believe we will get anywhere with using the framework of "faith transition" as a descriptor of what is going on.  Instead, I would like to frame the discussion in terms that the most faithful LDS not only would accept, but would embrace fully.  And the way to do this is to frame what is going on in terms of core doctrine and scripture.

What is the purpose of life according to LDS doctrine?  We often say that this mortality is a test, where we will be "proven herewith".  When we view that test in terms of a "final exam" -- a "judgment" -- it puts all of us into the form of judging ourselves and others as being "unworthy".  But when I studied the concept of the Trial of Faith in depth years ago, I discovered that the "trial of faith" is not a "test" in the way that we use the term.  The Trial of Faith -- the entire purpose of this life -- is *refinement": We are to be made pure by refining the gold within us: our divine nature.

So the first thing I would do is frame "faith crisis" as "trial of faith": we are going through an essential process that will bring us closer to god.  It's not a test, it's part of God's plan for us.

Second, I would try to make clear that the trial of faith is not successful if we revert to our old ways of thinking.  Again, Mormon Doctrine comes into play here: we are on a path of eternal progression -- we learn, line upon line, and precept upon precept, to come closer to god and understand the principles of the gospel.  As we go through our trial of faith, we will discover things that no longer serve us: teachings that while may be useful for us initially, have no longer served their purpose.

I would bring up at this point the entire blacks-and-the-priesthood thing.  Before 1978, many people in the church felt that this was God's plan, and framed the inequity as being a deserved, chosen position from the premortal existence.  Bruce R McConkie was a primary proponent of such thinking, yet when the revelation came out in 1978, McConkie recognized that they all spoke from limited understanding.  Perhaps the entire blacks-and-the-priesthood was a kind of trial of faith for the whole church -- the outcome of which was not to harden our position, but rather, to seek revelation from god, and when the church was ready for it, it received it.

Third, we need to understand, fully, that our purpose in this life is not a test of obedience, but rather, to learn through our own experience to distinguish good and evil.  The Garden of Eden narrative in the temple is case in point.  Unlike other Christians, we celebrate Eve's decision to partake of the fruit to make progress happen.  Without it, they would never have progressed. But it's important to recognize that "be fruitful and multiple" and "don't partake of the fruit" ended up being an impossible situation to obey both.  So Adam and Eve counseled together in their trial of faith, and made the best choice they could.  In so doing, they learned through their own experience to distinguish good and evil, and were stronger because of it.

We need to resist the urge to judge others on their choices amid their "trial of faith".  Some of us will leave the "Garden of Eden" of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Some of us will refuse to partake of the dogma of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (aka, "correlated doctrine").  These are all very tough choices to make.  If we stand by our doctrine that free-agency is the very essence of our humanity, we need to realize that each one of us is faced with choices, and one size -- or one choice -- does not work for everyone.

And lastly, I think we need to teach the principle of Love as the Connecting Principle of the Atonement.  We need to embrace the diversity of our culture rather than force conformity.  Heavenly Father has given us differing gifts -- this is in our scripture and doctrine -- and we need to embrace love for one another -- active, practical, practicing love for one another -- as the core of LDS doctrine.  This means that we lift each other's burdens, mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those standing in need of comfort.  Love never fails -- our Relief Society motto.  When we embrace god's unconditional (perfect - teleios) love (agape - the pure love of Christ), then we cannot exclude or excommunicate anyone for their lack of belief or for whom they choose to love.

So why bother with all this?

I truly believe that our "trial of faith" is more than a "faith crisis", and is definitely not a "faith transition" from one kind of faith to another.  If anything, the refinement of our faith is part of our "Plan of Salvation", of eternal progression, where we are not static beings, but those embracing higher principles as we grow on this journey of eternal life.

We have not lost our faith.  Instead, our faith is being refined -- we are growing closer to a personal relationship with god, while setting aside those things which no longer serve us.  This is a cause for celebration, not pride or arrogance, but of deep gratitude for this amazing journey.

Not everyone is at the same point in this journey.  As we embrace a more inclusive faith, we need to as well, include our traditional believing LDS brothers and sisters as neither against our journey, nor inferior to our place on the journey.  We need to find that which is in common, and realize that in loving and serving one another, we can grow together.

When we speak in supportive love to our friends, family, and leaders, we can grow together in that Love.  We need to set aside our own angst and language of faith transition, crisis, and nuance, but rather, share values through our common Mormon language and doctrine.  Then, and only then, will we change hearts and minds: both ours and theirs.

And we then can become One.

Monday, April 24, 2017

On Being Pro-Choice

I remember distinctly, years ago, when my very good conservative friend asked me what my position was on abortion.  At that time, oh, some thirty years ago, I did not have an opinion.  He was shocked.

So I went on a quest to figure out what I really believed.  At first, like many other republicans at the
time (yes, in those days I was a reliable republican), I was utterly horrified at the tragedy of abortion. But I also worked with a woman who had had one -- and to her, it was truly one of the hardest and most soul-searching moments in her life.  This made the issue very real to me.

I realized, from the woman I worked with, that there was a personal element. When a woman doesn't choose to become pregnant, I hardly thought it fair to require her to carry the child of her rapist -- she didn't have a choice, and yet such an ordeal would have life-long implications. Likewise, cases of incest, and the health of mother or child -- all seem to indicate that there are some cases where abortion can be justified. I landed on a position: that abortion should be allowed in the cases of rape, incest, and health of the mother or fetus.

Perhaps not coincidentally, my personal position landed exactly on the same position held by the LDS church.  I hope this wasn't confirmation bias, but it seemed reasonable.

But then, I had to also realize, "Who decides?"  And in considering this, even if I am personally opposed to abortion on demand or for convenience, I realized that this choice is not mine to make -- it's entirely in the hands of the one person who must make that choice: the woman.

I choose, therefore, to be firmly "pro-choice".  I see this position is fundamental to our values as Americans and critical to my personal faith.

Here is my journey through this issue:

The "pro-choice" position is not "pro-abortion". Can I be "pro-choice" and be against abortion "on demand"? Of course. The motivation behind "pro-choice" is to enable people to make their own choices as to what will happen with their own bodies. So pro-choice is about the freedom for women to choose what they can do over their bodies without religious or state intervention.

And yes, as long as a fetus is dependent upon a woman's body, then her choice matters, completely.

As Mormons, we should have a more enlightened position on this issue, and if we understand our own doctrine, we should be pro-choice. We do believe, firmly, that we should have our agency to choose, so the very nature of the "pro-choice" decision is in harmony with our core doctrines.  But it's not just about being Mormon here -- it's a fundamental issue that goes deep to religious belief and why such "choice" should be taken out of the hands of the State, for the "pro-life" position establishes one religious interpretation over another, and thus violates the First Amendment establishment clause.

The LDS Church has a position on abortion, that in the cases of rape, incest, and the *health* of the mother and fetus, abortion is allowed (the leadership would prefer to have the woman and man counsel with the Bishop in these cases). No woman should be forced to carry the offspring of her rapist, or of an abusive, incestuous man. No woman should be forced to sacrifice her life to preserve a fetus. There are also cases where the fetus is so non-viable that its death in utero would cause serious health risks.

We may say that such cases are rare, but there are enough of them to justify consideration of them in enforcing "pro-life" laws. Who arbitrates such things? How do you define "rape"? If a husband rapes his wife, should she have to accuse him of rape before the law before she has an abortion? What if she is dependent upon him for income?

These issues are thorny at best, and the law is a very blunt instrument to determine what a woman can do with her own body.

But there is much more here. We may say that the scriptures say, "Thou shalt not kill". Yet, what in scripture defines life? What constitutes a "life" in the law? In scripture, "life" was equated with "ruach" in Hebrew, "pneuma" in Greek, and "spiritus" in Latin -- all having the same meaning: "breath". In other words, a "life" according to the scriptures always began at birth's first "breath" and not before. (Evangelicals will raise the "before thou was formed in the womb" in Jeremiah, and the how the fetus of John the Baptist leaped in Elisabeth's womb; but these cases are ambiguous at best as to when life starts -- more on this later).

The Torah is even more specific on this. In Exodus 21:22-25, we read:
"If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."
This is the ONLY instance in scripture that refers to a woman losing her fetus: "so that her fruit depart from her" explicitly means the loss and death of the fetus. The consequence was that the man who caused the injury would pay the husband for the inconvenient loss of a potential offspring. That's it. But if an mischief follow -- that is, if the woman is then killed, then the person as then -- and ONLY then -- committed murder.

So where did this idea that abortion is wrong come from?

In Rabbinical Judaism, the Talmudic scholars postulated that life probably started before birth -- after all, a woman feels life in her womb during the second trimester, as the fetus' nervous system is beginning to operate. So, to prevent any possibility of violating the law, the Rabbinical approach was to build a fence around the law -- make it impossible to violate the law -- by restricting abortion.

Catholicism went further. To Catholics -- and hence, all protestants, the human soul does not exist before conception -- they have no belief in pre-mortal existence of humans. Thus, when a child is conceived, then a "new life" has begun to form -- one with an immortal soul. So, the logic goes, if you terminate a pregnancy, you are killing an immortal soul created by god.

This brings us to the real reason abortion is an issue in politics today. As part of the "Southern Strategy" to push Catholics and socially aware evangelicals toward the Republican party, the minds behind the Nixon and Reagan machines decided to make abortion a party issue. It was brilliant -- it forced most Catholics to move from being very socially liberal democrats to one-issue Republicans. We need to call this issue for what it is, and what Hugh Nibley called it: A Decoy.

But back to the doctrines about abortion. Mormons do not share these Jewish and Christian beliefs as to when the human soul begins. Mormons believe that the human spirit is co-eternal with god and exists before this life. Moreover, the spirit fully enters the body only at birth -- although you won't find this explicitly stated. The evidence for this is (1) that Jesus Christ visited the Nephites and Lamanites on the night before his birth, just hours or minutes before he was born over in the Jerusalem area, some nine hours ahead of the New World. (2) Temple work is never performed for still-born children. While there is no doubt that parents feel the loss of their still-born child, the church does not actually do ordinance work for them. Again, these aren't widely talked about things, but they are inherent to the doctrine.

Thus, whenever we get into a discussion as to whether abortion should be allowed or prohibited, the question comes into whether we are establishing a religion here. To prevent abortion is to establish one religious view over another. To support choice is to say that if your religion says that abortion is evil, then by all means, don't have an abortion. Pro-choice is the only acceptable alternative that separates church and state and allows us to freely exercise our religion according to the dictates of our own conscience for ourselves. We should NEVER have the right to force our religious views on others.

So as a Mormon and an American, I firmly believe that "pro-choice" is more than just a pro-abortion/anti-abortion issue. It's fundamental to the core principles of our democracy.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Does the War Go On?

In the Mormon Church's April 2017 Ensign Magazine, Elder Larry Lawrence of the Seventy wrote an article entitled, "The War Goes On".

I believe it is patently harmful to continue the drumbeat of Mormons against the world.  It's not only a tired, trite message, but it's really harmful.  In this article, Elder Lawrence instills fear and loathing of the world and its evil influences, stemming from his view that the "War in Heaven" continues in this world.

It's truly an awful article.  Rather than linking to it, you can search on the LDS website for it. One friend told me that his Bishop, upon reading the article, feels that it is essential doctrine, and has scheduled a special meeting to cover it.  If I were to attend such a meeting, here is what I would have in my pocket as discussion points:

Elder Lawrence said, "Satan’s strategy was to frighten people. He knew that fear is the best way to destroy faith."

I think we should agree with this statement.  Indeed, fear of others, and of the "world" is indeed what causes "faith", i.e. trust, to be destroyed.

Question to consider:
  • Does the war-time metaphor we use in our discussion of Us vs The World instill love or fear in us?  
  • When Jesus counseled us to love our enemies, can we be justified in condemning others?
Elder Lawrence asked, "How could a spirit with so much knowledge and experience fall so far? It was because of his pride...he wanted God's kingdom for himself."

Again, we can agree with this statement.  Whenever we set ourselves up as above others, and exclusive in our "kingdom", we are becoming like the Zoramites -- prideful in our exclusiveness, prideful in our repeated "testimonies", prideful in our condemnation of those who are not like us.

Question to consider:
  • When President Benson taught that Lucifer "wished to be honored above others", in what way does this apply to us?  
Elder Lawrence asks, "Why did you and I fight against the devil?"

Questions to consider:
  • Is there any evidence in scripture that we fought against Satan? or,
  • Is it more likely that we supported God's plan, and it was Satan who fought against us, in trying to bring us into bondage to fixed rules and regulations that guaranteed we could not make mistakes?
Elder Lawrence asks, "Why were Satan's hosts allowed to come to earth?" and is answers, "to provide opposition for those who are being tested here."  He then goes on for several paragraphs explaining how desperate Satan is to tempt and capture our souls.

Questions to consider:
  • Does teaching that Satan's hosts are here to provide opposition for us give us hope or does it instill fear in us? 
  • How does this teaching fit with Paul's explanation to Timothy (2 Tim 1:7) "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."?
Elder Lawrence teaches us that memorizing scripture is a way to resist temptation.

Question to consider:
  • When Elder Lawrence quotes "Love your enemies", in what way does this help us "resist Satan"?  
Elder Lawrence lays out his second strategy "Lies and Deception."

Questions to consider:
  • Does anyone actually say, "You need to try everything at least once -- just to gain experience. One time won't hurt you." Isn't this a bit of a strawman?  If we misrepresent what others say, are we being honest?
  • If the Church practices deception over its secret support of legislation, over the definition of marriage (our scriptures define marriage as one man and one or many women, see section 132), over historical and doctrinal issues in the past; and if Satan is the father of lies as Elder Lawrence says, then in what way is deception by the Church from god?
Elder Lawrence contends that "same sex marriage is only a counterfeit".

Questions to consider:
  • What is the celestial role of marriage?  In other words, what does "marriage" entitle us to have in the eternities?  (The answer is that marriage -- particularly, polygamous marriage -- is only necessary to enter the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, where people will be populating worlds without end).
  • If a person is lesbian or gay, and the counsel is that they are to remain celibate throughout their life, then how can they qualify for the "highest degree of the celestial kingdom", not having been married in this life?
  • If God's perspective in the Garden of Eden is it is not good for man to be alone, then how does the current church counsel justify condemning a gay or lesbian person to live alone for their entire life, unable to have a relationship with someone they love?
Elder Lawrence condemns "counterfeits" with D&C 50:23: "That which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness."

Indeed, LDS policy on condemning same sex marriages is indeed darkness.  It has caused a dramatic increase in suicides and attempted suicides in Mormon-dominated areas.  This is demonstrated by the data, since 2008, suicides among affected populations have tripled.  This isn't just about altitude, for there has been no change in altitude in Utah since 2008.

Question to consider:
  • In what way does the LDS policy declaring loving same sex married people apostates edify anyone?
Elder Lawrence condemns contention in the Church.

Question to consider:
  • When we condemn others, labeling them our enemies and servants of Satan in a battle, are we being loving or contentious?
This is truly a bad article -- toxic in the extreme.  We need to stop these destructive war-metaphors in the church.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

An Easter Liturgy

I have always loved Easter, above all other holy-days of the year.  It’s a glorious moment in Christianity: Christ the Lord is risen today!  Hallelujah!

The dark clouds of despair have fled away.  The Spring morning breaks, the sky is clear, the sun rises in the East, and in this morning, we embrace New Life as the Christ becomes immensely real to us.  The first Followers of the Way – as Christ’s disciples were first called – declared to each other in greeting: “He is Risen”; and the response: “Risen indeed”.

I love the Easter narratives in Scripture. The gentle intimacy of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Christ.  The appearance with the Apostles.  The appearance to the two wayfarers on the road to Damascus.  We celebrate these stories as we embrace the singular idea that "He is Risen".

Risen indeed.  What does that mean?

I believe there is some very important dimensions in the simple interaction, “He is Risen” and “Risen indeed”.

I ask myself a question: What does the idea that Christ rose from the dead mean to me?

For Mormons, we embrace the idea that Jesus physically rose from the dead, with an immortal exalted body, as the first-fruits of all others who will be resurrected physically in the future.  Our scriptures proclaim that body and spirit, inseparably connected, achieve a fullness of joy.  Yet for me, this promise of future physical life after death is so remote, so far off in the future, I struggle with how it changes my life here and now.  If I embrace the connecting principle of Love in the Atonement, does it really matter what kind of “reward” I’ll receive in the future?  I think not.  I hope that we aren’t so “carrot” motivated that we love others because we expect a future award.   Love should be its own reward – Love seeketh not its own.

A second dimension is that because Christ rose from the dead, he lives.  This is very real to me.   I was once in the depths of addiction, mainly because of the guilt I felt.  I could never drink moderately, because I felt that I had already sinned, so I might as well enjoy it. It became an obsession -- i simply could not stop. I went into AA, because frankly, all church repentance processes, including going to bishop after bishop, failed to work. At the point that I 'turned my will and my life over' to a higher power, whom I felt was 'Christ', I had a complete removal of even the desire to drink at all. ever.  In a moment of clarity, I came to know that for me Jesus lives, and is tangibly real.  I did not have to go through a period of "repentance" and proving myself worthy.  At that moment, and so many times thereafter, I came to the deep realization that atonement of Jesus Christ is absolutely real and tangible. I attribute this personal miracle to Christ. While this release from addiction could have been a result of releasing myself from church-imposed guilt, I don't know, nor do I care. The personal, spiritual experience I had from this release was very tangible to me.

But I have to say, that the personal witness of Christ I received had absolutely nothing to do with Christ having a physical body.  In Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he expresses how Christ physical body died, but rose spiritually. On the Road to Damascus, Paul met the Christ, spiritually.  Many of us have had a spiritual experience with Christ – these witness of a living presence, but do not provide evidence of a physical body, nor is the physical body necessary.

So I’m still at the point that I don’t know what “He is risen” means, as it applies to “the flesh”.

I find an answer as Paul poses an interesting question to the Colossians: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.”  The term “ye be risen” here is important: “συνηγέρθητε”/synigerthite, is in the aorist passive indicative second person plural tense, meaning that the act of being risen has already happened and applies to all time, present, past, and future.  English doesn’t have this tense, so we cannot fully grasp the significance of the term. We misinterpret the term to apply to the future – when we WILL BE risen; and that is not what Paul meant.  He meant that we have already been risen with Christ.

My thinking pauses for a moment as I contemplate this.  Have I been risen with Christ? Have I had a mighty change of heart? Can I feel so now?   These are the questions that my Mormon self asks, and the answer comes in a still small voice – I have experienced his unconditional, undeserved love!  Christ transformed me from addict, from unworthiness, from self-loathing, to becoming alive and free from such addiction, unworthiness, and self-loathing.  I cannot say that it is a permanent state of mind, but I certainly have tasted of the Love of God, and while I struggle to keep that feeling, Jesus words in the upper room come back to my mind:

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.  And whither I go ye know, and the Way ye know.” (John 14:3-4)

And that Way, is connecting in love, one to another.

On the very first day of this faith journey, I went to an AA shelter, and an old man, barely coherent, looked at me and told me exactly what I needed to know.   The details aren’t important, but a week later, everything he said would happen, happened while I was on a trip – I had received the help I needed from the Lord, and felt unconditional, unmerited Love.  When I returned from the trip, I was told the old man was now in a hospice dying of brain cancer, that he had been completely senile for some time.  In other words, a senile, incoherent ex-alcoholic was god’s messenger to me. Go figure.

A few weeks later, as I was trying to walk this new journey in the Spirit, I had a distinct feeling that Jesus wanted to visit with me that day.  It was cold, a little icy, and I decided to take the back roads rather than the interstate.  As I began to drive to work, the thought came to me again, that Jesus would ride with me, so I cleared the junk off the passenger seat.  I felt a little silly, to be sure.  Then in my mind, I saw Jesus under a bridge, with two arches.  Later, as I turned onto Route 1, driving along, I saw a hitchhiker under a railroad trestle.  I don’t pick up hitchhikers, so I passed him by.

Then, I thought about the two wayfarers on the Road to Damascus.  I turned around – and on Route 1, this is dangerous, and a little stupid. I came back picked up my hitchhiker.  We rode for a while, and I kept trying to engage him in question – seeking to find the Savior’s voice. And, well, nothing.  He just was a hitchhiker trying to get a ride on a cold morning.

Talking to my AA sponsor, later, he asked me, “What’s your problem, one of God’s children needed a ride, and you gave it to him.”

Why is it that we Mormons are so caught up on our eventual great reward in the heavens as resurrected, exalted beings, that we often forget to see how we are to be gods to each other here, now, and in this life.   Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40).

I confess I do not know if Jesus rose again in HIS flesh, but I have come to confess that Jesus is Risen, Risen Indeed in MY flesh, when I love you, and in YOUR flesh, when you love me.  Inconsistent beings, we are for sure, but in the moment we love, the connecting power of the Atonement becomes infinitely real.

So today, in love, I embrace the Easter Liturgy:

He is Risen!  Risen Indeed!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Liturgy on the Spirit World and Beyond

As I passed my local Catholic Church this morning, I noticed the parking lot is empty, for the first time this week.  All other days during Holy Week, Christianity celebrates pivotal events in the Passion of Christ.  Yet today, Saturday, there are no masses, no services, no formal, institutional worship of god.

God has died.


I was prepared, in contrast, to seek from our LDS scriptures, a point of view on the Spirit World that doesn’t view this time between the Crucifixion and Resurrection in such bleak terms, that Christ died and ascended instead to a glorious spirit world.  I opened up to Doctrine and Covenants, Section 138, highlighting Joseph F. Smiths dream-vision of the afterlife.  He starts with his contemplation of 1 Peter chapters 3 and 4, quoting:
“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.”
(1 Peter 3:18–20)
“For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.”
(1 Peter 4:6)
Then, Joseph F. Smith sees in vision, an “innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faith in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality…they were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand…There Jesus preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection, and redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance.  But to the wicked he did not go, and among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh, his voice was not raised.”

As I read President Smith’s words, my heart sank.  The Jesus I have come to know visited me in my unworthiness, when I was in the midst of addiction and self-condemnation.  The Jesus I have read about in the Gospels communed with publicans and sinners – the “unjust”, not with those who were the “just”.  The Christ who met with his disciples washed the feet of all of God’s children, even he who would betray him.  The Christ who gave his last commandment, his New Commandment, told us to love one another, as he has loved us, that is, unconditionally.  And when Christ was crucified, he proclaimed, “tetelestai” – “It is completed”, meaning, that the connection of love between heaven and earth, between saint and sinner, between us and all that is, is now complete, whole, and unconditional.


To be honest, I’m struggling with the contradiction between President Smith’s exclusive vision of the paradise of the holy versus the prison of the sinners.  I struggle, because I wonder, “where is the dividing line between saint and sinner?”  Is there really an “us” versus “them” in the eternities?

The thought makes reason stare.

I truly think there are some wonderful ideas in Mormon thought, but the hard-line dualism between us and the rest of the world is not one of them.  It’s not loving.  It’s not edifying.  And to me, those two failings of this theology – this specific dualism – witnesses that it isn’t of god.  God is Love, universal, absolute, unconditional love.  Yes, if we Love him in return, we WILL keep his commandments, and which commandments?  We will love one another as Jesus and God have loved us.

And again, to be honest, I do not know that there is an afterlife.  Yet, there are a large number of anecdotal stories of near death experiences that give me pause – there are enough hints that keep my faith in our afterlife story alive in me.

One of the most common experiences in these near death experiences, completely uncorrelated with what kind of life one has lived before, is that in entering into the next life, three things happen:

1. We are greeted in unconditional love and kindness.
2. We see, in perspective, the events of our life, and feeling sorrow for our fears and lack of love,
3. We are motivated to be more loving, inclusive, and kind to all.

I sense that these perspectives are largely formed by our cultural biases, but that may well be the skeptic in me.  Yet what I hear from these near death experiences – almost all of them – is that the next life is characterized by unconditional love.

Nearly thirteen years ago, my mother passed away.  It was a tough two years before she died; she was in chronic pain, had become addicted to opiates, and had developed multiple infarct dementia.  Coherent conversation ended perhaps six months before she died, and for the last several months, she couldn’t speak.  Yet, on Mother’s Day, 2004, one week before she died, she told me, in clear voice, “I love you, Mark.  I love you, Mark”.

A few weeks later, we had a family wedding of one of my nieces in the St. George Temple.  The sealing room was so packed we had to sit three people to every two chairs.  For whatever reason, at the last minute, the chair one seat away from my niece vacated.  This is where my mother would have sat were she alive for this event.  I checked – it wasn’t intentional, yet in my heart, I knew that she was there, for she loved this niece and had felt a special connection with her.

To this day, nearly thirteen years later, I miss my mother with all my heart.  Do I know that I will be with her in the eternities?  No, I don’t know.  But I hope, I have faith, that God is loving beyond all that I can possibly imagine, and in that Love, things will just work out.

So in this walk this week in Jesus’ last week of life, I walk into this spirit world.  I place myself today, not on the Cross, nor in the tomb, but walking into this spirit world.  Will this be a prison or paradise for me?  If I had to choose, based upon my own self-condemnation and hatred for the many stupid, selfish things I do, I pretty sure I with the sinners.

It’s a good thing Billy Joel is here as well (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

But I am wrong in this assessment.  Not the “sinner” part – that’s pretty clear.  But the prison, as it turns out, is in my mind – my self-defeating behaviors, my compulsions, where I exercise control, dominion, or compulsion over myself, or over others – these are the prisons of my mind.  Paradise is all around me, and I fail to see it.

But this I know.  In walking with Jesus in this Spirit World, I am walking with him in BOTH prison and paradise.  They are not separate places, but rather, separate states of mind – or better said, a “separated” state of mind.  Our dualistic thinking, our black-and white mentalities, our favoring of those like us and condemning of others – all things that separate ourselves – these are the prisons of our mind.  These are the Hell that we experience not just in the afterlife, but rather, they are a living hell, here and now: our fears, anxieties, hatreds, angers, contempts, and disgusts bind us with the chains of Hell.

And Jesus comes, to liberate the captives – us – from these bonds.  The Atonement is the connecting principle of Love that frees us from our self-defeating behaviors, for if we Love, our fears cannot paralyze us in anxiety, but rather, we act in love to overcome them.  Our angers will not morph into contempt and disgust, for we will seek loving answers one with another.  The Atonement – God’s unconditional love – marks the path and leads the way, and every point defines, to light and life, and endless day, where God’s full presence shines.

Where is this afterlife?  Where is this Spirit World?  In some of our theology, we presume that this Spirit World is not in some separate place in the sky, but around us.  This is a scary thought, in a way, thinking that all of our ancestors are watching us as we do embarrassing things… but this a literalized absurdity.  If we think of the Spirit World, not as "there", but *here*; if we think of Eternity not as "then", but *now*, a new perspective arises:

Life before death.

What if, to take the perspective of a near death experience, I think in terms of a “new life experience”?  What if, as I contemplate this Spirit World into which we have entered, I think in terms of what happens in a near death experience:

1. Can I seek for and find the unconditional love and kindness all around me?
2. Can I see, in perspective, the events of my life, and feeling sorrow for my fears and lack of love?
3. Can I be motivated to be more loving, inclusive, and kind to all?

As I have walked this week with you in the last steps of Jesus’ mortal ministry, I have come to realize that Love is the entire meaning of the Atonement.  Nothing else matters.  But love is not an abstract feeling, it finds in me, the need to see the love around me, assess whether I am being loving – not to condemn myself in shame, but rather, to find what I need to do better – and then, day by day, walk with you, sharing each other’s burdens, mourning together, and comforting each other.

And the Comforter comes, and abides, in this very moment.

The Spirit World is here, now, and forever.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Good Friday Liturgy

For most of Christianity, Good Friday is the holiest of days, more holy than Easter or Christmas – something I’ve never quite understood.  Even the name baffles me.  “Good”.  And then the symbol of the Cross --  I don’t think as Mormons, we have any real theology or symbolism in the Cross – in fact, I believe we shun it.

Perhaps there is a good reason to shun the Cross.  There is an aspect of this that it’s use in Roman times was as an instrument of torture and capital punishment.  Christ was not the only one crucified, but many were.  Over time, there seems to be no limit to who cruel people can treat others in the name of justice, and I wonder why anyone would use it as an affirming symbol.  Would we use a noose, guillotine, or electric chair as a symbol for something good?  I hardly think so.

I have long held this opinion, perhaps unkindly so.  When I was on my mission, having contracted Typhoid fever, I was rushed to a Catholic hospital, and feeling like I was about to die, asked that the symbol of a Cross be removed from the room.  As a rather self-righteous, unempathetic Mormon missionary, I failed to realize how offensive my request was.

Since those days of my youthful folly, I have come to realize the deep significance in the Cross as a symbol to so many Christians.  It is not just as a symbol of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ to atone for our sins, but for how the Cross represents the center of all that is – the nexus between heaven and earth, between life and death, between body and spirit.  In a deeply paradoxical way, the symbol of death becomes the center of life.

And Jesus knew this.  Deeply.  The beginning of the Passion narrative in John, starts: “Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world” (John 13:1).  While I suspect that he knew the forces of evil were marshalling against him – any revolutionary heretic would know this – there was something more in his prophecy.

He knew that he needed to die, but the reason he gave in John wasn’t to satisfy justice, to pay a ransom for guilt, or to be our substitute for the penalties we deserve.  He said, “But now I go my way to him that sent me; and … because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart.  Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” (John 16:5-7)

Thus, the reason Jesus died, according to his own words in John, was that we might have the Comforter abide with us.  Why was this the only way?  It seems incomprehensible to me.

Perhaps, if I stop trying to think this through, and put myself into the narrative through creatively contemplating what happened next, perhaps the answer is yet to come.

On Friday morning, the Sanhedrin convened a “Church Disciplinary Court” on Jesus of Nazareth.  This is not so hard to imagine for us today – it seems to happen often, when someone doesn’t quite fit into the norm of LDS rules.  Jesus’ encounter with the Sanhedrin sounds ominously familiar.  He stands alone, with the Council surrounding him as his accusers.  They try all sorts of charges against him, and finding nothing, they elicit a direct confession from him.  Indeed they ask, “Are you, then, the Son of God?”  Jesus answered, “I AM what [you say] I AM”.  Consider what he said.  The most sacred name, JHVH, means something like “I AM”, as revealed to Moses on the mount.  God said, “I AM that/what I AM” to Moses, and then said, “Go tell them that I AM (JHWH) sent you.”  To the Church leaders of the time, this was the highest form of blasphemy.

Was Jesus the Son of God?  Was he JHWH, the very God they worshiped from Abraham?  Jesus had said in John 9, “Before Abraham was, I AM”, again invoking the Sacred Name.  To the Jews and Christians alike, God is not a human being, so for a human to suggest that he is in any way “God”, is a profound blasphemy: it is taking the name of God in vain.  It is worshiping the creature rather than the creator.  God cannot be human, he is forever “the Other”, the “Numinous” – that which, being uncreated, is outside from us – wholly different.

Yet this man, this mortal being Jesus of Nazareth, proclaimed, “I AM”.   That was enough for them.  He was excommunicated on the spot, and would have been stoned to death if the Disciplinary Council weren’t subject to Roman rule.   So they sent Jesus off to Pilate.

Yet they had a problem: blasphemy is not a capital offense to Romans.  They make Emperors their god all the time, so the idea that a man could be god would be no big deal.  So, instead, they trumped up charges that Jesus made himself a King.  How Jesus and Pilate respond to this charge dominates the rest of the Passion narrative.  The Way in which Jesus Christ is King becomes the answer as to why Jesus had to die in order for us to live in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus and Pilate engage in a brief but deep philosophical discussion:

Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, “Art thou the King of the Jews?”
 Jesus answered him, “Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?”
Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.”
Pilate therefore said unto him, “Art thou a king then?”
Jesus answered, “[as] Thou sayest, I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”
Pilate saith unto him, “What is truth?”  And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all,”

Pilate’s reasoning was to determine if Jesus was a King in the sense of the world, and that such a King would constitute insurrection.  But instead, Jesus spoke of another kind of Kingdom, one inside each of us, as he had taught earlier, “the Kingdom of Heaven is within”.  It is a Kingdom where “I AM, the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, and as such, “Truth” is the essence.

Pilate understood completely. Asking, “What is Truth” without seeking an answer, he concludes, “I find no fault in him at all.”  and asks the Jews if he should release their King.  Their answer?  “We have no king but Caesar.

As I contemplate this scene, and all else that follows, the “crown” of thorns, the sign above his head, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, I begin to realize that Jesus Kingdom is not of this world, and may never be so in my lifetime.

Yet we continually put up men to be our leaders and kings, priests and presidents.  We seek to have a powerful hero fight our battles for us.  We are King-men and women, seeking to have a powerful leader who can fix that which we cannot fix ourselves.

Are we any different than the people at the time of Samuel who demanded that they have a king?  Were the people of the time of Christ any different?  They expected on Palm Sunday that Jesus would be their King, and, disappointing them, turned against Him.

The reality is that we cannot truly be One in love one to another if we continue to look toward Power and Authority figures rather than taking responsibility for loving one another ourselves.  As long as there is a King and hierarchy, we cannot be One with each other.  The Atonement is not possible as long as there is a Man in charge who is the exclusive focus of our love and admiration.

Yet in this moment of the Cross, such philosophical notions about kingship and truth are abstractions to be dealt with another day.  We are at the moment of Jesus crucifixion, the death of our God and King, and our hearts mourn.  We walk the path of sorrows, trying to find meaning, and such meaning eludes us in the present.

The Cross sits high above us, seemingly connecting heaven and earth.  Darkness surrounds us, as we deepen in sorrow: why does this have to be?  Our souls, like the veil of the temple, are rent in grief.  No easy or quick answers can calm our mourning.

Ye Jesus speaks, and tells John to care for Mary as his mother.  He is no longer there to bind our sorrows, to heal our sick, to bring comfort to the grieving.  Instead, we must comfort one another, we must find the connecting principle that helps us become one.  In our afflictions, in the sorrow of our hearts, we come before Cross and realize how deeply we need each other.

Then Jesus says, "It is finished"; the Greek word "Τετέλεσται"/tetelestai, from the exact same verb teleios that meant, perfect, complete, and unconditional LOVE.  In dying, Jesus has made the connection of Love, and in that connection between heaven and earth, between god and human, between male and female, between all that is, we find Christ in the Midst of us.

The Atonement is made complete in Love.

We are One.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Maundy Thursday Liturgy

Thursday during Holy Week is called “Maundy Thursday”, yet the events of this day, and the teachings of Christ given during this time, are more celebrated, more important, and more profound than any other aspect of Christian doctrine.  Years ago, I had the chance to attend the evening Mass at Notre Dame in Paris on Maundy Thursday – it was an experience I will never forget.

This is the day of the Last Supper, where Christ instituted the Sacrament, the Holy Communion, the Eucharist.  Knowing that He was about to be crucified, Jesus taught his most important teachings to his disciples.  While it is true we recognize Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection as the three most common dates in Christ’s life, we often overlook that the Atonement’s pivotal events: the Sacrament, the Washing of Feet, the promise of the Comforter, the intercessory prayer of Atonement, and the suffering in the Garden of Gethsamane – all these events transpire on Thursday of Holy Week.

Yet there is one more event that names the day.  Jesus said:

John 13:34-35 “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

The words for “new commandment” in Latin are “Mandatum Novum”, and thus, the defining teaching of the day, that which makes the day “Maundy Thursday”, is a “New Commandment”, that we love one another *as* Jesus has loved us. 

Putting it into perspective, the terms “substitution”, “satisfaction”, “reconcile”, “punish”, or “ransom” do not appear in any of Christ’s teachings at the Last Supper, but the term “love” is mentioned thirty four times.


To be clear, the commandment to love is not new.  When asked what the Great commandment was, Jesus answered, “Hear oh Israel, The Lord our God is ONE, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, might, mind and strength; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  Upon these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus also commanded us to be “perfect”/”teleios” in our love in the same way our Father in Heaven is “perfect” in His love.  This kind of perfection is not flawlessness as so many misinterpret.  It is to unconditionally love god and our neighbor, and that this love is the basis, essence, of all other commandments, laws, policies, guidelines, words of wisdom, and spiritual advice given in the Law (the Torah), and the Prophets (the writings of scripture).

So, the commandment to love is the very essence of all God wants us to do.  Love is the Great Commandment.  Love is the First Commandment. Love is the Second Commandment, and Love is the basis of all.  Yet today, this “Maundy Thursday”, Jesus gives us a “New Commandment” to love one another as he has loved us.  And given that this is now the last of Jesus’ teachings before he is to be crucified, we can consider it his Last Commandment in the flesh. 

So, then, how is this New Commandment in any way “new”?  Honestly, I don’t really know, and not knowing, I cannot hazard a guess.  Perhaps there is something that we can find in this that goes beyond the words.

So, in my mind, I enter the upper room as a disciple out of time.  I imagine myself walking into the room, the door closing behind me.  It’s a sacred space, the disciples gathered here are not just the apostles, but Mary Magdalene is here, Mary and Martha from Bethany, and Lazarus.  Jesus mother, Mary, is also here.  The air is filled with expectation, tinged with a bit of fear and sorrow.  I’m not sure what to think, the emotions of exultation on Sunday have become confused as the events of the week have gone on. 

A few moments ago, Jesus washed our feet, lowering himself as a slave.  It was awkward at first, Peter making such a scene, but after Jesus explained his meaning, I now understand so much more about who Jesus is, and what he expects of me.  I felt self-doubt as Jesus said that one of us will betray him, and for reasons I don’t really know, Judas Iscariot left the room.  Now, the air in the room as become filled with anticipation and…love.

And as the Spirit fills the room, Jesus stands in the glory of god, and gives us a new commandment, to love one another, as he has loved us.  Tears stream down my face, as I realize that my love, before now, has been directed toward the savior alone.  I have not loved myself – indeed, I hate myself, and I reflect that hate in how I project my fears and biases on others.  I have not loved others, because I am incapable of realizing any love for my sinful self.  Yet, I have not realized Jesus love for me is a gift, a package I have not yet opened.

A new commandment.  To love…AS HE has LOVED me.  In a moment, this moment, I realize the failings in my love for others occur because I fail to open the gift of Jesus’ love. 

In my tears, I look up and my eyes meet Jesus’ eyes.  His words pierce my soul: “Let not your heart be troubled; you have faith in God, have faith also in me.  Wither I go, you know, and the Way you know. 

Thomas speaks what my heart cries out, “How can we know the Way?”

Jesus answered, “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” 

Nine words.  All that Jesus taught us, encompassed in nine words.  I AM, JHWH, the very god of Israel, of all creation.  The Way – the very power of God expressed through the laws of nature and how we are to act in harmony with God.  Truth – knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come.  Life – the essence of our rebirth in Christ, to have life in abundance. In these nine words, I realize the Christ in all that is, all that connects us to each other and to God.  The atonement becomes the abundant life made only possible by the connecting power of these words and events.  I am ONE!

Philip, realizing that behind Jesus’ words, he equated himself to god by invoking the sacred Name JHWH.  In reply, Jesus chides him gently as he explains the Atonement:

John 14:9-11 “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?  Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me”

Jesus is One with God the Father.  No, Jesus is not a look-alike, as is so often portrayed in LDS art.  No, Jesus is not the incarnation of God the Father as is stated in the Book of Mormon.  Jesus is fully man, yet, in his realization of the God within him, he teaches Philip that God is not to be found “out there” as the “other”, but rather, as “in here”, One with us.  Immanuel is “God with Us”.  Jesus, Immanuel, marks the path and leads the Way, and every point defines to light, and life, and endless day, where God’s full presence shines. 

The room is now silent for a moment, as Jesus’ words, his teachings of the Oneness of God the Father, Himself, and now us, sink deeply into our souls. Something connects us – yes, this atonement is to be connected to the vine, to Jesus, to God, but the connecting power, the balm that heals, the grace that saves us…is Love. 

Breaking the silence, Jesus repeats, softly, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”

My confusion begins to melt about his meaning.  I heard him say this so many times in my life.  Over and over again, “Keep the commandments!” “Follow the Prophet!”.  And in my despair, I asked, before, which commandments?  And the answer was always “all of them”, as I drilled myself into insanity trying to be perfect in my never-possible flawnessness, and falling short, indulging into a shame-filled orgy of self-hatred. 

My eyes, still connected with Jesus’ loving gaze, tear up again as I realize his words into the depths of my soul.  With saying anything out loud, his still, small voice pierces my heart: “Keep my commandment, my new commandment that I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.  I love you, Mark, with all my heart, might, mind and strength, why can you not love yourself and our other brothers and sisters?  I am here for you, always.  I will not leave you comfortless, I will come unto you, yet again, and your heart will be joyful.”  I sob uncontrollably when his words, “I love you Mark” are spoken in my mother’s voice, the last words she spoke to me in this life.

Time pauses, as if the eternity and the now become One.

Jesus, turning to the disciples, says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”  Then he explains the New Commandment: “As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. *This is my commandment*, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.

All my anguish, all the shame associated with trying to measure up to an endless list of commandments, melts away as Jesus explains what “Keep my commandments” actually means.  “This is my commandment” – this is IT…in case you need more clarity –“That ye love one another, as I have loved you.”

Jesus smiles as we realize the sublime simplicity of his commandments, the essence of the Gospel, and the entire meaning of the Atonement.  He speaks again, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. 14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.”  And if we weren’t clear on whatsoever he commands us, “These things I command you, that ye love one another.”

As my contemplative encounter in the upper room closes, I hear Jesus say in my mind, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

Love Wins.

Holy Week - A Spiritual Exercise

When we sit in reverence during our weekly Sacrament, we contemplate the life of Jesus, his sacrifice, and his Atonement for our transgressions.  We partake of symbols, of bread and wine/water: the bread representing the body--the life and teachings of Christ--the water--the blood, the spirit and that which goes beyond words.

These tokens, the repeated ritual prayers, the silence... in these moments, we enfold ourselves in a kind of contemplation that places us into the sacred room where Jesus instituted the Last Supper.

In like manner, when we go to the temple, we are to consider ourselves as if we are Adam and Eve: our silent contemplation, facilitated by the ritual, takes us inside the narrative.

This kind of creative contemplation, using our imagination to relive the narrative ourselves, helps us see with spiritual eyes that which goes beyond the words of scripture.  Without realizing it, our imaginative visualization during Sacrament and the Temple is what Ignatius called "Spiritual Exercise".

Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus, or the "Jesuit" orders in Catholicism, based entirely on Spiritual Exercises.  Although the full four week outline he laid out is more attuned to Catholic dogma and practice, and indeed his "weeks" are more like lifetimes, I think there is much to be learned from his approach to creative contemplation.

Ignatius suggests that we don't merely remember the events, but rather, use our imagination to actually be there in the narrative of scripture.  As we sit in the Sacrament, we truly place ourselves in the mind and heart of Disciples. We are IN the upper room. What are we seeing, sensing with all our senses?  What are we feeling?

As we lose ourselves in the story, we allow the Spirit to guide us into and through the narrative--we envision that which god needs to reveal to us in our minds and hearts.  Using our whole selves, we begin to grasp that which goes beyond words and narrative: we are One with all that is.

*This* is the spirit of revelation.  And yes, we Mormons do practice creative contemplation in both our Sacrament service as well as in the Temple--the only moments we have of high Ritual and Liturgy.

As Mormons, we don't have any Ritual and Liturgy associated with Holy Week, yet it is this Week represents the culmination of the creation ritual of the Temple, and the initiation of the Communion ritual of the Sacrament.

Perhaps it is appropriate that we don't have an organized practice of Liturgy during Holy Week.  As I have contemplated the events of this week, I am finding that it's a very intimate process--the last thing I need is to engage in more "Church".

No.  This is personal.  I need these moments, away from the corporate and structured constructs of my life, to free my imagination into the rich narrative of this Week.

I walked today where Jesus walked,
In days of long ago.
I wandered down each path He knew,
With reverent step and slow.

Those little lanes, they have not changed,
A sweet peace fills the air.
I walked today where Jesus walked,
And felt His presence there.

My pathway led through Bethlehem,
Ah memorys ever sweet.
The little hills of Galilee,
That knew His childish feet.

The Mount of Olives, hallowed scenes,
That Jesus knew before
I saw the mighty Jordan roll,
As in the days of yore.

I knelt today where Jesus knelt,
Where all alone he prayed.
The Garden of Gethsemane,
My heart felt unafraid.

I picked my heavy burden up,
And with Him at my side,
I climbed the Hill of Calvary,
I climbed the Hill of Calvary,
I climbed the Hill of Calvary,
Where on the Cross He died!

I walked today where Jesus walked,
And felt Him close to me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Liturgy on the Atonement

Holy Wednesday is known as “Spy Wednesday” because on this day, Judas is said to have made a bargain with the high priest to betray Jesus.  It is a time when the crowds, so effusive in their praise of Jesus on Sunday, now are turning against him.  They will eventually betray him, as did Judas, demanding the Romans to “Crucify Him”.

As I meditate on this scene, I contemplate how easy it is for me to be swayed by desire and fear into spaces that disconnect me from the divine.  Judas succumbed to something inside us, as did the people, in choosing to separate themselves from the god who could save them.  Is this not symbolic of so much we do as humans?  When we are filled with desire or fear, we can be swayed to a kind of mob mentality, a choice to destroy rather than to build, a choice to separate rather than connect. 

In a symbolic way, this choice to separate ourselves from God is the essence of the Garden narrative.  When Eve and Adam made a choice to be human, they chose to disconnect themselves from God.  As Mormons, we embrace this as an essential choice – the right choice, yet we must also realize that they “sinned” in doing so.   The plan was for them to learn through their own experience to distinguish good and evil, and when they would sin, a Savior would be provided for them.

So here we are, mid-Holy Week, contemplating the betrayal of Judas, the fear-based mob mentality that drives a wedge in our relationship with god, separating us from the divine.  This is the gathering of the darkness in our journey, when we contemplate the our separation from God, and our need for the Savior.   We seek something.


A moment of silence touches my soul as I consider the word, and how much baggage this principle provides for so many who have embarked on a journey of Thoughtful Faith.  Our Book of Mormon describes the atonement in very specific terms:

“For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must needs be a power of resurrection, and the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall; and the fall came by reason of transgression; and because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord. Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption.
For the atonement satisfieth the demands of justice" (2 Nephi 9:6-7, 26)
This explanation gives me pause, because it says that God is so rigid, so fixed on justice, that he must have a *satisfaction* of the law, and such satisfaction must be infinite.  I have three responses to this:

1.  Is that a good description for a god of love? 
2.  Where did the idea of “satisfaction” of law and justice come from?
3.  How does this doctrine affect how we live?

To the first point, I do not believe that God is so vengeful, so demanding of justice, that he requires the death of his Son in order to satisfy an infinite need for justice.  I think this makes god out to be a monster, rigid and inflexible.  But more importantly, such a doctrine justifies a kind of legalism in how we behave toward one another, that we can justify condemning others based upon this principle. 

Secondly, this idea of “satisfaction” is interesting in its origin.  The use of the term indicates that the Book of Mormon’s view of atonement derives from Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of Atonement, that Jesus Christ suffered and died to satisfy God’s just wrath against man’s transgressions, from Adam onward.  In effect, much of our LDS thinking of the atonement derives from this, and from Calvin’s Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement.  Whether to satisfy god’s wrath, or to stand as substitute for the punishment mankind deserves, these theories of Atonement all make god a monster. 

The problem is that these theories of atonement do arise not from scripture, but rather, a distinctly non-Mormon worldview: that mankind is a degenerate, fallen creature, totally depraved, and incapable of freedom to choose the right.  Mormons, on the other hand, believe that we are co-eternal with God, that the Fall was a necessary part of a plan, and that mankind is imbued with free agency: we can choose to do good, or we can choose otherwise. 

As for the third point, I simply wonder, when we focus so much on the guilt and pain we have caused Christ; when we harrow ourselves with shame for our sinful selves, what are we to do differently because of these theories of atonement?  How do they help us?

I don’t believe they do.  And when I read the Passion narrative of Christ, I find no evidence at all of these theories.

I believe we need to embrace a more inspiring model for atonement, one that first examines, this Holy Wednesday, what it means for us to separate ourselves from God, and then finds the Way to reconnect ourselves to God. 

The Wednesday Liturgy starts with the betrayal of Judas.  There is a scene where Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus head with a “pound of spikenard, very costly”, and Judas reaction was that he thought this to be over the top.  Indeed, the value of twelve ounces of this imported essential oil from Nepal was an entire year’s salary for a laborer, perhaps the equivalent in today’s dollars of $30,000.  Yet as frivolous as this seemed, Jesus allowed it. 

The scriptures paint Judas as evil in his intent, but I’m not sure that is a fair assessment.  He may have had good intention, we cannot be sure.  His act was to move the story along, but more importantly, his act of betrayal, for whatever reason, was an act to *separate* Christ from his disciples, and vice versa. 

In like fashion, the people who a few days earlier celebrated hosannas at Jesus’ triumphal entry were now doubting, and ultimately called to *separate* themselves from Jesus, demanding him to be crucified.

When we look back to the symbolism of the Fall, the act of Eve and Adam to partake of the fruit caused them to *separate* from the presence of God.

If the effect and status of mankind as a result of the fall and our errors in judgment is to separate us from god, then the atonement must be the reconciliation of us to god.  When we view the various theories of atonement through the ages, whether “Christ Victor”, “Moral Influence”, “Ransom”, “Satisfaction”, or “Penal Substitution”, none of these actually address *how* we connect back to god.  In fact, they all result from a perspective that Fall creates depravity rather than separation.  None of these terms focus on what the Atonement actually is, or what we should do about it.

The Gospel of John presents Christ’s *Connection Model of Atonement*: how we become ONE with God. He starts by stating his intent:
John 14:2-3 In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

We interpret this verse to speak of the heavens – that the kingdom of heaven is full of various “mansions”.  But the Gospel of John is not as much about the future, as it is symbolically about the present.  The Kingdom of God is to be found within.   When Christ receives us unto himself, it’s not so much about the next life as it is about this one: we become reborn in Christ when he receives us unto himself. 
John 14:20 At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you. 

“At that day” refers to the moment that we are received into Christ: we realize something, we shall know something: not something that is happening “at that day”, but rather, that it has always been the case.  We shall realize that Jesus is IN the Father, and we are IN Jesus, and Jesus is IN us.  We, then, will realize that we ARE NOT separated from God, but rather, his presence is here, now, within us, and we have but to become reborn – resurrected in this life – in order to realize it.
John 15:4-5 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.  I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

What is this saying?  A branch, separate from the rest of the vine, cannot bear fruit.  Jesus is stating, in unequivocal words, that we MUST be connected to the Vine, to Him.  Jesus has explained the Atonement, that only by his death will they be able to reconnect themselves to the Vine, and the connecting power, the power of resurrection, is the Comforter, who abides with us, so that we can abide in Jesus, and He in us. 

Then, Jesus prayed:
“Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee…And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent…
And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them.  And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be ONE, as we are.Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be ONE; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be ONE in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be ONE, even as we are ONE: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect (complete, whole, unconditionally loving) in ONE…
And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.

The Atonement, as an English word, is literally made up of a phrase, “At-One”.  For us to understand the atonement as Jesus Christ taught it, we must set aside all worldly philosophies of “satisfaction”, “Ransom”, or “penal substitution”.  Jesus wants us to be ONE *in exactly the same Way* Jesus is ONE with the father.  This isn’t future tense: he is not speaking about being ONE in some future life as a resurrected being.

As humans, we seemed to be easily estranged from ourselves, from each other, and from whatever God may be defined as being. The Atonement is an amazing principle: we are forgiven already, so stop feeling guilty and get on with living. Oh, and be One with yourself, with god, and with each other. At-one-ment means just that.

If we accept that because of the Atonement of Christ, then the original Jewish principle of the Yom Kippur scapegoat symbolism is deeply meaningful.  Let us cast aside our sins and move on to the enlightened life, each day (yom) can thus be the day of atonement (literally, what "yom kippur" means, when we recognize our deficiencies, cast them onto the symbolic atonement sacrifice, and embrace the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

The Atonement of Jesus Christ is HOW we are to be ONE with each other.  Every part of the teachings Christ gave in this Holy Week liturgy has the effect of *connecting* us to the One.

On Sunday, we realized that the King of all is not found on thrones of red, but in homes of the humble, that he who comes in the name of the Lord…is us.  We are ONE when we bless each other, lifting each other’s burdens.

On Monday, we realized through the washing of feet, that we are ONE with each other, as we humble ourselves in service, connecting each other in love.

On Tuesday, we realized that the Comforter exists as ONE with us, as we connect with and comfort those who stand in need of Comfort.

The Atonement is the connecting principle, the way we are ONE with all that is, was, and will be. 

Then, and only then, will we realize and know that God is already in us, and we in God, as we declare, “Hear oh Israel, I AM our Gods, I AM ONE.”

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Liturgy on the Comforter

It's Holy Week, and this is the third of a series.

To me, the deepest, most profound, and most encouraging verses Jesus taught during holy week was about the comforter. Indeed, he promised:

I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. (John 14:18)
And your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you (John 16:22)

Last year, amid my wife’s very deep health issues at the time, I spent a lot of time “visiting” Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore.  One night, in the deepest and darkest moments of my concern, I walked to the original dome building of the hospital, where a statue of Christ stands.  It is a replica of Thorvaldsen’s “Christus Consolator” – the same statue that graces LDS visitors’ centers around the world.

But there is a difference.  The statue at Johns Hopkins is not set with the backdrop of the heavens, but rather, in the entrance of a place of suffering and healing.  It is not placed above us, but rather, He stands among us, and the passersby touch his feet, with a hope for healing from him.  Instead of a visitors book nearby where you can get more information from missionaries, there is a book of hand-written prayers, offered by those who seek healing for a suffering family member, or who in gratitude express humble worship and thanks to the One who heals us.

At the base of the statue, it reads, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you REST.” (Matthew 11:28)

As I stood there, late in the evening, with the lights lowered, I realized that I was in a sacred space.  A nurse came by, quietly, touching the feet of the Savior, and left without a word.  As I read the sacred texts there, of hand-written pleas for healing, for gratitude for miracles unseen by the world, I could not help myself, tears rolled down my eyes.

I had no answers for what was wrong with my wife, or whether she would ever be whole again.  My sister had suggested that my wife’s poor health might be the “new normal”, and I was facing a kind of despair that comes from years of unanswered prayers, constant presence on the prayer roll, and endless unfulfilled priesthood blessings.

But there was something in this room, in this sacred space, that gave me comfort.  Something I realized, in that moment, I shall never forget.

I was in a house of healing.  A house founded by a secular atheist, Johns Hopkins, at a time and place where religion and religious healing dominated the day.  The staff at this hospital were doing all they could for my wife, and their care was exceptional, but they had no answers any more than I did.  They could only treat the symptoms, try to get to a cause, but something more had to happen, something deeper, something from within.

And yet, while healing must originate from within, healing is like a precious seedling.  Healing is like the seed of faith – it can be planted, but to nourish it, to help it grow, it needs sustenance from power beyond itself.  Without the nourishment of those around a person suffering illness, whether it be the professionals who care, or the loved ones who are there, healing tends to slow, stop, and reverse itself.

Yet as Jesus taught about the Comforter, he said, “I tell you the truth, if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”  Before this dark night in the Dome of Johns Hopkins, I did not understand what Jesus said.  I was confused, before, when Jesus said, “Come onto me and I will give you rest,” yet he knew that he would leave, be crucified, and “go away”.  How can I come unto him when he is not here?

Sure, we speak of the resurrected, living Christ.  We recognize that Christ is a living presence in our lives, through the light of Christ and through the Holy Ghost – and yes, these provide comfort.  But they also are abstract, ephemeral, difficult to recreate at a moment’s noticing – Sure, I have had spiritual experiences, but can I summon one when I am in the dark night of my despair?  Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish?  Yes, He is the One, and sometimes the Only One.  But even in that night, that dark night, I realized that He…has help.

It occurs to me that Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  Joseph Smith taught that when the spirit is present between two people, the “understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.”

It occurs to me that when Jesus was physically present among the apostles, they all seemed to anchor in him as their charismatic leader, seeking comfort from him, and assurances that the individually might exceed in the Kingdom of God and Heaven. Yet when Jesus promised the disciples, “I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you”, he then explained how:

“Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more;…” – (John 14:19a)  The world – the physical realities of human, mortal life – will see Jesus no more.  He will be crucified, he will die.

“…but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.” (v19b)  In what way to the disciples “see” Christ?  We speak of the physical resurrection, of the witness that he rose physically from the dead.  Yet for all those who lived after this time, the way disciples “see” Christ is not through physical manifestation, but rather, as Paul experienced, by the revelation of Christ – the personal spiritual experience in all of its forms.

This experience of grace, the personal spiritual experience, provides the change in heart necessary to become One in Christ.  Because we all have gifts differing, our experiences vary, yet in all, we come to the realization that Christ is a living presence for us, and that presence gives us life. Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”

“At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.” (v20) We speak of atonement as applying to the far off date, that the realization of this promise of us being in Jesus and Jesus being in us as part and parcel of our future resurrection and exaltation in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Yet “that day” is not so far off.  “That day” was the time when, after Jesus departed from them, they would experience the Comforter, and then “know” that Jesus IS (present tense) in his Father, and thate we ARE (present tense) in him, and He IS (present tense) in us.

Yet all this idea that Christ, and the Holy Ghost – the Comforter – are all within us is perhaps “comforting”, but often not enough.  We have to ask for help in order to get help.  Often we think of this as prayer, and certainly that is part of the equation.  But why did a loving god have his loving son leave us?  Why did the apostles not realize the Comforter while Jesus was with them?  Why did Jesus have to leave in order for them to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost?

In the moment I stood in the sacred presence of the Christus Consolator – literally, “Christ the Comforter”, I realized the answer.  “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”   We cannot be saved by ourselves.  We cannot heal ourselves.  We need the comforter, the presence of the spirit, not only from within or individual selves, but also, from each other.  That’s why “whenever TWO or THREE are gathered in His name” matters.

In other words, we need each other as humans.  We need not just our humanity, and we certainly don’t need our judgy-ness one for another.  What we need is our divinity.  When Jesus left the presence of his disciples, he made it possible for them to realize that they needed each other in order to be whole.

In the moment we realize where we can find the Comforter, we begin to embrace who we truly are as Mormons.  We are here to “comfort those who stand in need of comfort”.  We realize that Christ has left us to be gods one to another, to allow the holy spirit to guide us in our unconditional love and service one to another.  We have the charge – the god-given opportunity --  to comfort those who need comfort, and in so doing, we not only obtain comfort, but indeed, the presence of Christ is there with us, and we are One.

How does this work?

I have seen in faith communities some amazing ways to bring comfort.  When Pope Frances washed the feet of refugees, prisoners, and muslim children, he was setting an example of comfort.   When people reach out to victims of ecclesiastical abuse, they are providing comfort to those in need. When people stand and defend LGBTQ rights to marriage equality and inclusion, and provide refuge for sufferers of religious policies, they are providing comfort.  When the journalists of the Salt Lake Tribune defend rape victims at BYU in their quest to for justice and fairness without retaliation, they are providing comfort.  When some of our leaders, such as Elders Renlund and Holland, and President Uchtdorf, speak out in support of inclusion and unconditional love, they are providing comfort.  When we do anything that brings us closer together, in our homes, in our work, in our churches, we are providing comfort.  And each time we welcome someone into our home and communities, and share together and listen to each other's experience, strength, and hope, we are providing comfort.

I don’t know if this helps anyone. I know that in a moment, in a quiet dark night in sacred space, I stood at the feet of Christ the Comforter, and realized how much we all need each other to comfort those who stand in need of comfort – that the work of the Comforter is found in our connection one with another.