Meet Your Enemies

Ezra Booth, an early convert to Joseph Smith and the Restored Church, became disillusioned after only a few months. He wrote letters to a newspaper that resulted in a public backlash against Joseph Smith and the missionaries he was sending to the surrounding area. In December 1831, Joseph Smith received direction from God to stop working on a translation of the Bible and try to undo some of the harm of the letters. Here are some of my thoughts about the instructions God gave them in what is now Doctrine and Covenants 61.

“Meet your enemies”

Joseph was commanded to meet his enemies in public and in private. We can meet our enemies – or those who disagree with a cause we support – by being open to discussion with them. No matter how important our cause or how dedicated we are, this is valuable. If we understand the position of those who disagree with us, we are better equipped to strengthen or adjust our own position to achieve better outcomes and convince more people to join us.

Of course, we should be wise in who we choose to engage with. We shouldn’t feed the trolls. The trick is learning to distinguish between the trolls and those open to discussion. Fortunately, in my experience the trolls reveal themselves early on. Holding back to my own troll-like tendencies and disengaging from those time-wasting conversations is the next challenge.

“Confound your enemies…their shame shall be made manifest”

Our cause cannot convince if we don’t speak up. To remain silent is to let our enemies define us. But I think the phrasing of the second part is vital. “Their shame shall be made manifest” is not a call to shame others. It is a statement that as we speak truth, error will be revealed. We do not need to help it along by calling people out, tricking them, embarrassing them, or seeking to ruin their life in some way. Clever memes aren’t going to win the day. Doxxing and bullying are bad regardless of who the target is. Truth will win the day as long as we speak it – and it will take time.

“Let them bring their strong reasons”

A conversation is not a lecture. Recognizing that our enemies are fully developed human beings – thinking, feeling people who have reasons for believing what they do – God tells us here to listen to those reasons. And not just in a condescending, “let them have their say” way. He says, “Let them bring forth their strong reasons against the Lord.” We need to listen to and recognize the best reasons against our cause. Our own faith is only as strong as the strongest arguments against it we have acknowledged. If we refuse to hear and ponder “their strong reasons,” then we are simply closing our eyes to potential truth. One of my favorite thoughts on this comes from a forum – one I did not save a link to, so this is my attempted paraphrase – “If we come across evidence that conflicts with our interpretation of scripture, then it is our interpretation of scripture that must change.” The truth isn’t changing – our attempt to understand it is.

Words are an imprecise means of conveying ideas. We shouldn’t be surprised that we have, at times, failed to understand the ideas passed down to us from previous generations. I believe that there is an ultimate, universal truth out there. But I also believe it can be really, really hard to identify and communicate. I’m struggling to arrive at that truth and convey my understanding of it in a way that brings along as many people as possible.

Rehearsing your doubts

This last weekend the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked us to “stop increasing [our] doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters.” I felt uncomfortable when I heard this. This post is my effort to work through that discomfort. I hope the doubters and the non-doubters will find something valuable in this post.

For the non-doubters, I hope you recognize the wonderful gift you have been given. It is not, as Paul told the Corinthians, a gift that everyone receives: some receive knowledge, some receive faith. This implies not all do. Joseph Smith said something similar: some receive knowledge and others simply believe in their words. It may seem strange that someone would remain in the Church without that gift. I hope we can simply celebrate that they choose to remain, rather than criticize them for gifts they have not received.

For most my life, I had the gift of solid faith in Christ and that this is His church. But sometime over the last decade, that gift was taken from me. I have had to rebuild my faith without it. I went from confidently pronouncing it’s truth to wrestling with God to figure out what was true. I’ve never considered leaving the church; the alternatives don’t resolve my questions satisfactorily. I have rebuilt my faith, but it looks different than it did 10 years ago. The process has led to lots more questions.

In asking some of these questions, I’ve received some pushback. I’ve been told certain forums aren’t the correct place to ask certain questions. I think that’s right. It’s never wrong to ask a question, but who you ask and when matters. I think the error we make is saying, “This isn’t the right place,” without having an answer for what is the right place.

Doubts will arise. Questions will be asked. Who do we want to answer?

If only the doubters will listen, then we shouldn’t be surprised when those with doubts go to them. The prophet didn’t say don’t doubt. He didn’t say don’t express doubt. He said to take our doubts to the Lord and faithful sources. He said to choose faith.

My plea to fellow believers is to be a faithful source. Be welcoming and loving. Be an example of choosing faith. As Peter counseled, “be ready always to give an answer to every man who asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” This requires something of us. We must be willing to listen to hard questions. We must be willing to ask those questions if we haven’t before. Otherwise, how can we be a faithful source? The process is uncomfortable but when we ask hard questions and “remove the debris,” our foundation will only be strengthened. Then we will be a supporting pillar, rather than a stumbling block.

My plea to the doubters echoes the prophet’s: seek out faithful sources in addition to the doubters. We can’t learn how to do something without speaking to those who successfully do it. If you need someone who will listen, I always have an open ear.

No church? Then I’ve got a corporation (or political party) for you!

You may have seen this graph:

“Church Membership Among U.S. Adults Now Below 50%” Graphic courtesy Gallup

Gallup: Fewer than half of Americans belong to a church or other house of worship (religionnews.com)

I doubt I’m the first to ask whether a decrease in organized religion is related to other trends, such as greater commitment to political party, greater demands on corporations to adhere to social and moral goals, and the rise in populism. I think it’s a common desire to be connected to something larger. We want to better the world, to help the next generation live better lives, to improve the conditions around us. For generations, organized religion was a major means to accomplish these goals.

With over half of Americans no longer attached to a church, perhaps they are searching for other organizations to work through. The easiest way to accomplish big things is to use big organizations. Two alternatives are big government and big corporations.

This leads to several questions: Do we need big organizations to accomplish big things? If we do, does transferring our moral and spiritual commitments into business and governmental organizations work? Or did the separation of those things into separate spheres benefit our society?

Julie and Julia

We just finished watching Julie and Julia. An inspiring movie for an aspiring writer.

I had no idea when we started that it was a movie about a writer. I certainly didn’t expect a movie about food to make me guiltily realize I haven’t posted on my blog for over a month.

My biggest realization was that I would benefit from a more focused purpose for my writing. Focus is something I always struggle with. I don’t think I’m alone.

So, if you spent a year writing a blog, what would you write about?

Learning to love the Doctrine and Covenants

Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together. For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated.

Doctrine and Covenants 1:1-2

As a missionary in Australia, I was very hesitant to share the Doctrine and Covenants with people. My preference was to start with the Book of Mormon. I mean, why would I share with them a book full of divine revelations for today when I could share the translation of an ancient record written on golden plates Joseph Smith found buried in the woods? Sometimes I want to slap my 20 year-old-self on the head.

Setting aside origins, there is at least one good reason the Book of Mormon is easier to latch onto than the Doctrine and Covenants – narrative. The Book of Mormon has it. It can be fun to read about Nephi building a boat. Alma struggling with a son who has left the faith is relatable. Meanwhile, the Doctrine and Covenants is piecemeal, without context (except for brief paragraphs introducing each section). Why do I care about Oliver Cowdery or David Patten? Who are they and what were they doing? The book provides little to no context. Let’s compare another book of scripture: the Old Testament. Which book do you know more about? Micah or Exodus? My bet is on the latter. Micah is way shorter, but Exodus is a story, and a pretty interesting one at that. Narrative works.

So why does the Doctrine and Covenants lack narrative? My guess is that when it was first published as the Book of Commandments, there wasn’t much need. The missionaries carrying the book with them (the main source of demand for the book), knew the context. They knew, personally, the people named in the book. They had met and spoken to Joseph Smith. They had participated in the events giving rise to the individual sections.

In the generations that have passed since the Book of Commandments was published in 1831, that personal connection has dissipated. We are multiple generations removed from the people who recorded the majority of the revelations. With the growth in the Church outside the United States, the descendants of those involved in the revealing, recording, and publishing of the book make up a smaller and smaller portion of church membership.

As a result, context is more important. Fortunately, the Church has delivered. Four and a half years ago, the church published Revelations in Context, a book telling the stories behind each section. The Church has also been publishing an official history called Saints. The first two volumes have covered the time period during which most of the revelations were published. There are Church history essays published on the Church website. And in this year’s Come Follow Me manual, there are links to even more resources.

I wonder if, at some point, more context is added to the Doctrine and Covenants itself. Perhaps portions of Revelations in Context or Saints get placed between sections. This would make the book more enjoyable to read and easier to understand. Of course, there should be some caution in editorial additions to scripture. Some of the problematic passages in the Bible are possibly the result of these editorial additions that later scribes thought were part of the original text. But since we believe in an open canon – that we are saints receiving revelation alongside the saints of previous generations – it’s certainly a possibility.

The parable of the grapefruit

Better, in my opinion, than the other parable of the grapefruit (which I find mildly annoying).

This morning my 3 year-old and I split a grapefruit. After halving it and cutting loose the segments, I placed her half on her plate. I watched as she picked at the seeds clustered around the middle. Then she asked me to pull them out. Instead, I showed her that when I used my spoon to pull out the segments, the seeds either fell off or were much easier to separate. Many of the tiniest seeds weren’t even noticeable.

Lesson: focusing on the flaws of something or someone before engaging with them – demanding that they fix every little flaw – will result in spending all our time identifying those flaws. When we start building a relationship or participating, we get the good stuff while more easily separating out the bad. There will be a few small bad things left, but they will be too small to harm us.

This parable has limits, of course. You could have a bad grapefruit. Or maybe you’re eating pufferfish. It might be good to ask yourself if you should eat pufferfish. Regardless, it’s worth figuring out whether something or someone is a grapefruit or a pufferfish, and then engaging accordingly.

2020 is over. What’s next?

In “White Christmas” (a holiday tradition for some Pulsiphers, much to the chagrin of others), Bing Crosby sings a song about counting your blessings. Well, I need more sleep. Does counting blessings help your infant sleep? I hope so.

Out of the chaos of this year, two things stand out to me.

  1. Gideon’s birth.
  2. Hitting 50,000 words on another NaNoWriMo book.

I’ve also learned a lot about how my emotions affect me. I’ve learned some of my biases. I’ve learned about my basic beliefs. I’m going into 2021 a more mature and balanced adult.

I really want to write something profound and meaningful, but I’m too exhausted. I’ll say this: in 2021, I plan to channel my frustration and anger into making a difference. I’m still working on exactly how. I will keep writing. But I’m also considering how to use what I have to improve the lives of those around me. There are so many good causes – from something as seemingly small as helping the members of my church community to bigger things like addressing the housing crisis or better childcare and family policies.

What will you do in 2021 to improve your community?

Star Wars films ranked

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. The Last Jedi
  3. Return of the Jedi
  4. Star Wars
  5. Rogue One
  6. The Force Awakens
  7. Rise of Skywalker
  8. Solo
  9. The Phantom Menace
  10. Revenge of the Sith
  11. Attack of the Clones

These aren’t definitive. Empire Strikes Back has steadily risen in my rankings over the years. I’m unconvinced if I actually like Solo better than the prequels. Rogue One might deserve a higher spot on the list. But this is a good approximation for now.

#lighttheworld – what brings me peace?

Several years ago, Alisha and I got into an argument. As these stories usually go, I don’t remember what it was about. What I do remember was that following the argument, I went and straightened up the shoes in our closet. A small, simple act that immediately helped me feel more at peace.

I feel more at peace when I can spend some time ordering the world around me. You’d think with all the chaos my kids create, I’d be getting a lot of opportunities for peace these days. I think it only works if that order can last for more than a few moments, though.

The other thing that brings me peace is writing. When I have time to write something on this blog, I usually walk away having loosened the knot in my chest. I have also found that when I make the time to write during the day, it is easier to be patient and positive with my children.

I think in some ways these two acts are tied together. When I can write, I am seeking to order the world around me. Writing is the way I identify and link together the patterns in the chaos of the world. I love to connect disparate ideas, seeing how I can learn about one aspect of the world by comparing it to another.

I hope that reading these blog posts is at least somewhat as helpful to others as writing them is to me.