Ye Shall Not Cast Him Out

For those of you who also suffered through The Scarlet Letter, you have my commiserations. I did not enjoy reading the book. Regardless, it’s a cultural touchstone and gives us a shorthand to talk about complex topics.

One such topic is America’s Puritan past, which heavily influences our dominate culture. The Puritans left us with a mixed legacy. They gave us an ideal to strive for – the idea that we could build a community that would be a city on a hill, a light to the world. But they also left us with a legacy of intolerance for those who do not fit neatly into whatever ideal we are seeking to achieve.

Continue reading “Ye Shall Not Cast Him Out”

Should we cancel Paul?

Paul holding coats during Stephen’s stoning

The first we hear of Paul in Acts, he held the coats for the men who stoned Stephen. Shortly after this account, he is recorded dragging men and women off to prison for believing in Christ. Eventually, he is given permission to seek out Christians in Damascus.

After a vision, losing his sight, then miraculously having it returned to him, Paul does a complete 180. From that moment on, he teaches everyone he meets of Christ. A significant portion of the New Testament was written by him. A great deal of Christian thought can be traced to his writings.

Continue reading “Should we cancel Paul?”

Holy Week

I’ve consolidated my Holy Week posts here. I did some very light editing, but the posts are largely the same.

Monday: Removing Distractions

Jesus Cleansing the Temple, Carl Heinrich Bloch

And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: and when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; and said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise. And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.

John 2:13-17

On the Monday before His death, Jesus cleansed the temple. There is some debate about whether the episode mentioned in John was separate than the one mentioned by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I also read this interesting post about whether we should even refer to this as a cleansing. But since this is the shared term for the narrative across Christianity, I’ll be sticking with it.

I found the direction this study plan pointed me to be particularly helpful. As I read, I pondered on the presumed role of those Jesus drove from the temple. The moneychangers and animal sellers were performing a necessary service. Jews came from many different lands to worship at Passover. It would have been difficult and expensive to travel with the required sacrificial animal. And they needed to exchange money to obtain the local currency. The animal sellers and money changers were providing a necessary service!

But that which is necessary can still be a distraction from the most essential. I need to eat, but occasionally I give up meals for a variety of good reasons – to lose a little weight, for medical tests, and, most relevantly, to develop myself spiritually. I need to work to provide for my family, but I don’t work one day a week so that I can recharge and devote my thoughts for a whole day to a higher cause.

I decided to make a small sacrifice to avoid distraction this week. I’ve been enjoying a Lego mobile game. In general I hate mobile games (except well done board game adaptations). But this one hit the right spot for me.

After this study, however, I decided to give up the game for a while. I’m not certain how long. At least a week, maybe longer. I’ll devote that time more scripture study, more writing, and more contact with others. What distractions might you give up?

This post is prompted by this study plan.

Tuesday: Service

The Good Samaritan icon, unknown (from my research)

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Matthew 22:36-40

On the Tuesday before his death, Jesus taught this powerful lesson: all the law and all the prophets, meaning everything taught in the scriptures, depend on loving God and loving our neighbor.

This exercise is a personal devotional, helping me think of what I can do to hear Christ. But I had another thought I’d like to share.

Here in America, Democrats and Republicans have been having a debate for some time about the best way to help communities. The most charitable spin on the debate is that it is a question of whether we should help the disadvantaged through public or private institutions. There is some evidence that our more selfish tendencies are overcoming the desire to help others at all.

My plea here is that whatever your political or philosophical approach to this question, please follow Christ’s teaching to love your neighbor. Give service. Volunteer or work for non-profits or local governments. Donate to charities. There are a wide variety of ways to help. Our differing political persuasions shouldn’t prevent us from aiding those less fortunate.

As for the personal devotional, during this time I’ve been trying to spend more time talking to my friends and family. I’ve been calling each of my siblings, which I haven’t done consistently for some time. It’s small, but important. My mother has always set a great example of this – staying in touch with each of her siblings, no matter what is happening in their lives. As a result, I’ve seen how a family can stay together, even when they don’t agree with each others’ choices.

This post is inspired by this study plan.

Wednesday: Scriptures

The Anointing of Christ, Julia Stankova

And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. And behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

Now, when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.

And Jesus, answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee.

And he saith, Master, say on.

And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much.

Luke 7:36-47

I finally realized when I studied this prompt that the study plan is not following what Christ did throughout the week. The title of the study plan is “Hear Him!” The goal is to help us understand how we can better hear his voice, not commemorate the events of his last week. Obvious in retrospect? Yes. I blame kids. They are distractions I can’t remove.

Today’s topic is scriptures. I love the opportunity I have to read about God’s dealings with His people. I love the wealth of information we have at our fingertips through centuries of scholarship and study. I love the various translations and the light they shed on the many ways we can interpret these words.

It wasn’t guaranteed to be this way. Last year I read about Martin Luther. He lived at a time when there didn’t seem to be much point to reading the Bible itself. The great thinking and understanding of the Bible had already been done. The Church Fathers had written and their interpretation was all that was needed. Others had written commentaries on these works. Clergy, if they studied at all, spent their time reading commentaries of commentaries.

Martin Luther joined the humanists in calling for a return back to the sources. Luther, Erasmus, and others got the clergy to read the Bible again rather than commentaries of commentaries. They translated the Bible into languages so more than just the most educated clergy members could read it.

While some bemoan the various translations, I think they provide real benefits. In my History of Philosophy course at BYU, we studied a translation of the first chaoter of Genesis my professor had done from Hebrew. It opened my eyes to a very different way of reading the scriptures. By reading these familiar ideas in different words, I saw new patterns and gained a better appreciation for the structure of that first chapter.

Putting the ideas of God, whose thoughts after all are not our thoughts, into human words is problematic at best. It’s no wonder we’ve been arguing about what they mean as long as we have been writing them down.

I want to finish with a commentary on an event traditionally discussed on Holy Wednesday: the woman anointing Christ. I love this story because of the love Christ shows for a woman – something notable for as patriarchal a society as his was – and for a sinner – something notable for any heavy religious group.

Christ allowed the woman to touch him, to wash his feet with her tears, to wipe them with her hair. He didn’t consider himself unclean. He didn’t avoid the touch of a woman. He only saw a person who loved her savior.

Similarly, he didn’t turn her away because of her sins. Christ’s gospel isn’t a purity gospel. It is not about maintaining a separate “pure” identity. It’s about getting out among the sinners and loving them, serving them, and calling them to repentance. It can be easy for the religious to get caught up in the call to repentance and forget the rest. But Christ loves and served even those he knew would fall back into their sinful ways. Even Judas, who he knew would betray him.

This post is inspired by this study plan.

Thursday: Remembrance

The Last Supper, attributed to Giampietrino

And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.

Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

Luke 22:19-20

It’s becoming increasingly common to leave behind organized religion. Many of my generation wonder what the point is. The point is to remember. In an age when information is cheap and easy to obtain, it can be a little mystifying why such organizations are necessary. Perhaps we don’t need them anymore?

We’ve seen over the last several years, though, that misinformation is even more easily obtained. Organized religion, along with many institutions such as government agencies, universities, libraries, and hospitals, stand as bulwarks against the flood of unfortunate misunderstanding and despicable lies that are out there.

Our faith has been shaken because these institutions are sometimes the purveyors of these misunderstandings and lies. But any enduring institution has both a means to correct error and a reason to do so. Enduring institutions have founding documents that provide the reason for their existence and provide a guide back to the right path when they go astray. And these documents are available to all.

Christianity is struggling right now, but I have faith that it will endure. At its heart, it has the Last Supper. Perhaps its most widely practiced ritual, the Eucharist or communion (what members of my church call the sacrament), is a reminder that at the heart of our religion is love powerful enough to lead to sacrifice. At the Last Supper, Christ both foretold his death and offered powerful teachings on love and love expressed as service.

When we take the sacrament, we are reminded of this love and we are encouraged to love as He did. This remembrance is why Christianity has endured. It is why it will continue to endure. Other philosophies and lifestyles will be forgotten and fade. But the simple and powerful rituals of Christianity will keep it alive.

I am grateful for the sacrament. I am grateful for other rituals, such as baptism. I grateful for buildings to worship in – far more grateful today than I was a few weeks ago. I am grateful for the other institutions that are getting us through this – government for and by the people, hospitals, the CDC, grocery stores. I am grateful that this is occurring in the internet age, when we have so much to enrich our lives without leaving home. I am grateful for friends and family to chat with so we can stay sane. I am grateful for a loving God who will turn all that comes out way to our good.

Friday: Forgiveness

Pietà, Michaelangelo

And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.

Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

Luke 23:33-34

What is it like to watch your son, your brother, your leader, your friend be unjustly killed? How quickly would you forgive his murderers? I haven’t had to answer this question. Unfortunately, many have. I don’t know if I have what it takes to forgive in such circumstances. I do know that Christ said we should forgive and set the example by forgiving his killers.

Forgiveness on a much smaller level is a necessary part of every relationship. We all screw up in all kinds of ways. Mistakes, little lies, things we forget. They all build up and can damage these relationships without a little forgiveness.

Of course, there are relationships somewhere in the middle – at some point all the screw ups amount to abuse. At what point do you break off the relationship? And can you forgive in such a situation?

I don’t think forgiveness requires submitting. It must involve making the choice to do what is right – to leave an abusive relationship, to fight an unjust situation in society. What does forgiveness mean in these situations? It means keeping yourself safe, but praying for those who are trying to hurt you. It means seeking justice, not retribution. It means showing kindness where the other showed pettiness.

Once again, there are many situations I have not experienced. I can’t say how I would handle these situations or what others should do. I do know Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother seventy times seven times. I know that He died to make all that is unjust just. I’m doing the little things I can to make that happen here and now and I pray that all the wrongs – the little and the big – will be righted sooner, rather than later.

This post is prompted by this study plan.

Saturday: Prayer

Descent into Hell, Mikhail Nestorov

And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on. And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.

Luke 23:54-56

Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.

Matthew 27:65-66

For Christ…went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometimes were disobedient.

1 Peter 3:18-20

We spend a great deal of our lives wondering and waiting. We don’t know why God sent us here at this time and in these circumstances. But we do know He loves us.

I love this comic called Judas. It looks at the character of Judas and asks, what if he was part of God’s plan all along? What if he did what he did for a reason? What if he condemned himself to accomplish a greater good – even without knowing it? It’s a powerful story that brought me to tears.

I have no idea what happened to Judas after he died. He did a terrible thing. But the message of the comic – that God can use our mistakes to bring about great good – harmonizes with the scriptures. Adam and Eve eating the fruit led to all of us being born. Joseph’s brothers selling him into Egypt led to saving Egypt – and themselves – from starvation. If I weren’t so tired, I could probably think of more examples.

We will give God greater ability to turn our sins to good if we spend more time in prayer. Prayer can be a form of meditation that helps us clear our mind. Having a clear mind allows us to find greater inspiration. I know when I have prayed the most regularly and fervently, I have made the most improvement as a person.

One thing that I need to remind myself to do is take out the earbuds occasionally. Sometimes when I’m on a run or bike ride or doing dishes, when I take out my earbuds and have a little chat with God, I find inspiration and motivation to do good things. I can better identify where I need to improve. No self-help book is as helpful, no memoir is as motivating, and no fiction book is as refreshing as those moments spent in heartfelt prayer.

It’s good to take a moment and write this down as a reminder.

Sunday: Worship

Christ and Mary at the Tomb, Joseph Brickey.

And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead….

And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.

Matthew 28:5-8

He is risen! Christ is the resurrected Lord, who appeared to Mary. He appeared to his apostles and they touched his body. He ate with them. He appeared to a crowd of 500. He prepared a meal of fish for his apostles in Galilee. He appeared to Paul. He appeared to his people somewhere in the Americas. He appeared to Joseph Smith.

And so we worship Him. What does it mean to worship?

wor·ship

verb, show reverence and adoration for (a deity); honor with religious rites.

From Oxford

I have spent all day trying to find the words to express what I feel. I haven’t been able to. I’ve listened to a lot of songs. I’ve read several scriptures. And I’ve said several prayers. I’ve been moved to tears multiple times.

Look at the picture with this post. Read the scriptures I’ve linked if you have some time. And watch this video.

God lives. His Son lives. And we will live again because of Him.

What is your iron rod?

I have a bad habit and I suspect I’m not alone. I’m easily influenced by the thinking of people I like.

When I was a teenager, I discovered an author I really enjoyed. I read his books and loved them. I read every word in those books, even the foreword or afterword, or wherever he wrote about his writing process. Then I discovered his blog. I read it voraciously.

And he didn’t just write about books. He wrote about movies and politics, too. The politics stuck in my mind. I must have talked about them with my parents, because at some point my dad gave me a warning: don’t rely on one person for your political views. (Or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words.)

That lesson has stuck with me, despite my faltering attempts to implement it. If I recognize that I am a little too fixated on one person’s view of a subject, I search around for a different perspective to balance it out. This applies, of course, to more than just politics. The world is a big place and no single person gets it all. Somewhere in this mist is a path towards that light, with a firm, immovable pole – an iron rod – we can hold too that will keep us on the path.

Readers of the Book of Mormon will recognize Lehi’s dream here. As we read the chapters discussing it this week, I thought about how Joseph Smith must have felt as he translated this portion of the Book of Mormon. You see, his father had a similar dream. There’s a passage in these chapters, repeated a few times later in the Book of Mormon, that says “[God] is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Perhaps that struck Joseph Smith as he pondered on the fact that God sent his own father and the ultimate father figure of the Book of Mormon (most of the book is about Lehi’s descendants) a similar dream.

Others have a different reaction. They see this as evidence that Joseph Smith is the author, rather than just the translator, of the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith drew from his own experiences (such as his father’s dream), his own questions (some of the passages of the Book of Mormon address pressing theological issues of Joseph’s time), and his knowledge of the Bible (significant portions of the Book of Mormon quote the King James Version of the Bible) to write the Book of Mormon.

When trying to understand religious questions, such as the truth of the Book of Mormon or the existence of God or the problem of pain, we can feel like we are in a dark mist, obscuring our sight. We look for an iron rod. We may come across someone who says something that makes something solid out of the mist around us. We may treat those words like that pole – we hold tight, thinking that these words will lead us out of the mist and into the light.

As a teenager, I saw some confusing things about the world. I read that author’s blog and clung tight, thinking it was leading me toward light. It did have some light. But in the years since, I’ve also recognized where he got some things wrong.

I only recognized those problems because I looked to other viewpoints and questioned the one I was already following. Had I continued to treat his words as the way to truth, I would be more lost in the mist, rather than (as I like to suppose) a little closer to the light. I found that what I had thought was an iron rod had rusted to pieces and left me grasping mist.

The reason some people’s words capture us more than others is because the things they say just make sense. They make sense because our individual paths, the iron rod we try to construct for ourselves, align. For some, a guiding principle is that “God the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” He will send a similar vision to Lehi and Joseph’s father; He will provide answers from ancient prophets to modern readers; He will speak the same words to both Biblical and Book of Mormon prophets (and prompt them to copy portions of the scriptures they had).

Others whose guiding principle is, perhaps, that anything that can be explained without the supernatural must be explained without it, will see Joseph Smith as using the resources at hand to construct a narrative that fit his own purposes. Each possible source will be more acceptable than God or His Spirit.

We only see, as Paul says, “through a glass darkly.” We have limited time, limited intellect, limited understanding. We piece together truths as best we can so that we can function day-to-day. But we need to take care to investigate our guiding principles. These two groups look at the same facts and interpret them very differently because that rod they cling to – the principle that guides them through life – is very different. What paths are we constructing for ourselves and why? How closely do they align with the path and iron rod that leads toward truth? How do we avoid the rod that will rust in our hands and cling to the one that actually leads to the light?

Coming to Terms with The Book of Mormon

One of the more interesting facets of my beliefs is that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is a book similar to the Bible in that it claims to tell the story of ancient worshipers of God and their interactions with Him and the people around them.

Of course, there are differences. The Bible is a collection of books gathered together by a variety of people over centuries and millennia. We have copies of some of its pages that are 2000 years old. It mentions people and places that have been corroborated through archaeological evidence (though to say that archaeology proves the Bible is a stretch).

The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is largely one book, written by a handful of men. Mormon and his son Moroni, prophets and historians (or at least record keepers) wrote and collected most of it. Only one uneducated man – Joseph Smith – translated it to English, with a few others acting as scribes. Though archaeologists have found evidence of multiple civilizations across the Americas, none of them them can be tied with any certainty to the peoples mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

The other night my 6-year-old daughter asked how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. This would have been an easy question to answer once. I would have shown her a picture like this one. I would explain what I understood from my childhood: that he looked at the plates and, after thinking for a time, he would give the English translation to the person acting as his scribe. Often there was a sheet between himself and the scribe so that they could not see the plates.

Joseph Smith didn’t say much about how he translated the Book of Mormon. He simply said it was by the power of God. I’m not sure exactly how the version I described above came about. I haven’t spent a ton of time researching, but no one I have read describe translation in this manner.

The statements we have from those who helped with the translation are a little different. When Joseph Smith found the plates, he also found two stones set in a breastplate – the Urim and Thummim (verse 52 in the link). Joseph Smith was told by an angel that the Urim and Thummim were prepared for the translation of the plates. Now, this is a portion of the story I grew up reading. I remember wondering what the deal with the breastplate was. I have the idea in my mind that he may have worn the breastplate, which allowed him to translate. As before, in my brief research time I haven’t found support for this. it may be the product of my imagination.

In another account, this one supported by one of Joseph’s scribes, the stones were set in a sort of spectacle frame, so he could wear them like glasses. When he looked at the plates, the words appeared as English (see the article linked at the bottom of this post for more).

Finally, we have the mode that has provided the most fodder for the mockers: he would place the stones in a hat, then place his face inside. The words would appear in the stones and he would read them aloud.

But wait, there’s more! The Urim and Thumim were only one tool he used. Joseph Smith had found a stone years earlier that he called a seer stone. Once the translation process began, he used this stone in the hat interchangeably with the Urim and Thummim.

Does this sound ridiculous? I won’t deny that. But I would ask you to consider, how should God communicate to a prophet? Should he use methods that are more pedestrian? More normal? What exactly is normal about God speaking to a man? Is there a method which wouldn’t lead you to think the man might be a little crazy? Or at least deluded?

As I shared some of this, in a condensed version, with my 7-year-old, I didn’t know where I would go. I hadn’t learned some of this until I was in college. How did I explain it to a her? As I talked, I simply went to the conclusion I’ve come to – the way Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon isn’t that important. He may have used a variety of methods. What matters is that it was by the power of God. All of these methods show God’s hand. Only God could have done this.

If I believe that God has spoken to prophets, I don’t see a barrier to believing this is how he spoke to Joseph Smith. Is it any wilder than looking at a brass serpent to be healed? Or creating the world with a word? More far-fetched than parting the Red Sea with a rod? Or healing a blind man with dirt and spit?

Miraculous acts are part and parcel of being a Christian. I’m not sure where the boundary of “too miraculous” should be.

But, the scriptures do contain warnings that miraculous acts alone are insufficient to prove that someone is a servant of God. How do we tell if a miracle-worker is from God? We must also look at their fruits.

Here are a few teachings from the Book of Mormon that have impacted my life, and help me to believe it is from God:

  • Through faithful prayer, we can obtain forgiveness and have our hearts turned to the welfare of others. Enos.
  • We find happiness in obeying God. Mosiah 2:41.
  • Christ not only suffered for our sins, but felt every mortal pain. Alma 7:11-13.
  • Belief isn’t a one time get-it-or-don’t event. It can be nurtured and grown over time, by testing the word of God. Alma 32:28-32.
  • The Holy Ghost is a gift anyone can receive if they seek God. It will teach them truth. 1 Nephi 10:17-18.

I’ll close with my own experience that I’ve come back to as I’ve explored my faith. Moroni, the final author of the Book of Mormon, closes with an invitation: “when ye shall receive these things…ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true.” He promises that “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” Moroni 10:4.

I’ve prayed to know if these things are true. I have received that confirmation, largely through a feeling of peace I haven’t felt in any other way. I am also reminded of the good things the book has taught me. I believe it is true and that God’s Spirit has confirmed that belief.

Thanks for reading to the end. Here are a couple articles that I found interesting while preparing this post: