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On Obedience

[This is a slightly abridged version of a talk that I gave in sacrament meeting a few years ago. Now that I think about it, I haven’t been asked to speak since . . .]

Introduction

My topic is 1 Nephi 3:7.

The scripture reads: “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.”

I was interested in the ways in which this scripture has been mobilized in Mormon discourse. BYU recently unveiled a wonderful tool that allows anyone with internet access to search the entire corpus of General Conference addresses from the 1850s to the current day. I was a little surprised at the results of my search.

As near as I can tell, it wasn’t until 1893 that the scripture was first quoted in General Conference. It was quoted again in 1899. From 1900 through the 1950s it was quoted only an average of once every five years. Beginning in the 1960s, however, it sees a great deal more use. By my count, it has been quoted over the general conference pulpit nearly 60 times in the last 60 years.

The account of Nephi returning to Jerusalem to recover the brass plates is (or at least has become) a very familiar one in the Church. Perhaps because of its location near the beginning of the Book of Mormon (and, critically, before the Isaiah Chapters), most of us have probably read it on many occasions. I’ve been in the primary for the last few months, and the children have a favorite song inspired by this story. At the chorus, they sing a paraphrase of Nephi’s words: “I will go, I will do, the things the Lord commands, I know the Lord provides a way, he wants me to obey.” As they sing it, they pump their fists in the air. It is quite a thing to see.

Complicating matters . . . 

This story is actually problematic for me.

I think too often we take scriptures out of context. Nephi’s pronouncement that he will go and do is made so much more poignant by the knowledge of what he actually went and did. There is a beautiful and innocent optimism in Nephi’s reply to his father, but reading those words after we know where his obedience will ultimately take him should cause us to pause.

One of my favorite musicals is Camelot, and a number from one of the opening scenes captures well the mixture of emotions this familiar “Go and Do” line creates for me. After Lancelot gets news of the establishment of the knights of the round table, he launches into a lighthearted and quite funny song:

“The soul of a knight (he sings) should be a thing remarkable

His heart and his mind as pure and morning dew

With a will and a self-restraint

That’s the envy of evr’y saint

He could easily work a miracle or two  . . .

But where in the world

Is there in the world

A man so untouched and pure?”

Answering his own question, he goes on,

“C’est Moi! I blush to disclose

I’m far too noble to lie.

That man in whom

These qualities loom

C’est moi, c’est moi, ‘tis I.”

And he goes on singing his own praises.

This song illustrates well the character of Lancelot, but I wasn’t really able to see that until the second viewing. When I first heard the song, I wrote it off as a clever and comical way to introduce the self-righteous French knight. But after you know the story, you realize that these were not just empty boasts. Lancelot really was that good. In fact before the first act is over he does seem to perform a miracle, but by the end of the show, things have gotten much more complicated in Camelot, and the song takes on new meaning.

I can’t recall the first time I heard the story of Nephi’s fateful encounter with Laban, but as I’ve revisited it in recent years, I can’t help but be saddened at knowing where this journey takes him. In a similar fashion to Lancelot, Nephi charges forward with faith but without a full understanding of what he will be called to do.

Upon finding Laban, we are told Nephi first resisted the command to kill. It is plain that he never believed that “going and doing” would put him into such a position. In the end, he acquiesces. As the story reads, Nephi “took Laban by the hair of the head, and . . . smote of his head with his own sword” (4:18). The fact of the killing is made so much worse by the mode of execution. I’m sure that the word “smote” doesn’t do justice to what would have actually been required to perform the deed. Nephi must have left that place much more world-weary than he came to it.

Obedience to what?

For me, putting Nephi’s original pronouncement in context makes the way in which we use the scripture problematic.

It seems like 1 Nephi 3:7 is most often cited as a way to help steel us against the ever present temptation to shirk our duties. I think we are all well-acquainted with this internal struggle. Paul, in Romans 7 (and in a way that only he through his King James translators could put it), says: “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. . . . For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do (7: 16, 19). I know that I am not alone in recognizing that no matter how willing our spirit, in the moment when we are called to act, we often discover just how weak the flesh is.

Many times in my Church experience, Nephi’s example has been presented as a solution to this trouble. We can just remember Nephi’s words: “I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” This gives us strength to persevere through the daily grind of Latter-day Sainthood.

And this is great. Anything that can help us to overcome our naturally selfish desires and be a better friend to one another—to more carefully meet the needs of our fellows in and out of the Church—is welcome.

But to my mind, the “Put your shoulder to the wheel” kind of faith we need in these moments when we are just too tired or lazy or busy does not find a very good analogue in the story of Nephi. Especially when we take the scripture in its context.

Most of us do not have any kind of deep-seated aversion to the performance of our normal church duties. As much as we groan about meetings, or find it difficult to do our home and visiting teaching, or would rather be taking a nap than serving the needy, or would rather be seated in the congregation than delivering a talk, we all pretty much acknowledge that these are good and worthwhile things to do (at least in theory).

Unfortunately, there are very rare but weighty moments in our lives when we are confronted with a real and substantial conflict between what we feel is right and what we believe (or are told) it is our duty to do.

Looking back to the verses immediate preceding the killing of Laban, we read a very interesting exchange between Nephi and the Spirit. The scripture tells us that Nephi first “shrunk” from the commandment. In his words, “I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man” (4:10). This was not Nephi rationalizing his way out of doing something inconvenient. After all, it was Nephi’s idea to try bargaining with Laban after they were initially rejected. It was Nephi who refused to return to his father empty-handed even after Laban had chased them off a second time and stolen their valuables. We read that the Spirit commands him twice more to act before he can actually bring himself to do it.

This is the stuff of real spiritual drama. To borrow Thomas Paine’s memorable phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

In moments like these, men and women have been moved to do great things: Abraham faithfully follows the will of God, Christ drinks the bitter cup. As the Gospel Principles manual says, “Sometimes we do not know the reason for a particular commandment. However, we show our faith and trust in God when we obey Him without knowing why” (“Obedience”). The examples of obedience in these cases lead to amazing things: Isaac becomes the father of Israel, Nephi’s obedience ensures that an entire people will not “dwindle and perish in unbelief,” and Jesus becomes Christ.

The Dark Side of Obedience

But this drama does not always play out so nicely. In stark contrast to the tremendous good that can be accomplished through obedience, history is scarred with atrocities carried out or by the obedient: nearly 1,000 died in the Jonestown mass suicide on November 18, 1978, 76 were killed at Waco on February 28th 1993, and more than 2,700 people were killed on September 11th 2001.

I have to believe that there were at least some among the perpetrators of these terrible things that shrank at the thought of what they were about to do.

We have a few examples in our own Church history of this principle of obedience being twisted to dreadful effect, perhaps most dramatically on another September 11th more than 150 years ago. On that day, acting under the leadership of their Stake President, and surely with the belief that their actions were in accordance with divine will, members of a Southern Utah militia killed every man, woman and child over the age of 6 of an entire company of emigrants passing through the Utah territory. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a horrible stain on the history of the Church. Speaking at the 150th anniversary commemoration, then Apostle Henry Eyring noted: “The truth, as we have come to know it, saddens us deeply. The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse, abhors the cold-blooded killing of men, women, and children. Indeed, it advocates peace and forgiveness. What was done [] long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.”

It is a sobering exercise to try to place yourself in the position of any of those who participated in that horrific act. Would you have had the courage to say no?

What distinguishes the noble obedience of Nephi and Abraham from the awful obedience of those Southern Utah militiamen? Obviously the stories end very differently, but that kind of retrospective criteria isn’t very helpful for us if we are faced with the same kind of conflict.

We might want to believe that these kinds of dilemmas that pit individual conscience against divine (or purportedly divine) will are the relic of an earlier time, but I think that many of us have (or will at some point) be put into a position where we have to decide whether to follow our own moral compass or submit to some higher authority. One recent example that comes to my mind is the Church’s role in the Proposition 8 campaign. I am among the minority of members of the Church that found (and, honestly, continues to find) it difficult to reconcile personal feelings with what my leaders were telling me. From what I understand, there are wards in California that are still feeling the effects of that campaign.

An unsatisfying conclusion . . . 

So now we reach the point in the talk where I should be offering solutions: The three criteria for knowing whether a commandment is from God or not; a clever mnemonic that will clear up the whole problem.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have anything nearly so helpful to offer, but I think there are important lessons for us in the Nephi’s story.

We are told that one of the great purposes of mortal life is to learn to submit our own will to God’s. Speaking on a happier occasion, President Eyring taught: “The great test of life is to see whether we will hearken to and obey God’s commands in the midst of the storms of life.” Elder Maxwell often spoke on this theme, “We tend to think of consecration only as yielding up, when divinely directed, our material possessions. But ultimate consecration is the yielding up of oneself to God. Heart, soul, and mind were the encompassing words of Christ . . .” Nephi’s story demonstrates how complicated and uncomfortable this can sometimes be. It is my prayer that we might all grant one another charity and understanding as we collectively stumble through this process.

Campbell’s Law and the Church

Campbell’s Law

The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

Goodhart’s Law

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, China’s leader wanted to re-instill revolutionary fervor in his people and make his country a peer with modern industrial nations.

As it happens, steel production was a good measure of the health of a modern, mid-century economy. And so, Mao set some goals. He wanted China to become a world leader in steel production. Zealous functionaries launched into action and soon almost every town and village in China had a crude local steel furnace. So eager were the people (or at least their party file leaders) to meet their goals, they melted down cooking ware and farm implements to produce more and more steel.

By sheer force of political will, China was soon producing tons and tons of … pig iron. Worthless lumps of metal. The furnaces weren’t hot enough and the inputs were too crude to produce anything meaningful.

It would be bad enough if that were the end of the story. However it doesn’t end there. The monumental misdirection of human capital led to suffering and starvation in the ensuing months that is truly staggering to think about. The  most conservative estimates suggest that 23 million people died in the coming famines. Others place the death toll at double that figure.

The measure became the target with disastrous consequences.

The Great Leap Forward is a particularly dramatic (and tragic) example of the Campbell-Goodhart dilemma, and I hope the analogy to religious life is not too strained. For better or worse, we Mormons find ourselves in a religion that is (at least in recent memory) somewhat obsessed with measures and targets. How do we avoid the “corruption pressures” we are warned against in Campbell’s Law?

A little autobiography

Indulge me as I recount a relevant mission experience. Campbell’s Law seems magnified in the context of full-time missionary work. I was “that guy” on the mission. Eager to please, I followed every mission rule with irritating exactness. As the weeks and months passed, I saw my star rising. I was assigned to serve as a senior companion, then district leader, then assistant zone leader, and soon enough zone leader. On paper, I was a very good missionary. I did all the things that missionaries were supposed to do.

In retrospect, I’m not so sure. I certainly could have been kinder to companions who were not as tied to every mission rule. My rigid adherence to the white handbook didn’t suddenly transform me into a great teacher. With great regret, I can recall more than one instance where I placed more emphasis on following the rules than simple kindnesses to those in need.

This life is a test…

We often talk about life as a time of preparation. If this is true, it seems like we spend a lot of our time preparing for the wrong sorts of things. Another formulation of Goodhart’s/Campbell’s law is the phenomenon of “teaching to the test.” The basic worry is that teachers spend so much time preparing their students for exams that they become good test-takers but don’t really get an education.

When we place so much emphasis on behaviors (which are essentially measures of something we are more interested in), we run the risk of “making the measure the target.” It is a difficult thing to internalize the imperative to become something new. Too much focus on doing (or not doing) a set of specific behaviors isn’t enough to get us there.

On Being “Anxiously Engaged”

I was sitting in one of the many “bonus” meetings we get as faithful Latter-day Saints a few weeks ago. The theme was on that uniquely Mormon turn of phrase: “anxiously engaged in a good cause.” As I sat there listening with half my mind to the series of speakers that were lined up for the event, I used the other half of my attention to dwell on all the things that I would rather be doing at that moment. But the last speaker (the president of our far-out-of-the-Wasatch-front midwestern stake), used his time to talk about the importance of being present in our meetings. We live in an age of ubiquitous distraction. Most of us carry around hand-held devices that can instantly connect us to much of humanity’s accumulated wisdom, the best of its talents, and the most frivolous of its diversions (I’m talking to you, Candy Crush…).

Probably because it seemed as if he was speaking directly to me in that moment, his words struck me, and made me ponder why it is so easy to slip into inattention at church. As I thought about it, I realized that sometimes I have used “easy disengagement” (as opposed to “anxious engagement”) as a coping mechanism in the church-y part of my life. It is sometimes simply easier to switch off than it is to really engage with the things that we hear at church. Especially when they grate against our political sensibilities or we find ourselves out of the majority in some interpretation of the scriptures or we think we’ve heard the talk/lesson/testimony a hundred times before, it can often be easier to mentally check out.

A closer look at phraseology

As I thought more about the phrase that was the subject of the meeting, it became increasingly strange to me. Why would the Lord (or Joseph or some combination of the two) choose “anxious” as the modifier here? Anxious has an almost entirely negative connotation.[1] It is derived from a Latin verb that means “to choke” or maybe “to strangle.” Very odd word choice indeed.

“Engage” is another interesting word. To me it carries a connotation of giving oneself completely over to something else. We speak of military engagements that are literally life-or-death struggles. People become “engaged” to be married. In (increasingly rare) manual transmission vehicles, we “engage” the clutch (which moves the gears into the drive shaft).

All of this made me think of Rick Jepson’s fantastic Sunstone article, “Godwrestling.”[2] I was in the military for several years, and a part of the training involved some limited grappling. During our exercises, we would alternatively apply chokes to our colleagues and serve as dummies for others to learn. There is little in this world that brings a bigger sense of unease than having one’s air or blood supply to the brain cut off.

Think about what it means to “engage the clutch” in an automobile. Something incredibly violent is happening under the hood of the car. The drive shaft is spinning at hundreds or thousands of revolutions per minute while the gears are engaged.[3] For anyone who has learned to drive a manual transmission, the results are not always smooth. Gears grind, engines stall, and cars come to shuddering halts. But without engaging the clutch and getting the gears to mesh, no forward progress is made.

While I am by no means perfect in this regard and I often find myself slipping into inattention through either laziness or just plain exhaustion at the prospect of rehashing the same old points, my experience at church has been tremendously enriched by a willingness to actually engage with the subject material. This often (although not necessarily) means airing some private doubt or concern about the general interpretation of a scripture in Sunday School, or exposing some vulnerability in my third hour meeting, or going a little off the beaten path when I am given the opportunity to speak in Church, but it is so much better than quiet, passive resentment from the back row.

Wrestling with doctrines and teachings that sometimes feel as if they are choking us is, as Jepson puts it, a form of prayer, and it can be the most meaningful and transformative kind of devotion we experience. After all, if you’ve got to be at church for three hours every week and who knows how many extracurricular meetings in addition, you might as well actually be there; blood, tears, sweat, and all.

 

[1] In modern usage, “anxiously” is a little more ambiguous than “anxious.” We often say that people are “anxiously awaiting” something good. A brief perusal of the Corpus of Historical American English (http://corpus.byu.edu/coha/) gave me the impression that this more positive usage was a little more unusual in the mid 1800s.

[2] I was first introduced to this piece in Dan Wotherspoon’s discussion with the author here.

[3] It is very possible that I have some key part of how a car works wrong. My entire education on the subject came from skimming this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K53cPGRE1Kk)

Unhelpful Analogies

Part of life on the large college campus where I spend most of my days involves a constant bombardment of sidewalk graffiti advertising the latest political causes or fraternity parties.

A while back I saw one particular piece of sidewalk art that grabbed my attention. Not due to any particular skill on the part of its anonymous artist, but as a result of the subject matter. There on the ground in front of me was the familiar circle diagram that has been reproduced on countless Sunday School chalkboards in LDS meeting places around the world. Something like the following:

(from lds.org)

 

Amazingly, this little diagram claims to sum up the great plan of the eternal God. It attempts to solve the problems that have vexed philosophers and theologians and mystics for the hundreds of centuries of humankind’s existence economically, with a few simple shapes and arrows.

As a starting point, there is nothing wrong with these kinds of mnemonics. They can be extremely useful in organizing something that is beyond our comprehension. But often they can trip us up. Analogies are so helpful because they help us relate things that we are already familiar with to things that are unfamiliar, but they can only do so much work for us before they start to break down. It is difficult to strip away the analogy from the truth, and we don’t always understand the downstream ramifications of seemingly innocuous simplifications. The analogy often becomes the source of unexamined assumptions that might become problematic down the road.

It’s nothing like that…

Doctor Who fans may be familiar with this exchange:

Rory: What is this place? The Scrapyard at the End of the Universe?
The Doctor: Not end of. Outside of.
Rory: How can we be outside the Universe? The Universe is everything.
The Doctor: Imagine a great big soap bubble with one of those tiny little bubbles on the outside.
Rory: Okay.
The Doctor: Well it’s nothing like that.

Amy: Wait, so we’re in a tiny bubble universe sticking to the side of the bigger bubble universe?
The Doctor: Yeah. No! But if it helps, yes.

For the uninitiated, The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who … well, it is sort of hard to explain. For the purposes of this post, it is probably sufficient to note that he travels around the universe with human companions and often finds it necessary to explain things that are totally beyond their grasp.

Or try this:

Teaching Physics

xkcd.com/895

This is a general problem. Analogies and simplifications can only take us so far.

I’d like to explore the consequences of these misconceptions in a later post, but I think it is helpful to examine the analogies that we often use to explain gospel concepts closely.

Gospel Analogies (a very partial enumeration):

  • Our spirits were born spiritually in a way that is like physical birth
  • Something happened in the preexistence that was like a war in heaven
  • The gospel is like a plan
  • The process of creation was like work that God performed
  • Prophets are like messengers from God
  • This life is like a test
  • Jesus’ atonement is like the settling of a debt
  • God’s commandments are like laws
  • Covenants are like contracts between God and people
  • The community of heaven is like an earthly family

Let me repeat, just because an analogy is incomplete does not mean that it isn’t helpful or even mostly correct. But the one thing is not the other. When we say that our spirits were “born” or that our sins are “paid for” or we have “broken” a commandment, a lot of semantic baggage gets smuggled in almost unnoticed, and dwelling too much on the analogy can distract from the deeper truth that is trying to be communicated.

The trouble with unhelpful analogies is that they do too much and too little for us all at once. They wrap up expansive concepts too completely and might lead us to believe that all the hard work of understanding has been done. By giving us something concrete to think about, we are in danger of seizing onto the thing that is familiar and losing sight of the transcendent.

I think that this can be especially dangerous for people in the midst of a faith transition. When we examine the teachings of the church and probe the limits of the analogies that we’ve been given, we will often find them wanting. It can be tempting at that point to throw them out. Indeed many of the people around us and our leaders often talk in ways that suggest the analogies are more than just hints toward a more transcendent truth. This kind of rhetoric can be extremely frustrating when we are in the the middle of a painful reevaluation of fundamental gospel concepts.

An analogy about analogies

In my experience, Mormons don’t do mystery particularly well, and in this area, I think we have a lot to learn from more mystical traditions. There is a story (and for the life of me, I cannot seem to find a reliable citation for it), of a Buddhist teacher who drew the comparison between his teachings and a finger pointing at the moon. Of course, the finger is not the moon, and if the student does not grasp that she will spend all of her time focused on the wrong thing altogether. The finger points the learner toward the deeper reality.

Imagining Jesus

The apocryphal Acts of John contains the following passages (from 1924 translation available here). From the context, the words are supposed to be from John himself (emphasis added):

Men and brethren, ye have suffered nothing strange or incredible as concerning your perception of the [Lord], inasmuch as we also, whom he chose for himself to be apostles, were tried in many ways: I, indeed, am neither able to set forth unto you nor to write the things which I both saw and heard: and now is it needful that I should fit them for your hearing; and according as each of you is able to contain it I will impart unto you those things whereof ye are able to become hearers, that ye may see the glory that is about him, which was and is, both now and for ever.

The author (who claims to be a follower of the apostle John) goes on to relate a singular incident which, we are to suppose, was related to him by John.

[H]e [Jesus] cometh unto me and James my brother, saying: I have need of you, come unto me. And my brother hearing that, said: John, what would this child have that is upon the sea-shore and called us? And I said: What child? And he said to me again: That which beckoneth to us. And I answered: Because of our long watch we have kept at sea, thou seest not aright, my brother James; but seest thou not the man that standeth there, comely and fair and of a cheerful countenance? But he said to me: Him I see not, brother; but let us go forth and we shall see what he would have.

So, if you are having trouble following the translation, James and John were on their boat fishing when they hear a voice calling them from the shore. To James, the voice belongs to a child. John can’t see the child and instead sees a man (“comely and fair and of a cheerful countenance”). Perhaps only to settle the disagreement, they go to “see what he would have.”

And so when we had brought the ship to land, we saw him also helping along with us to settle the ship: and when we departed from that place, being minded to follow him, again he was seen of me as having rather bald, but the beard thick and flowing, but of James as a youth whose beard was newly come. We were therefore perplexed, both of us, as to what that which we had seen should mean. And after that, as we followed him, both of us were by little and little [yet more] perplexed as we considered the matter.

Once they reach the shore, John sees a bald man with a “thick and flowing” beard and James still sees “a youth whose beard was newly come.” This difficulty in truly seeing Jesus seems to persist (indeed it seems to be the inspiration for this little sermon which begins: “Men and brethren, ye have suffered nothing strange or incredible as concerning your perception of the [Lord]”). John goes on to describe the changing forms of Jesus he encountered at different times.

. . . And oft-times he would appear to me as a small man and uncomely, and then again as one reaching unto heaven. Also there was in him another marvel: when I sat at meat he would take me upon his own breast; and sometimes his breast was felt of me to be smooth and tender, and sometimes hard like unto stones . . . 

Beyond appearing a variety of different forms, John describes how even the tactile experience of touch would change from “smooth and tender” to “hard like unto stones.”

It is fitting, I think, that the passage ends like this:

. . . I was perplexed in myself and said: Wherefore is this so unto me? And as I considered this, he . . .

Just as Jesus seems ready to answer John’s question, the translation stops. I haven’t been able to find a more complete version of this passage, but this ending seems appropriate. We are left to fill in Jesus’ explanation on our own.

I think it is wonderful that John’s stated reason for telling this strange story of an elusive and ever-changing Jesus was that we “may see the glory that is about him.” Christians are inclined to talk about God’s immutableness and constancy as glorified traits, but here we have just the opposite; Jesus’ glory “both now and for ever” are demonstrated by his malleability.

So what does any of this have to do with anything? As I have pondered the things that keep me in the church, somewhere near the top of the list is the idea that I am sorely limited in my own capacity to understand the divine. I need to be immersed in a community of people who are similarly seeking (and similarly limited but in beautifully diverse ways). Through the process of interacting with others (who often understand and experience God in very different ways from my own), we can all come closer to the truth.

In Karen Armstrong’s History of God (which I highly recommend), she relates a Sufi creation myth:

Ibn al-Arabi imagined the solitary God sighing with longing, but this sigh (nafas rahmani) was not an expression of maudlin self-pity. It had an active, creative force which brought the whole of our cosmos into existence; it also exhaled human beings, who became logoi, words that express God to himself. It follows that each human being is a unique epiphany of the Hidden God, manifesting him in a particular and unrepeatable manner.

Each one of these divine logoi are the names that God has called himself, making himself totally present in each one of his epiphanies. God cannot be summed up in one human expression since the divine reality is inexhaustible. It also follows that the revelation that God has made in each one of us is unique, different from the God known by the other innumerable men and women who are also his logoi. … It is a two-way process: God sighs to become known and is delivered from his solitude by the people in whom he reveals himself. The sorrow of the Unknown God is assuaged by the Revealed God in each human being who makes him known to himself.

None of this is to say that the Church is the only (or even the best) place for this ongoing process of discovering God. With the tremendous diversity that exists in the world, it would be very surprising indeed if one institution were able to stretch itself to contain the variety of ways humans encounter divinity.

In the Church I can find glimpses of the divine reflected in my brothers and sisters, and I can do my best to share my own unique perspective. There are probably plenty of other places to do this, but the Mormon Church is the one that I call “home.”

For the Glory of God

Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and Divine Agendas

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is striking on many levels, but as I have pondered it recently, I have been wrestling with the idea that Lazarus had to die and the women had to mourn “for the glory of God.”

In the story, we are told that Jesus purposefully delays his return to Jerusalem. When Lazarus falls ill, Jesus is sent for, but he doesn’t come. The author of John makes it very clear that Jesus knows what will happen if he doesn’t go immediately to his friend.

When Jesus heard that [Lazarus was sick], he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby ….

Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.

And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe … (John 11: 4, 14-15)

According to John’s gospel, Jesus had a bigger plan. Despite the fact that it would cause his dear friends Mary and Martha (not to mention Lazarus!) very real pain in the present, he withheld his healing power so that God’s glory would be magnified.

That to me is a huge problem. Let me illustrate with a personal example.

My wife and I have lived with the dull ache that is infertility for almost 10 years now. As a consequence of not being able to have children by traditional means, we have been foster parents for the last 3 years or so, and very recently we were able to adopt a little boy who has lived with us for most of that period. Our son is the best thing that has ever happened to us, and it was an incredibly special day for us and our extended family to gather in the temple and be sealed together.

The sealer (my wife’s grandfather) was familiar with the situation and the lengthy process that led up to the adoption. In his preambulatory remarks, he expressed his belief that God had a hand in bringing our little boy into our lives. This is a sweet sentiment and many, many others have made similar comments to us, but every time I hear a version of this “providence” argument, it makes me cringe a little. Actually, it is more than cringe. I can’t help but want to scream: “IF GOD WANTED THIS, WHY THE HELL DIDN’T HE DO IT DIFFERENTLY?!”

God knows we prayed for some tiny shred of divine intervention earlier in the process. Why would God need for my little boy to be born an addict to a young mother who was overwhelmed by the world? Why would he need for an innocent child to be neglected to the point that he was removed from the only people he’d ever known and loved? Why not just intercede a little earlier? Why not spare us all the pain? So that we might “believe”? So that he might be “glorified”? If that is the “glory of God,” count me out.

… alright, rant over.

Jesus’ Tears

The most poignant part of this story for me is found in verse 35:

Jesus wept.

After seeing the pain that this whole object lesson in divine power has caused his friends, he weeps.

Part of me wants to think that these are tears of regret. I know there are times when I had a great idea for something that would be really memorable/funny/awesome in theory, but the execution didn’t come across quite right. I’ll always remember an amazing “dirt cake” (a birthday cake made with an Oreo crumb topping designed to look like dirt) that my stepmother made for my little sister’s birthday years and years ago. To top it all off, she put the whole thing into a ceramic flowerpot. My little sister was so excited for her birthday (she was probably turning 4 or 5), but her little heart was broken by that cake. When she saw the flowerpot she must have thought that we didn’t get her a cake after all, and big tears welled up in her eyes. The subsequent tantrum should have probably been anticipated, but my stepmother was trying to do her best.

That’s probably not what is going on when scripture says, “Jesus wept,” but sometimes I wish it were.

God’s Glory

The great poet, Langston Hughes, penned the following verses (titled simply, “God”):

I am God—
Without one friend,
Alone in my purity
World without end.
Below me young lovers
Tread the sweet ground—
But I am God—
I cannot come down.
Spring!
Life is love!
Love is life only!
Better to be human
Than God—and lonely.

The casual Son of God who seems to minimize his friends’ pain at the beginning of the story feels like the lonely and pure divinity described by Hughes, but it is the weeping Jesus at the end of the story who seems glorious to me.

I am Spartacus

If you aren’t familiar with Kubrick’s classic, Spartacus, you ought to see it at your earliest opportunity.

These past few weeks have been difficult for fringey Mormons like myself. As I write this, we have yet to learn the ecclesiastical fates of John Dehlin and Kate Kelly (and, apparently many others across Mormondom).

I don’t really want to contribute to the idea that they are Martyrs for the Cause. I still think it is premature to believe that a Great Purge has just begun. But recent events have contributed to an ominous feeling amongst those of us who are outspoken. Regardless of whether or not there is some big, top-down and deliberate cleansing going on, the winds seem to have shifted.

I’m not sure what to do about all of this. Indeed, if these disciplinary actions have shown us anything, it is that it is a big problem that people like John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, and hundreds of others who participate in online forums and blogs really have no other recourse. The Church is in desperate need of some institutional avenue for constructive, internal discussion.

Absent such internal channels, all it seems that I can do is impotently declare: “I am John Dehlin! I am Kate Kelly! I am doubting and increasingly unwilling to stay quiet about it! All is not well in Zion, and somebody ought to do something about it!”

But it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to hear…

So — I don’t have anything constructive to say (if you want something good to read about this, I suggest you go over to this post), but I am really tired of feeling my religion shrink around me. Mormonism certainly has a lot of warts, but there is something beautiful and expansive that seems to want to get out of it. I pray we don’t let that big Mormonism get smothered by too much attention to drawing the boundaries tighter and tighter.