Category Archives: Culture

This Is Christianity?

A few weeks ago, I stood looking bigotry in the eye and wondering how someone comes to think and behave that way. What makes it possible for someone who has feelings and some kind of sense of self-worth to treat others as though they are scum who should be eliminated from the earth?

The place was the Nauvoo Pageant, sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) in Nauvoo, Illinois, a town from which the Latter-day Saints were once driven by mobs. The scene was the entrance to the pageant. Protesters and hecklers stood on the public street, just off of Church property, taunting, insulting, and confronting people arriving to see the historical pageant.

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I’m grateful I can rely on Jesus Christ to judge my Christianity, and not on someone who is willing to consign me to hell without knowing my heart.

One man used a megaphone to shout taunts such as: “All Mormons are going to HELL!” as well as slurs like “Mormon ___________!” or “Mormon _____________!” (insert a name here for a man or woman who is gay). It was evident from his demeanor that he was using those slurs in the belief they would offend people.

Not far away were a couple of other people handing out literature designed to look like it was connected with the pageant. In truth, it was a collection of criticisms, half-truths, and distortions of LDS doctrine. I have read their literature before and investigated the claims. All of those claims have either been disproved long ago, or cannot be either proved or disproved because they are misrepresentations. The people handing out this material want it understood that they are separate from the people with the megaphone; they will tell you they are simply there in the service of Jesus. I would like to ask how they feel they are serving Jesus by handing out material that they know, or should know, is misleading.

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. There is certainly room for good people to disagree on questions such as how grace is applied in our lives, what awaits us after this life, and how we should receive and respond to inspiration from the Holy Ghost. I respect anyone’s right to have a different view. It is a basic tenet of our faith that all men and women have the God-given right to exercise their own agency in religious beliefs and practices. Among the 13 Articles of Faith that define basic LDS beliefs is this one, number 11: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men [and women] the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” This idea is embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. And yet some seem to feel that this freedom should be applied only to certain selected religions.

I am always grateful to be among believers in God, and I have no difficulty working amicably with anyone, whether or not they believe as I do. I respect their right to worship, or not, as they see fit. I believe we are in truth all brothers and sisters as sons and daughters of God, and we owe each other respect on that basis. And if that is not enough, we ought to try to live in peace together as residents of this planet.

But I have difficulty understanding those antagonistic protesters. Do they go home at night telling themselves, “I served Jesus today by screaming insults at people and trying to destroy their faith”?

The only way I can explain their behavior in my own mind is to realize that those people are haters, and members of my church happen to be their focus. If there were no Mormons, they would focus their hate on Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, foreign immigrants, Democrats or Republicans, or some other handy group. They simply need someone to hate—someone on whom they can focus their anger—because deep inside they are not right with God, and not even right with themselves.

Their actions cannot be, either rationally or spiritually, the actions of people who follow a loving God. This cannot be Christianity—not as taught by Him who said, “Love one another” (John 15:17).

I feel sorry for those protesters, and I’m sure this statement would anger them. As we watched them out in the street one evening, the sheer theatricality of the man with the megaphone made me laugh. He saw me, and focused his wrath on me: “You laugh now, but you’ll burn in HELL!”

What a sad, pitiful way to spend one’s limited time in this life—trying to destroy someone else’s faith instead of trying to demonstrate what it means to be a follower of God.

 

How Clever the Corn: Belief and Rationality

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Corn in July, before it grew “as high as an elephant’s eye.”

Here in western Illinois, the corn seemed to zoom skyward early in the summer. I thought we could almost measure the growth by the hour. Then the growth of the stalks slowed down and ears began to develop. And now we are enjoying this year’s delicious corn on the cob.

How clever the corn is in this established pattern of growth! After its spurt of growth, the Corn ear Jul17_01641Bwhole purpose of the plant seems to change as it develops ears for harvesting. It is as though some Great Horticulturist had made the plants to function this way.

And yet some people will insist this could not be so. They may insist that evolution is the only possible explanation.

Somehow that seems superstitious and ignorant. What is rational or intelligent or “scientific” about ruling out God as one of the possible explanations for creation? Is it because some people cannot see evidence that matches their limited mortal understanding? Absence of evidence is still proof of nothing. Where is any reliable, measurable, quantifiable evidence proving that God could not have been involved?

Attempts to explain creation without God seem superstitious in that they rely on some unknown chance or force that somehow accidentally created life. Really? Some mysterious, unexplainable inner drive is an acceptable possibility, but God is not?

Some might ask if I believe in “intelligent design.” I couldn’t answer because I do not know what the term implies in the mind of those who ask the question.

But I believe that this earth and its environment were created by God over six time periods according to an organized plan. I do not know what techniques He used or how long each time period was. I do not believe that they were six 24-hour “days” as we measure by our clocks, but six “days” as we speak of “our day” or “ancient days”—extended, indefinite time periods.

I believe He followed patterns that His greater intelligence told Him would work. Perhaps he used similar techniques or systems in moving from creation to creation, from organism to organism. Perhaps if a muscular or cellular system or organ worked in one animal or plant, He would employ that system again in another one. What rational being would not do this?

The knowledge I lack on the topic of creation is vast. What concerns me about some of the people who develop alternative explanations for creation is that they seem unwilling to acknowledge their own intellectual limits. They may have many years of education and experience in particular scientific fields, and yet their knowledge is minuscule compared to what they do not know. Some are nevertheless willing to speculate, so long as the discussion does not acknowledge that God could be the answer.

I believe in a God who wants us to learn all we can about this mortal life and our existence on this planet, a God who delights in helping us. If He were to reveal to us all the details of how He created everything, we could not possibly comprehend His works. But I believe He is pleased when we seek knowledge and that He will help us learn more. (After all, His Son taught, “Seek, and ye shall find.”)

God is under no obligation, however, to prove anything to us on our terms. If we want to know more, we need to seek on His terms, and this involves faith.

Who would begin a scientific experiment without some degree of faith that there will be answers—that time and experience will reward us with knowledge? But a true scientist has the wisdom to recognize that the answer may not be the one we want or expect. The hypothesis we began with may be wrong, and the answer may be something we did not believe in the beginning. A true scientist studies natural phenomena or performs an experiment seeking the truth, not seeking a way to make carefully selected facts support a prior conclusion.

This life is for schooling. We are sent here to learn, and to grow through our experiences. We are here to prepare for even greater learning hereafter.

In some future “day,” I hope to enroll in Celestial Biology or Celestial Geology 101 and learn how it was all done. But for the time being, I’m trying to master the lessons in human relationships that my Creator would have me learn here.

 

Fathers’ Day, Mom, and a Pair of Binoculars

Today is Father’s Day and I’m thinking of Mother. And this chain of thought began with a pair of binoculars.

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My widowed mother with her young son, circa 1948.

My father was taken by an accident when I was only 21 months old, so I grew up with a single mother. There were definitely times as I boy when I wished I could have a dad as my friends did. All I know of him suggests that my father would have been a great dad. But I learned—and I see this even more clearly now—that a loving Heavenly Father made up the lack for me. He strengthened my mother so she could do what two parents might normally do. He gave me two wise, loving grandfathers who were great examples of what it meant to be an honorable man. He gave me some fine uncles and others who did things for me that my father might have done if he had been there. My grandparents lived until I was in my thirties and forties, and I was privileged to learn, learn, learn from all of them. I still live by their lessons.

My mother made her way in a man’s world, doing it nobly and well. There were things she could not teach me about fathering and manhood that I have had to learn from experience. (And it was learned in part at my children’s expense. To the five of you: I’m sorry.) But from Mom I learned about moral, productive adulthood. What more could I have asked her to teach?

So what does a pair of binoculars have to do with this?

When I was 10, one of Mom’s friends let me borrow his binoculars for a short time. I quickly decided that I wanted a pair of my own. There is something about looking at the world up close that has always fascinated me. So that year I just had to have a pair of binoculars for Christmas, and I was not disappointed. On Christmas morning, there they were—a nice, new pair of 7×35 binoculars in their own leather case! I enjoyed using them wherever we traveled, or just out in the backyard studying the mountains east of town.

Later I found out from Mom that they had cost her $50. I had no way at the time to appreciate what that meant. But for perspective, she had left a well-paying job a couple of years earlier to go back to college and get a degree in something she could enjoy doing for the rest of her life. That Christmas in the mid-1950s, we were living in my grandparents’ basement apartment, paying them $20 a month rent and getting by on a little income from a small store my mother owned with her parents. The cost of those binoculars was a significant sacrifice for her.

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On a family vacation at 15.

My father was a wonderful man, by all accounts, and I hope to have the privilege of knowing him in some far-away future beyond this life. But in this life, my mother was forced to be the provider and guide and support—everything a parent needed to be. And often I asked way to much of her. She gave—without my really realizing all the sacrifices she made.

I still have that pair of binoculars, scarred by long use. They’re tucked away in a closet, inside what remains of their leather case. Today I have two or three newer pairs, for bird watching, travel, scenery. This morning I looked at the small pair I keep on the kitchen table for watching the cardinals, orioles, jays, and woodpeckers out back, and I thought of Mom. When I think of that older pair of binoculars, it is not without some guilt. I remember how much she gave and how much I asked when I was growing up. Now I wish I had been less greedy and less needy. But can we ever really know the sacrifices of parents until we are in that role ourselves?

Mom is with Dad now. She lived as a widow for 64 years. I hope they are enjoying the opportunity finally to work as a team. And I hope that some years hence I may meet them together and thank each of them for all they provided me.

But for now—thanks, Mom, for being Dad when you had to be.

 

 

 

“One Nation under God”

COB1 2My08The two words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance when I was a boy in elementary school. My very patriotic mother made sure I had an opportunity to know that pledge before I started school, and I can still remember learning to recite the pledge with those new words in the third or fourth grade.

No one objected at the time. Everyone seemed to agree that the addition was a good idea.

It’s hard to imagine that such a change would be accepted now. I am surprised that in this era of secularism in government, the Pledge of Allegiance has not faced serious legal challenges.

It seems to me that we commonly say it incorrectly: “. . . one nation . . . under God . . . indivisible . . . .” When we separate nation and under God and indivisible, we are missing the point of those added words. If we are not a nation under God, then we will not be a nation indivisible. Only by following the moral guidance of a loving Heavenly Father can we be secure as a country and people.

We mortals each tend to look out for our own good. But this nation rises to greatness when we as individuals band together to work toward a common cause. The strength of the United States has come from individual willingness to bind ourselves to principles of morality and integrity. Greatness has come from a recognition that we are all children of the same Eternal Father, no matter what faith we espouse or what meetinghouse we attend.

We may not agree in all our thoughts, but if we want to remain free, we must be one in protecting the right to worship according to our own conscience. Each of us may enjoy this God-given right so long as we do not infringe on another’s right to pursue life in liberty. I believe that the United States was set up by divine providence to be a land where this freedom would exist.

In the Old Testament (Ezekiel 34:23), God said He would set one shepherd over His people. In the New Testament (John 10:16), Jesus Christ taught that there should be “one fold, and one shepherd.” In a modern volume of scripture, He taught: “. . . be one; and if ye are not one, ye are not mine” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:27).

Nvoo My17_02935We become better as a nation by becoming better individuals. If we divide ourselves from God and His teachings by ignoring Him, we will not be strong enough to stand alone.

Religions in general seem to agree that we ought to treat each other as children of the God who created us. What I know of Islam suggests that in its true form it protects the rights of all believers in God our Father. I cannot believe in a god who would teach his children to hate and slaughter each other to honor him. That is the kind of teaching we would expect from the enemy of God. Anyone who tries to deprive others of liberty or life in the name of Allah or Jesus Christ or Jehovah is hijacking religion to serve his own prejudices and sadistic, criminal lust for power. Mixing hate and slaughter with religion is taking the name of God in vain.

Three times now I have left this post for further review as I tried to refine and focus its central message, which is this: If we want to maintain our freedom, we must honor and obey the God who gave us law to govern us. I pray that our sacred right to worship Him according to conscience may continue to be respected. I fear it could be eroded away because of those who are unable to acknowledge a power higher than themselves.

If that right to worship is ever lost, may God have mercy on those of us in this country who believe. We will have no effective defense, moral or physical, but to pray for safety and hope for the best.

 

 

 

Tolerating Faith: Lessons from Nauvoo

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Sunset across the Mississippi, seen from Nauvoo

Nauvoo, Illinois, is a small place on an out-of-the-way bend in the Mississippi River. It rates a footnote in American history because for about four years in the mid-1800s it seemed a safe haven for persecuted members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—Mormons.

But suddenly Nauvoo is relevant again because we in America still have not learned lessons that should have been learned there in the 1840s.

Mormons had been driven from Missouri under threat of extermination, in the dead of the winter of 1838-39 with only the clothes on their backs. The mob war against them had been tacitly approved in an extermination order issued by the state’s governor. There had been murders, robberies, rapes, and beatings, including the massacre at Haun’s Mill. No one was spared—not even children. Their leader had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges for which there was no evidence.

Fleeing eastward, they found haven, and sympathetic helpers, in Illinois. They built up the new city of Nauvoo, and members began to gather there. But by 1844 their relationship with neighbors had gone sour again. The reasons were social and political as well as religious. Politicians began to fear the power of Mormons voting as a bloc. Their Christian religious beliefs were unorthodox. Among other things, some of them practiced polygamy, believing they were following a command of God given through a prophet. Much of the information that was circulated about them was false—lies concocted by people who were

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A memorial to Joseph and Hyrum Smith, martyrs for their faith, in front of the Nauvoo LDS Temple.

ignorant of their doctrine but wanted to turn public opinion against them. Their leader, Joseph Smith, was assassinated by a mob.

I have been reading a lot about Nauvoo lately because my wife and I will be spending some time there as missionaries. In a country that proclaims religious freedom, there is plenty of room for differing views on doctrine. Many Christians find reason not to accept LDS doctrine, and I would defend their right to do so. But facts from history leave little room to doubt that what happened to the Mormons of Nauvoo was unjust and criminal.

The federal government failed to protect them and their rights. State governments failed to protect them. They were driven out of the then-United States to the Great Salt Lake Valley. When that territory was annexed by the United States a short time later, the persecution over their beliefs continued until—again by the command of a prophet who received a revelation from God—they abandoned the practice of polygamy. Before that happened, enemies tried to destroy the Church with laws targeting their beliefs (beliefs that seem relatively tame now, in an era when courts are dealing with issues of same-sex marriage and gender by choice).

But all that persecution is past now, right?

Or does some of this sound familiar in light of current events?

Today, we still have religious minorities under attack because their beliefs are different. Demagoguery and unsubstantiated, bigoted rhetoric has given the hate-mongers in our society license to go after people they fear or dislike.

Christians, including Mormons, who hold to the belief that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman are under attack by those who see themselves as more enlightened and more sensitive to acceptable social norms. Many people cite religious freedom as they reject traditional beliefs about morality, yet they are willing to violate the freedom of others by trying to force them to accept ideas repugnant to their consciences.

People who hate don’t seem to need a reason to attack Judaism, and haters attack Muslims based on half-truths or falsehoods. What little I know of Islam suggests it is a religion of peace whose name has been hijacked by remorseless and sadistic criminals. In any case, barring or booting people from the United States based on the fact that they come from a predominantly Muslim country does not live up to the ideal of religious freedom we hold up for the world. Never mind that Christians are not given tolerant treatment or religious freedom in Muslim countries; this country espouses a higher standard. Let’s live up to it.

An attack on the religious freedom of any minority is an attack on the religious freedom of all of us. We do not have to agree on doctrine to agree that we each deserve the right to worship according to our own faith. Whether we call him God or Heavenly Father, Yahweh or Allah, our obligation of faith and obedience is to Him, and no one should interfere with that so long as our worship does not hurt anyone else.

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The inscription below the tower on the Nauvoo Temple proclaims “Holiness to the Lord.”

One basic Mormon tenet is this: “We claim the privilege of worshipping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may” (Articles of Faith). No one need be a Mormon to accept that this is a fair expectation of religious freedom. I can easily live and work alongside those who believe and worship differently than I. We will no doubt find that we have much more in common than we knew.

So, back to the lessons of Nauvoo. Mormons were victimized, persecuted, and driven out in Missouri, then Illinois ostensibly over religious differences. Has that kind of persecution stopped in this country? No, not for religious minorities whose views are seen as incorrect by self-appointed arbiters of social norms, and not for those who are the targets of hate.

Neither those who hate nor those who impose politically correct theology actually believe in religious freedom. Their view is that it should apply to those who see things their way, or those who share their ethnic heritage or skin color. The haters and the politically correct are often in the same camp. In the name of orthodoxy or racial and ethnic purity, they are willing to forego tolerance. They let themselves believe that people who do not share their philosophy or their heritage don’t deserve or can’t be trusted to handle freedom of choice.

It’s time for those who truly cherish religious freedom to say, “Enough.”

It is long past time for those who say—with fingers crossed—that America stands for religious freedom to act like they really mean it.

It is time for religious freedom without qualifications—without this mental reservation: “if they believe and worship as I do.”

 

 

“Save the government”

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When our third- and fourth-grade grandchildren come over to visit, they like to play in the unfinished room in our basement. Sometimes they set up the card tables and chairs to play “school,” or “store,” or “city government.” I was a bit shocked and saddened a couple of days ago to find two signs they had posted on the wall: “Save the government,” and “Make it so terror does not become the government.”

I wondered: Are we adults responsible for this? Have we somehow instilled in them such anxiety about what is going on in the world that they fear for their freedom? Is this the legacy national leaders are leaving to children—doubt and fear?

Children should not have to worry that their way of life—freedom as they know it—is going to disappear.

They hear, and they know. Times have been tumultuous recently, especially in the political arena. Our resolve and our commitment to a democratic republic have been tested, and the tests are ongoing.

Integrity seemed to be an early casualty in the 2016 election campaign. Honesty and civility suffered severe setbacks. Freedom of speech and thought are under ongoing attack.

But I still have confidence in the right to think and speak what we believe to be right. I have hope that in the end this freedom will prevail.

Now, I am a natural-born pessimist. I tend to believe Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” I live prepared for people to disappoint me, seeking their own welfare first and foremost, ignoring the common good. (And how often, I have to ask, am I guilty of this?)

Fortunately, my wife–ever the optimist in our home–balances me out.

But as I have gotten older, I have become more optimistic. I have come to realize more and more that living in expectation of trouble is no way to build a worthwhile life. If you want happiness, look for it, seek it out, and if necessary, make it yourself. If you don’t want to be weighed down by gloom at the end of the day, look for happiness and joy along the way. They are there when you pay attention. Did you find them in the slant of early light through the trees this morning? In the mother at the store with a young child, or children, curiously and delightedly getting to know the world around them? In a quiet opportunity to read and ponder great ideas?

More and more I have tried to implement in my life the counsel of a man I accepted and honored as a prophet of God. Gordon B. Hinckley taught: “There is a terrible epidemic of pessimism in the land. . . . I come . . . with a plea that we stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight.” He shared this counsel from his wise father: “Cynics do not contribute, skeptics do not create, doubters do not achieve.”

We can all learn from our mistakes, of course, and we all have need to repent of our sins and errors. But when we look at those mistakes, do we also consider the good that may have come from our more selfless actions?

Struggle in this life begins when we are very young, and it will continue as long as we live on earth. After more than 70 years of facing it, the only useful approach I see to dealing with this struggle is simply to keep going on. Move forward. When you keep moving forward, you eventually reach your goals.

Again, I have come to rely on the counsel of Gordon B. Hinckley: “Keep trying. . . . Be believing. Be happy. Don’t get discouraged. Things will work out.”

That is a lesson I hope to help my grandchildren learn.

 

 

The Rose Parade and Repentance

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This wasn’t what people came to see—a man with a banner and a bullhorn calling on them to repent or face the wrath of God.

They came to see the annual Rose Parade, an event whose organizers like to call it rose-prd-2ja17_dsc00293America’s New Year celebration. They came to see pageantry and pomp and beauty. What they saw instead, before the parade, was people telling them they are wicked and sinful and they’re on their way to being damned.

Spectators along our part of the parade route didn’t take this news well. The people with the banners and bullhorns were booed, there were snickers and jibes about their message, and there were cheers and clapping when the police motorcycle squad came along to clear them off the parade route.

It was hardly news that many of us are sinners—or at least it wasn’t to me. I know that I often do things Jesus Christ would not have approved. I am a man full of mortal weakness, and I certainly have need to repent. But most of us don’t enjoy being called out publicly for our hypocrisy or vanity or weakness.

I know that Jesus Christ will come again to the earth and we will all be responsible for the way we have lived our lives here. But the preaching we heard on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena that day didn’t seem like the best way to spread the good news of His gospel. There was a lot about wrath and very little about the hope He extends to us if we repent. I believe hope is more effective in changing lives than chastisement. We all know our own sins. What we need to understand is how things can change for us when we give them up.

Still, I have to admire the courage of the people who were out there preaching. They must have known they would be received with ridicule and antagonism. It was the same reception given to prophets in Old Testament times, in Christ’s day, in Book of Mormon societies, and even in the present day. Those street preachers in Pasadena knew that what they did before the Rose Parade would be uncomfortable, unwelcome to many, possibly even hazardous. It took faith and deep commitment to their beliefs.

Something tells me that all of us who believe are going to need this kind of courage and commitment in coming days. Many of believe that a child knowingly invited by two people to grow in the womb has a right to experience life on this earth. Many of us believe that our gender is an assignment given before we came to earth and that rejecting it is rejecting a path God wants us to follow. Many of us believe that marriage was instituted by God to create a partnership in which one of His daughters and one of His sons grow together through mortal life, and beyond. We who believe these things are accused of ignorance, of bigotry, of narrow-mindedness by those who wish to force us to accept their way of thinking.

It is as though we were heretically teaching that the earth is round, when everyone agrees it must be flat, or that the emperor, naked as the day he was born, is wearing a beautiful new suit of clothes. Our very right to believe anything other than the groupthink favored by the most vocal and strident among us is being challenged. There are indications that anyone in our society who cannot accept a new “reality” that ignores moral anchors can expect to be punished. We may be shunned or charged, illogically, with hate and prejudice. There will be no escaping the intellectual tyranny.

If we insist on maintaining our right to believe according to our faith, and not according to the dictates of an unmoored society, we may need the depth of commitment of those street preachers at the Rose Parade.