Tag Archives: Christian

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.”

 

 

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.

Good-bye to One of God’s Nobles

carl-funeralWe said good-bye to our friend Carl a couple of days ago. He passed away doing something he loved—looking for a little gold. Someone found him in one of the wild places of Idaho where he loved to go to pan for small flakes of the precious metal.

Carl would smile and say that he had gold fever. But he never cared about getting rich from the gold. He just loved being out in those beautiful, solitary places. It was always Carl and his beloved companion Buddy, the black and white spaniel, out there by one of those streams. Then a few months ago, sadly, Buddy had to be put down.

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Carl teaches a grandson about panning for gold.

Carl always gave away the gold he discovered. Many family members and friends have a memento of his search for gold—a necklace with a small blue stone and a flake of gold for the women, or a tie tack in the shape of a gold pan with a flake of gold in it for the men.

That was the way Carl lived—always giving. We saw him from time to time walking past our house to check on the blind widow who lived on the other side of us. We learned at the funeral that he wasn’t just checking in at her door. He would sit and read to her for her pleasure.

Carl was buried with military honors. He served in Vietnam almost 50 years ago. He was trained for combat, but his posting had him in support areas behind the lines. He could not stand the Army’s “hurry up and wait” between assignments, so he scrounged some materials and built a “hootch” for him and his tent mates to live in. It afforded more protection than their tent. When his superiors saw what he had done by himself, they pulled Carl off of some of his regular assignments, provided the needed materials, and had him build more hootches to house other soldiers.

He was always resourceful. Sometime after returning home, he was in a snowmobile accident that severely damaged nerves in his left arm. He could use his hand well enough, but he carried the arm in a homemade leather sling strap he had made. He became a handyman to people in the small pioneer farm town where he lived. He was skilled in carpentry, plumbing, and maintenance. From across the street, he watched over our house for us when we weren’t there.

One day Carl saw me out trying to cut some dead limbs off a tree. He strolled over to tell me I ought to let him do that. What he said next was horrifying: “You’re so much more valuable to the kingdom of God than I am, and you could get hurt up there working on that ladder.” I assured him firmly that if there were any question of ranking in heaven, I would certainly not rank above him. But there was no dissuading him from the chore. Standing on the ladder, he used his good arm to swing the chain saw up to rest the blade on a limb, then triggered the saw to cut through the dead wood, and when the limb fell, let the saw swing in an arc down past his leg. He did it again and again, until the dead limbs were gone.

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The gold never made him a rich man–but the searching did.

The funeral was well-attended. Everyone in town knew and trusted Carl. When Mrs. S. went across the street beforehand to see if she could retrieve our house keys, Carl’s daughter had to sort through many sets. It seems Carl had access to quite a number of the houses in town. We never knew when he had visited our house unless he told us; he always left everything in good order.

Carl was not perfect. None of us is. But he was vastly underrated by many people—including Carl. He was the kind of person the world desperately needs. His passing is a loss to us all.

With all he knew about everyone in town, I never heard him say a critical word about anyone. It just wasn’t in him. He could laugh about someone’s very human foibles—including his own—or allow as how he might have done things differently. But he wasn’t one to speak ill.

In his relationships with other people as in his hobby, Carl always looked for the gold.

 

Among Believers

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Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Our worship service was a bit different last Sunday. It involved seven people balanced on the edges of beds or on hard chairs in a small hotel room in St. John’s, New Brunswick. We came from three different countries and four different faiths.

What the seven of us had in common was belief in Jesus Christ and a desire to worship Him on the Sabbath. We met in that hotel room at the invitation of a Presbyterian minister from Illinois traveling with our tour group. He followed the order of worship he would have followed at his pulpit back home that day.

Those of us in that room could have found doctrinal differences, I am sure, if we had chosen to discuss them. Instead, what we found together was comfort in the knowledge that through the Lord Jesus Christ we all may be forgiven of our sins and become better followers of His.

In several cities during this trip, my wife and I have seen many people who appear to be wandering aimlessly in life. They seem to know how to fill their days with activity, but not how to fill their lives with growth and useful experiences.

Lunenburg 27Jn16_02991BAnd yet we have met others who find fulfillment in giving of themselves. In our tour group, these included the outdoorsman who has spent many years in lifesaving on Australian beaches, and the teacher who uses music to help young people through their educational and emotional struggles. The minister and his wife are also among those people who purposefully give to others. While he and I might have differences on theological themes, I have to admire his willingness to share the knowledge of God with others. In that he is an example to me.

In high school, an agnostic friend of mine once said that Hell is every church’s gift to every other church. He was too cynical, I think, and too inexperienced to see how good can draw people together no matter what their backgrounds. I believe in a loving, caring Heavenly Father who will reward every one of His Children for the good we do, no matter what church we attend.

On a personal level, some doctrinal differences matter very much to me. I dare not minimize the principles of faith to which I am committed. Belief in those principles has shaped every crucial decision in my life. Trying to live those principles is making me a better disciple of Christ. I will hold them dear even as many in the world abandon them, and even if my beliefs are challenged and mocked.

Lunenburg 27Jn16_02982BBut I do not believe that God reserves His blessings only for those who share my doctrinal views and my church affiliation. Experience teaches that there are many upstanding people of other churches—or of no church—who are intent on doing good to those around them. Surely God will answer the prayers of any of His children who desire righteousness. Often we mortals simply need to work on understanding the wisdom of His answer, be it “Yes,” “No,” or “Follow the counsel I have already given in my holy scriptures.” Sometimes the answer may be, “Are you ready to follow the direction I will give you through my Holy Spirit?” Jesus Christ wasn’t just leading us on when He taught that if we ask in faith, we will receive (Matthew 21:22).

So on a Sunday far from home, we were grateful to be among a group of believers—people who believe in asking for His blessings, and who have the faith to receive.

Heaven to Hell in 72 Hours

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Oakland Mall

We spent Wednesday evening at the nicest mall we’ve seen anywhere in the world. There are touches of luxury everywhere, beginning with the red or green lights above the underground parking spaces to show empty stalls.

Name a brand of expensive wristwatch or sportswear and you can probably find it here. Models in off-the- shoulder mini-dresses distribute samples of expensive perfumes or gourmet chocolate. People who are used to shopping at Saks 5th Avenue or on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills could feel at home in this place. It is a palace of conspicuous consumption.

In the movie theater, there are plush recliner seats similar to those in first class on an airliner. The popcorn is cheaper than in theaters at home—but we order from our seats, and it is delivered by a dark-suited waiter.

If your life were dedicated to acquiring things or treating yourself to pleasant experiences, it would be easy to think that heaven ought to be like this.

In contrast, on Saturday, Sister S. and I had the privilege of joining a group of evangelical Christians as they distributed clothing, blankets, children’s toys, and food to people who live in the Guatemala City landfill, a ravine below the city cemetery.

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Guatemala City landfill

Each day these people dig through heaps of garbage to eke out their subsistence by salvaging repairable or recyclable items from the trash. The largest flock of buzzards I have ever seen circles overhead like seagulls over a hoard of picnickers at the beach. The scene reminds me of one of Dante’s circles of hell—but it is all too real, all too concrete. No words or photos can capture the unrelenting stench of decay or the feel of grit in your teeth from the fine dust that swirls in the winds of this ravine.

Some 1,500 people lined up to receive gifts and a light lunch of a roll, a Guatemalan tamale wrapped in a banana leaf, and a glass of punch.

The visitors who brought the gifts were mostly Guatemalans, but they also included a visiting family from Iowa and a handful of LDS senior missionaries from all over the United States, with visiting family members in tow. Gifts were donated by both businesses and individuals; several hundred of the blankets were provided by LDS missionaries.

Guat landfill_460bThe group brought along a generator, portable sound system, and keyboard. A talented musician spent the hours in the landfill singing Christian pop music, trying to spread a bit of the word about Jesus. At the edge of the crowd, a man in tattered clothing and what might have been dreadlocks (or maybe only matted hair) danced along.

My wife and I went home to enjoy long showers—and felt a little guilty just for having the privilege.

We have to admire people so dedicated to helping the least fortunate among us. Members of the Guatemalan group sponsoring the activity, la Asociación del Cinco, have pledged to donate five percent of their income to helping the poor.

But what is the best way for us to help people so poor?

Discussions about the problem too often are polarized. On one side are those who say, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. Let them do the same. That way they’ll appreciate what they get.” Others may answer, “These people are so far down they’ll never get out of their hole, and society owes it to them to help. We’ve got to take from those who have in order to give to those who have not.”

What’s the right answer? I don’t know. But surely there has to be some viable middle ground.

Those who work most closely with people at this level of poverty say the answer isn’t simply to give them money. It’s spent too fast, with no lasting result.

Education may well be the answer—in the long run. There’s a public school perched on the edge of the ravine that serves the children of the area. By law children and teens are no longer allowed to work in the landfill with their parents; they should be in school. La Asociación del Cinco also has a school to help some of the children eight to 12 years old.

Human nature being what it is, there are undoubtedly some at the dump who would not take advantage of an offer of help if it required long-term commitment. But could there not be some system worked out to help those willing to train for viable jobs? Perhaps instead of paying back the aid they receive, they could pay it forward, helping finance retraining for others. It seems like an idea worth a try. I for one would support it.

In the meantime, those who are sacrificing every day to help people trapped in poverty—people condemned to live in the dump—have all my respect.

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Food for the hungry.

Why I Believe

NativityThe longer I live, the more it seems to me that those who truly believe in God—those who live as though they are actually going to meet Him someday—are generally happier and more productive in life.

They could respond easily to the admonition of Peter to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

Admittedly, I have been shaped by different experiences than other people, but still, it is difficult for me to understand why some people do not believe in God, especially because there seem to be so many things that testify of Him.

I cannot comprehend atheism. It seems to be the most ignorant and most superstitious of all philosophical positions about God—ignorant because it stubbornly refuses to pursue certain avenues of learning about Him, and superstitious because it clings desperately to the need to be right. After all, the alternative is simply too horrible to contemplate.

For a time in high school, one of my best friends was an agnostic who was steeped in science. He said he did not know whether God exists, but nothing in his experience convinced him that Deity was involved in the affairs of mankind. That seemed at least a rational position; he could not affirm the existence of God because he did not know from his own experience.

But it is a big leap from there to the assertion that God does not exist. Every atheist’s argument that I have ever heard boils down in the end to this: “I know that God does not exist because I have not seen him.” That is supposed to be convincing? The most effective, most rational answer I have ever seen to the atheist’s assertion is this from a prophet in the Book of Mormon: “And now what evidence have ye that there is no God . . . ? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only” (Alma 30:40).

A god by definition does not have to respond to man’s demands to prove Himself. Yet all I know of Heavenly Father suggests that He is willing, even eager, to testify of Himself to us, His beloved children—on His own terms.

I am reminded here of the scientific method. When scientists set up experiments to prove or disprove a hypothesis, they try to take into account all the factors that could influence the outcome. They recognize that there may be influences they do not yet understand or have not seen. And yet, with regard to knowledge about God, some will record the result of the experiment without actually carrying it out—without taking into account the factors of faith that would be crucial to knowing God. They say, in effect: “There could not possibly be anything about this situation that I do not yet understand.”

The arrogance of that is almost stunning.

My high school friend and I agreed it would be impossible to “prove” the existence of God by any mortal means.

And yet I know that God exists.

Some would ask if I have seen Him, or heard His voice.

No, I have not seen His person or heard Him speak to my mortal ears.

But I have heard Him. He has answered my pleas very specifically and spoken to me in my heart in ways that were incontrovertibly true. Sometimes He has done it through other people, sometimes He has done it directly. But no one else could have known the specific questions in my heart and mind, nor could anyone else have answered in ways that were so undeniably beyond mortal capability.

Will I share the details? No. Those answers are sacred to me. They were gifts to me alone to strengthen and guide. They would not apply to everyone in general, and I will not risk sharing them with anyone who may not treat them as sacred.

But I will promise you that you can get answers for yourself. All you have to do is set up an experiment in faith that admits the possibility of God. If you truly want to know, He will answer you in His own way—in the way that will be most understandable and plain to you—and in His own time. (I think I can also promise that if you go into such an experiment with the attitude “This isn’t going to work,” you will be right.) You may be surprised at the result of your experiment in faith. My high school friend eventually became a Christian, though I never heard from him how that happened. The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis once considered himself agnostic. His conversion to Christianity and deep faith are a matter of public record.

God would never compel you to believe; that isn’t His way. He allows us freedom to choose what we will believe and how we will act—with the understanding that we will eventually be accountable to Him. But as a loving Father, He is eager to respond if we extend our trust to Him.

Of course we can use the freedom He gives us to live our lives trying to ignore Him. If we do this, we can never know with any mental or spiritually certainty that He is there.

But please do not tell me that you know He is not there because you have not seen Him. That is no evidence. That is arrogance.