Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Three-Fold Mission of the Chruch

Some thoughts:

In a General Conference talk some years ago, Elder F. Melvin Hammond of the First Quorum of the Seventy related an experience he had had while camping with his young son. After a full day, Elder Hammond lay down with his son to sleep and was just drifting off when he heard his son ask, “Dad, are you awake?” That simple question prompted Elder Hammond to reevaluate his performance as a priesthood leader in the home, as a husband, and as a father. He in turn asks each of us to review our own lives; are we “asleep when it comes to the things that are most important”?

The scriptures are full of warnings against spiritual slumber and physical sloth alike. In the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord commands that we “cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated.” We are taught in the New Testament by the example of the Savior who, “in the morning, rising up a great while before day … went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.” Paul explains just why it is so important to use our limited time according to the pattern that the Lord has set; he reminds us that “now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.”

The command to physically and spiritually awaken ourselves is not a condemnation of our past behavior but an invitation to improve our lives; even the prophet Nephi, whose faith and righteousness are exemplary, felt the need to cry out in prayer, “Awake my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.” As we imitate Nephi’s example, we will discover with the psalmist that “joy cometh in the morning.” In General conference, the prophets have invited us to find peace in consistent temple service, and the early morning endowment sessions offered at most temples are truly an opportunity to find joy in the morning. As the Lord’s authorized messenger, the modern prophets and apostles are, like Isaiah, pleading with us to “Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem,” and if we make the temple a focal point in our lives, we will find the joy and protection he has promised in return.

In the temple we receive the ordinances of exaltation, and we are “endowed with power from on high.” The temple is a source of spiritual strength on which to draw in times of trouble and doubt, and those who frequent the house of the Lord have been promised spiritual and temporal protections unavailable in any other place or in any other way. As Elder David A. Bednar explained in the last General Conference of the Church, “[t]here is a difference between church-attending, tithe-paying members who occasionally rush into the temple to go through a session and those members who faithfully and consistently worship in the temple.” As we make the temple a permanent and consistent part of our lives, we “come to understand better the protection available through our temple covenants and what it means to make an acceptable offering of temple worship.”

Our collective obligation to attend the temple regularly was explained by the prophet Malachi, who promised to “send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” Joseph Smith explained that this welding link which must be established between ourselves and the generations who came before “is the baptism for the dead. For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect.’ The eternal progression of our ancestors is only made possible when we serve as proxies for them in the temple, as they receive saving and exalting ordinances unavailable to the vast majority of the men and women who have ever inhabited this earth. Our own eternal progression is predicated on our willingness to follow the example of Jesus Christ and become “saviors of men” in the temple—to enable all of our Heavenly Father’s children to accept and be cleansed by the Atonement of the Savior.

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, our service to those who came before us is easier to perform than it has ever been before. Elder Richard G. Scott, describing his experience at recent temple dedications, stated that “more than once, in my mind, I have seen an inverted cone of individuals beginning at the temple and rising upward. I have felt that they represent many spirits waiting for the vicarious work to be done for them in that sanctuary, rejoicing because finally there is a place that can free them from the chains that hold them back in their eternal progress. In order to achieve this end, you will need to do the vicarious work. You will need to identify your ancestors. The new FamilySearch program makes the effort easier than before.”

Not only is the Church’s family history software constantly improving, but new vital records are constantly being added to the online pool of genealogical information at our fingertips. We have been invited to further speed that process by indexing—transcribing names and other information available in census records—from digital images. Any worker in one of the Church's Family History Centers, can help you get started; it only takes thirty minutes or so to expand the pool of potential temple beneficiaries by fifty names. Please do not be intimidated by the technology. If you can type, even if it is only with one finger, you can index. This is a wonderful Sabbath activity that makes a form of temple worship available from the comfort of our own homes even when the temple itself is closed.

When we serve as temple patrons or engage in indexing and family history work, we become living extensions of our Savior’s love for all humanity, agents of His mercy. The Lord’s mercy is the means by which we are forgiven of our mortal faults and failures; His “arm of mercy hath atoned for [our] sins.” The act of extending mercy is a central part of our Father’s work “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man,” and when we became the Lord’s “agents” by taking his name upon ourselves at baptism, we agreed to be “on the Lord’s errand.” God has promised to send “an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them,” and we are responsible to be that invitation, to be a tangible representation of His eternal love and mercy towards all with whom we come in contact. This is the errand on which He has sent us. The mercy of Jesus Christ is that “light which shineth, which giveth [us] light,” and we are called to share His light with others, to “let [our] light so shine before men, that they may see [our] good works, and glorify” God. How well do we reflect His light? Have we extended His merciful invitation to all those around us?

An invitation to attend church or to listen to the missionary discussions can be a lifeline for those struggling to stay spiritually afloat among the swamping breakers of sin. Jesus Christ urges us to “Remember [that] the worth of souls is great in the sight of God … Wherefore you are called to cry repentance unto this people. And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy in the kingdom of my Father! And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me into the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me!” We can and we must fulfill our obligation to act as spiritual lifeguards, to provide life-saving spiritual nourishment to our neighbors.

Of course, we already know that it is a privilege to assist the full-time missionaries in bringing others into the waters of baptism; that is why we routinely pray for the missionaries to find the pure in heart. But, as Elder Bednar notes, “it is my responsibility and your responsibility to find people for the missionaries to teach. Missionaries are full-time teachers; you and I are full-time finders. And you and I as lifelong missionaries should not be praying for the full-time missionaries to do our work!” We may have invited many of our friends and neighbors to hear the missionary discussions or to read the Book of Mormon, and the Lord is surely pleased with those efforts. But we have not invited everyone we could invite, and if we answer honestly when the missionaries ask us whether we know someone who we have not yet invited to hear about the gospel, our answer should always be “Yes!”

We extend invitations to hear the good news of the restored gospel because we love those whom we invite and want them to share our knowledge of the plan of happiness, and our concern for their well-being does not end once they have been confirmed members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We have a responsibility for both the spiritual and the physical well-being of our brothers and sisters and ought to follow the example of the people of Ammon. When the Zoramite converts were expelled from their homes and forced to take refuge in Jershon, the people of Ammon “did receive all the poor of the Zoramites that came over unto them; and they did nourish them, and did clothe them, and did give them lands for their inheritance; and they did administer unto them according to their wants.” The people of Ammon welcomed and cared for the poor because they understood the Savior’s teaching that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

At baptism we covenant to become disciples of Jesus Christ and “to be called his people.” Part of this spiritual transformation involves making a commitment “to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and … to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” But because you and I have limited capacities to know whose physical burdens need lifting and whose lives lack basic physical comforts, divinely inspired leaders have established programs that provide temporal assistance to members of the Church and to nonmembers in need throughout the world. These programs are funded by the generous donations of disciples: fast offerings provide church members without means the necessities of life; the Perpetual Education Fund allows uneducated church members to qualify themselves for well-compensated careers; and the Church’s Humanitarian Services division provides basic services to non-members throughout the world.

In order to qualify for a temple recommend, we must pay a full tithing, but we have also been instructed to offer generously to these other programs. Consider this counsel from President Spencer W. Kimball regarding the payment of fast offerings: “Sometimes we have been a bit penurious and figured that we had for breakfast one egg and that cost so many cents and then we give that to the Lord. I think that when we are affluent, as many of us are, that we ought to be very, very generous. … I think we should … give, instead of the amount saved by our two meals of fasting, perhaps much, much more—ten times more where we are in a position to do it.” My own stake president, President Harding, has echoed this counsel and noted in the last general stake priesthood meeting that only 25% of the households in our stake currently contribute to the fast offering funds. If these numbers are representative--and they very well may be--This means that 75% of us are not receiving the blessings that a loving Father in Heaven wishes to bestow.

Malachi asks, “Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” Brothers and sisters, we need those blessings. When we “deal [our] bread to the hungry,” the Lord has promised that “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.”

As we give of our time, talents and other resources with which the Lord has blessed us “to succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees,” we will in turn receive spiritual strength and physical protection from the Lord. It is only as we lose ourselves in the service of others that we find “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.” As we follow the counsel of our late prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley and put forth “a little more effort, a little more self-discipline, a little more consecrated effort in the direction of excellence,” we will be enabled “to stand a little taller, rise a little higher, be a little better.” Then shall our “confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and [His peace] shall distill upon [our souls] as the dews from heaven.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Glenn Beck, Walter Benn Michaels, and a Vocabulary Lesson

Glenn Beck said something stupid. In making this statement I don't mean to criticize Beck for claiming that President Obama favored one group of Americans over another group (although that may be true too; I haven't really been paying attention to that aspect of the story, sorry)--rather, I mean to criticize Beck (and everyone else who has commented on this "news" story) for continuing to use an obsolete vocabulary. The primary problem with Beck calling Obama a racist is not one of prejudice; the primary problem with Beck calling Obama a racist is that "race" doesn't exist.

Thanks to the marvels of modern technology and the Human Genome Project, scientists have been able to look at every piece of DNA in people from a variety of racial backgrounds--and you know what they found? There is nothing--NOTHING--that biologically and consistently distinguishes one human being from another, regardless of the "race" that those two individuals belong to. Claiming kinship with other individuals on the basis of a common skin color makes no more sense than claiming kinship with individuals that share your height, hair color, or shoe size. Race is, or at least should be, dead.

Instead, race has been reinvented as culture--there is no such thing as an "African American race" but there is "African American culture" and "Native American culture" and "Jewish culture." This is a problem for a number of reasons, not least of which being the fact that "culture" is something that you can choose to claim or reject--not something that is inherently you. For this reason, we now have people who have adopted alternative identities--as a homosexual, as a Mormon, as a born-again Christian, etc.--as their culture, and they demand the same protections for those identities that we are accustomed to awarding people of different races (who we thought were biologically different).

Now, please note--I am not suggesting that African Americans and Native Americans don't have different skin tones than the rest of us, or that Jews and homosexuals and Mormons and born-again Christians don't have distinctive cultural practices that set them apart. They do. Some of the things that lead us to adopt cultural identities are genetic and some are a matter of choice; the cause of cultural distinctions is less important than the effect--the erasure of a common identity that we all share as human beings--as children of God. When we label ourselves, whether as a Jew or an African American or even as a Mormon, we subordinate all other aspects of ourselves to that identification, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

Do the following exercise mentally. How strongly do you identify with each of the following "identity" labels? Rank them 1-10. Which one would go at the top of your list?

resident of a geographical region (southerner, East-coast/West-coast, Yankee, etc)
religious affiliation/status
human being (as opposed to another biological species)
Child of God
national identity (American, Polish, Irish, Mexican)
sexual attraction
family status (single, married, father/mother, son/daughter, etc.)
racial identity
education level
occupation (doctor, lawyer, cop, teacher, etc.)

Identity is something we compile in layers, and it's really important that we are self-conscious in deciding which layers go on top and which can be subordinated--otherwise, we might end up prioritizing our national identity over our religious identity, or our occupation over our family status. This is why the "signature" of all my emails has two headings. First I give my home address with the title "Husband and Father" (and husband comes first for a reason). Then I give my school address with the title "Student and Teacher" (and student comes first for a reason). Those are four layers of my identity, and I've prioritized them publicly so that everyone I correspond with knows that I'm a husband first, father second, student (learner) third, and teacher fourth. This is why one of my professors has a picture of the world on his office door with the caption: "Homeland." His identity as a human being is more important to him than his identity as an American citizen.

I could write a lot more...but my wife is calling me for bed--so on to the second half of my post.

All of this has served (hopefully) as an introduction and a plug for a book I read recently: The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, by Walter Benn Michaels.

This is the best--and most important book--I have read since Supercapitalism. Michaels's basic argument is that because race is non-existent, we ought to replace it with more meaningful categories of identity (something I agree with him about). He suggests that we should prioritize class over race--essentially that affirmative action should be applied to poor people instead of to minorities, women, and people with other protected cultural identities (something I mostly agree with him about).

This book is superbly written and reasoned--a pleasure (and a quick pleasure at that) to read. READ IT! Here are some excerpts of the (many) sections that caused me to smile and think a little bit deeper about race and identity politics:

"An important issue of social justice hangs on not discriminating against people because of their hair color or their skin color or their sexuality. No issue of social justice hangs on appreciating hair color diversity; no issue of social justice hangs on appreciating racial or cultural diversity." (15)

"The American version of Sartre's 'the Jew is one whom others consider a Jew' was produced, as we have already noted, by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1940 when he wrote that 'the black man is a person who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia.' But the beliefs about race that underlay the Jim Crow laws have turned out to be mistaken; we no longer believe them, and we no longer have Jim Crow. So the true meaning of Du Bois's definition should now be clear; if a black man is a man who has to ride Jim Crow, there is no such thing as a black man. Or a white man either. There are people with different colors of skin, different textures of hair, different heights and different weights, different kinds of abilities and different kinds of disabilities. But there are no people of different races." (47-48)

"My main point here is not, however, that religious beliefs are mistaken. It is instead that disputes about religion--understood as the pope understands them, as disputes about what is universally true--are useful reminders that you can't exactly be for diversity of beliefs in the way that you can be for diversity of identities." (188)

"So where OMB (The Congressional Office of Management and Budget) says that you belong to whatever race you perceive yourself as belonging to, Bartlett thinks you belong to whatever class you perceive yourself as belonging to. [...] In fact, the social construction of class is even more useful than the social construction of race, since the social construction of race just enables you to ignore the difference between the rich and the poor while the social construction of class makes it possible to eliminate it. If you can really convince yourself that people belong to whatever class they thing they belong to and if you can get everybody (the rich and the poor) to think they belong to the middle class, then you've accomplished the trick of redistributing wealth without actually transferring any money. Marx used to describe religion as the opium of the people because it promised them in heaven what they couldn't get on earth. The American dream is more effective; it assures us that we don't have to wait for the afterlife. The poor already have what they haven't got, and the rich don't really have what they do. Everybody's happy." (196-97)

If those quotes don't make you rush to your local library, I don't know what will. Happy reading!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why I Love My Job

I've been writing my dissertation--an in-depth look at the way Eden was portrayed and thought about in colonial New England--all summer. Typically I disappear in my office at 8:30 AM and don't reappear until 4:30 PM. Every once in a while my wife, Alana, will peek into the room to make sure that I'm staying on track--she feels cheated if I am not working while she is, and rightly so.

Well, when she walked in last week, she was sure that she had caught me pursuing extracurricular interests--probably thought that I was reading Nibley or someone similar, because I was typing under the following subtitle

Entering The Temple: Two Pathways to Paradisiacal Purity

Alana was sure that I was thinking and writing about Mormon temples, but I was actually discussing a poem written by George Herbert and published in his volume The Temple (1633). The temple was a place that Herbert connected with Eden, and one of the poems in it is "Paradise."


I bless thee, Lord, because I GROW
Among thy trees, which in a ROW
To thee both fruit and order OW.

What open force, or hidden CHARM
Can blast my fruit, or bring me HARM,
While the inclosure is thine ARM?

Inclose me still for fear I START
Be to me rather sharp and TART,
Than let me want thy hand and ART.

When thou dost greater judgments SPARE,
And with thy knife but prune and PARE,
Ev’n fruitful trees more fruitful ARE.

Such sharpness shows the sweetest FREND:
Such cutting rather heal than REND:
And such beginnings touch their END.

It's a lovely poem, not least because it illustrates so beautifully the truth that we must all be refined and molded while here in mortality--a process that can hurt! Herbert illustrates this systematic pruning with his end rhymes, and each of those rhymes follows a progression, from something positive (FREND) to something negative (REND) to something neutral (END). We must recognize that God sends both the good and the bad in our lives, and that both types of experience help to purge off the dross, as it were, to refine our spirits and souls so that we can reach our eternal end.

I love my job for any number of reasons, not least of which because I can go to The Temple on the clock. Jealous?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pilgrimage Part Four: Walls

Walls are a big deal in the Holy Land. Besides the wall around Old Jerusalem (pictured previously), you've got the Western Wall/Wailing Wall pictured above. There is EXTENSIVE--and I do mean extensive--security in all of the tunnels leading here. But the most interesting part of this scene to me is the other wall in the picture--that subdivides the Western Wall into two pieces. The big piece is for men and the little piece is for women. As you can see, there are twice as many women as men, even though there's twice as much wall for men to pray at. Sad but typical of my experience in the Holy Land. I wrote down my own prayer and wedged it in up high; it's surprisingly easy to pack a new prayer into the cracks.

Of course, there are also other walls in the Holy Land, most notably this one, which divides the Palestinian territories from those under the control of the Israelis. Since the wall is built by Israelis to herd the Palestinians onto progressively smaller patches of land, all of the graffiti is on the Palestinian side. I took pictures of the best samples...

I liked the comparison to the Berlin Wall...but it was a solemn thing to imagine my tax dollars hard at work dividing a nation in the same way that communist Russia helped divide Germany.

This one was probably my personal favorite--the irony is just too rich, especially since this particular section of wall surrounds Rachel's tomb and a garden that David supposedly planted there.

I have to wonder about this one, since the majority of people on either side of the conflict are either Muslim or Jewish. Is it a third-party commentary on the consequences of conflict between two non-Christian states or the product of Christian Palestinians?

And of course, what's a wall without razor wire? Can't wait for a child to come and play at the base...