Truly a Disciple of The Lord

On Thursday, August 14, 2014, Elder Russell M. Nelson gave the commencement address at BYU. In it, he proclaimed that true disciples of Jesus Christ are those who defend traditional marriage.

I am going to say a bold thing:

Elder Nelson is Right

To say so is bold because we live in a society that is increasingly hostile to the divine truths about the family. To say so is bold, because people have lost jobs and sacrificed careers as a result of standing up against efforts to redefine marriage. It is bold because the church and its members have faced an intense backlash as a result of following the counsel of the Prophets and Apostles. As Elder Nelson noted, “one of the more demanding opportunities of our time is to stand up for the truth regarding the sacred nature of marriage.”

Taking a stance in favor of God ordained marriage is bold, because as society moves away from the standards God has set, those who follow the teachings of the prophets will be mocked and face persecution. For as a scripture which Elder Nelson quoted reads ““And blessed are all they who are persecuted for my name’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Taking a stance for traditional marriage is bold, because those who do so will be labelled as backwards and on the wrong side of history. However, “Disciples of the Lord are defenders of marriage. We cannot yield. History is not our judge. A secular society is not our judge. God is our judge. The future of the marriage and of countless human lives will be determined by [our] willingness to bear solemn witness of the Lord and live according to His gospel.” Indeed, “[m]arriage was not created by human judges or legislators. It was not created by think tanks or by popular votes, or by oft-quoted bloggers or pundits. It was not created by lobbyists. Marriage was created by God.”

Above all, being a disciple of the Lord and defender of marriage is bold because it is personally a personally demanding path. My biggest take away from Elder Nelson’s talk is that truly being a defender of marriage may at times involve speaking out on topics of controversy, but will certainly involve thankless days spent strengthening our families and speaking kind of words to each other. As Elder Nelson explained, the single most powerful argument that we can make is the power of our example: ““Many of your neighbors, colleagues and friends will have never heard logical and inspired truths about the importance of marriage as God Himself defined it. You will have many opportunities to strengthen understanding of the Lord’s side of that argument by the eloquence of your examples, both as individuals and as families.”

Coverage of Elder Nelson’s talk has been almost exclusively focused on his comments on gay marriage. This is of course inevitable, Nevertheless, after listening to Elder Nelson’s talk I emerged more committed to my marriage and my beloved wife. I emerged firmly dedicated to fighting to make our marriage the best it can be. I also emerged committed to fighting for family friendly social policies regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum (for instance, it is shameful that mothers do not have paid maternity leave in this country – certainly a left-leaning position). Fighting for the family requires bold discipleship. It is not simply fighting against something, but standing for something. For those hoping to do so, Elder Nelson’s call was a call to arms. For that reason, Elder Nelson is truly a disciple of the Lord. 

The great and spacious building

This summer, as I’ve reflected on where to practice and what kind of law to practice after I graduate from law school, I’ve repeatedly been drawn to Lehi’s vision of the tree of life and especially the great and spacious building.

This summer I worked at a wonderful big law firm in Washington D.C. While there, I loved the experience and especially the people I met. I enjoyed the elaborate lunches and social gatherings. I enjoyed hearing people speak about the exotic vacations they planned to take.  I loved the fascinating assignments they worked on, and the wealth of experience everyone there held.

And yet, looking back at the end of the summer. I also realize how much of the law firm experience resembles life in the great and spacious building.

In Lehi’s dream, the great multitude feel their way in the darkness. I believe that a great many, and perhaps the majority of people in this world desire righteousness and hope to goodness. And yet, so many of them eventually end up in the building. In the building, they are wined, dined, and clothed in expensive garments until they are comfortable with life in the building. I imagine that the people in the building are made to feel self-righteous and important. They are made to feel like the work they do in the building is essential and for the good of those around them.

And then, those people look out and see the multitude moving towards the tree of life. Perhaps at first they call out because they believe that life is wonderful in the building. They can not imagine why someone could be content with the fruit of a tree when they enjoy a smorgasbord of veritable delights within the great and spacious building. And eventually, their lack of understanding turns to disgust as they turn to mocking those that do not have what they have. Although not mentioned in the dream, I imagine some of the people in the building must even seek to demolish the tree, because they feel it blinds people from realizing that the good life can be found in the building.

The people in the building are I believe absolutely sincere and well intentioned. They are seeking to do good to the best of their understanding. They are also unquestionably and unalterable mistaken. The building has no foundation, and cannot bring true joy.

A law firm resembles this picture in many ways. I imagine many professions at the pinnacle of prestige do. Those who come are lured by promises of pleasure and also by a promise that the work they do can make a real positive difference. Yet, over time those within are desensitized and lose a sense of good and evil, right or wrong. All those outside of the building must be misguided or worse. In  time, even those that enter with good intentions may find that life in the building has cankered the soul.

I am sure this picture is overly gloomy. Many wonderful lawyers practice in a big law firm and do not lose their sense of right and wrong. And yet, the lives that they are encouraged to live is often contrary to the gospel principles that provide eternal happiness. Marriage and children are seen as nuisances or burdens. Good becomes evil and evil good. (It is no wonder that not a single big law firm in the country has authored an amicus brief against gay marriage).

Yet, I am also optimistic. In Lehi’s dream, the building inevitably collapses. Knowing that many of the people within the building are sincerely good, kind, and virtuous individuals who were tricked by the glamour of the great building, I hope and believe that a great many will eventually find their way to the tree and partake of the delicious fruit. Though the gap between the two may now be a chasm, I pray that it will be bridged.

As for me, even though I do not know exactly what path I should take, I am so grateful to have tasted of the fruit. With Heavenly Father’s help, I believe I can find a path forward that allows me to both do good and live well. I have confident that if I follow the spirit and the rod of iron, I will be protected from the  seductive allure of the great and spacious building.

The Mormonizing of America

Because I returned from my mission in July 2012, I missed most of the run up to the 2012 election including all of the Republican primary. By the time I got back, the focus was already on the build up to the conventions and the contest between President Obama and Governor Romney. As such, I hadn’t read much of discussion of Mormons and the “Mormon moment” leading up to Mitt Romney’s nomination. ( For all of the mudslinging of the campaign, I believe the Obama campaign is to be praised for refusing to make Mitt Romney’s religion an issue.).

One of the books that I fortunately missed when it first came out is Stephen Mansfield’s The Mormonizing of America. I recently saw this book on sale in Wal Mart, and briefly glanced over the indroduction. I was at first glance impressed by the respect the author seems to show members of the Church, and so downloaded a free copy using my Kindle Unlimited subscription.

The acknowledgements section and the introduction offer the reader great hope. In the acknowledgement section, Mansfield relates the reaction of a class of BYU Students when he jokingly suggested that they “adopt him.” A student jokingly responded by asking if Mansfield would want to meet with the missionaries. Such lively stories of encounters with members of the church pepper the acknowledgement section and suggest an author sincerely interested in understanding the faith of Latter Day Saints.  The introduction is also phenomenal. It has been excerpted almost in full on the Huffington Post, and despite my misgivings about the rest of the book I highly recommend that you read the excerpt.  I will quote two of my favorite paragraphs

Plant Mormonism in any country on earth and pretty much the same results will occur. If successful, it will produce deeply moral individuals who serve a religious vision centered upon achievement in this life. They will aggressively pursue the most advanced education possible, understand their lives in terms of overcoming obstacles, and eagerly serve the surrounding society. The family will be of supernatural importance to them, as will planning and investing for future generations. They will be devoted to community, store and save as a hedge against future hardship, and they will esteem work as a religious calling. They will submit to civil government and hope to take positions within it. They will have advantages in this. Their beliefs and their lives in all-encompassing community will condition them to thrive in administrative systems and hierarchies–a critical key to success in the modern world. Ever oriented to a corporate life and destiny, they will prize belonging and unity over individuality and conflict every time.

These hallmark values and behaviors–the habits that distinguish Mormons in the minds of millions of Americans– grow naturally from Mormon doctrine. They are also the values and behaviors of successful people. Observers who think of the religion as a cult–in the Jim Jones sense that a single, dynamic leader controls a larger body of devotees through fear, lies, and manipulation–usually fail to see this. Mormon doctrine is inviting, the community it produces enveloping and elevating, the lifestyle it encourages empowering in nearly every sense. Success, visibility, prosperity, and influence follow. This is the engine of the Mormon ascent. It is what has attracted so many millions, and it is the mechanism of the Latter-day Saints’ impact upon American society and the world.

 These thoughts are insightful and intriguing. They left me quite excited to read the rest of the book.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book did not live up to the high standard of the introduction and instead turned into a cliche ridden anti-Mormon look at LDS history. How bad is Mansfield’s account of history? He repeats old and discredited ant-Mormon statements about Joseph Smith’s childhood verbatim, suggests that Joseph Smith’s faith emerged as a result of an Oedipal obsession with his father, and distorts the words of Mormon historians such as Richard Bushman to make specious arguments. His treatment of the Book of Mormon is no better. It is clear that his reading of it was cursory at best, and he repeat discredited anti-Mormon attacks such as the argument that no evidence of reformed Egyptian has been found.  

However, for me, the most glaring error of Mansfield’s book is the lack of serious consideration he gives to Mormon doctrine and teachings. He states quite quickly that he believes that what draws members to the Church is not its theology. He mentions unique doctrines such as the pre-assistance, the plan of salvation, baptism for the dead, etc… with incredible brevity. For many members, myself included, these doctrines are what inspire and enliven the soul. Without those doctrines, I would not have been interested in the Church. Without those doctrines, I would find little reason to remain (after all, membership is a good country club would provide good friends and social opportunities). Most egregiously Mansfield almost completely leaves Jesus Christ out of the picture. While the savior is mentioned tangentially in a few unavoidable places (when discussing the first vision for instance), it at times feels as if the savior is deliberately omitted from the discussion. For instance, the Melchizedek Priesthood is discussed without a single reference to the belief that it is the priesthood of Jesus Christ. When discussing the manifestations to Joseph Smith at the Kirtland Temple, Moses and Elijah are mentioned while the miraculous appearance of Jesus Christ is omitted. Doctrines connected to Jesus Christ are also omitted. For instance, belief in the atonement is only mentioned twice: once in a critical quote by minister Alexander Campbell, and once in the appendix in order to suggest that Mormons do not believe that the atonement is sufficient for salvation. The Sacrament is only mentioned in a fictional father and son dialogue about the priesthood.

Reading Mansfield’s account is to behold a Mormonism stripped of the doctrines that lead it to be so spiritually compelling for millions across the world. A reader of Mansfield’s book would walk away without understanding why Mormonism appeals to thousands of converts across the world each year. While Mansfield extensively explores, why Mormonism leads members of the Church to be hard workers, value education, and serve at high levels in government and society, he unfortunately misses the heart and soul of Mormonism.

I regrettably cannot recommend this book aside from the introduction to anyone. Those curious about Mormonism will be better served reading articles by those that actually understand or respect the faith. For instance, Stephen Webb’s wonderful article about how Mormons are obsessed with Christ. Mansfield’s book unfortunately falls far short. 

 

Book Review: Francis M. Gibbons & Daniel Bay Gibbons, Nethermost: Missionary Miracles in Lowly Places (2014).

Book Review: Francis M. Gibbons & Daniel Bay Gibbons, Nethermost: Missionary Miracles in Lowly Places (2014).

Daniel Bay Gibbons was my mission president when I served in the Russia Novosibirsk Mission. In July he returned home and co-authored this book together with his father—a former secretary to the First Presidency, an emeritus seventy, and a well known church historian. The book is a collection of more than sixty short chapters containing stories mostly focused on missionary work and the spread of the gospel throughout the world.  

Some of the stories contained in the book are well known such as the story of Mary Fielding Smith and the miraculous healing power of her faith, while others are far more obscure. Some are contemporary and others historical. Some focus on small experiences involving deeply personal promptings while others focus on the opening of entire countries to missionary work. Throughout, the stories convey one singular doctrinal truth: Christ’s infinite love and condescension extends to all even in the nethermost places of the globe and the nethermost parts of the human soul.

The writing is powerful and expertly uses excerpts from journals and diaries to allow those being profiled to speak in their own words. The stories are loosely organized into six parts based on the lyrics of the hymn I’ll Go Where You Want me to Go, which added a thematic element to the pairings. If anything I wish the structure were somewhat more explicit, as the thematic connection between stories is not always clear.

The authors also intersperse personal spiritual experiences which I greatly enjoyed reading. I had heard many of these stories in district and zone conferences from President Gibbons, and was especially pleased to see them in written format.  At first, some of the experiences of the authors seem slightly out of place given the volumes overall focus on missionary experiences. Nevertheless, by the end I felt that the authors had brought their personal stories into line with the overall theme. For instance, Francis Gibbons talks extensively about his time as secretary to the First Presidency, which was a fascinating look at those called of God and fit well with the overall focus on the Lord directing the work of his church.

I admit that I am biased, but some of the stories that touched me the most were those that looked at some of the incredible Saints I came to know in Novosibirsk. In particular, I love the conversion story of Elder Yuri Gushin who is now a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy. The missionaries chose to go out and talk to people even though it was -40 degrees outside. Elder Gushin felt the warmth of the spirit even though the Elders could hardly speak due to the extreme cold. Another story that was meaningful to me was the conversion of Aleksandr Drachyov who is the President of the Russia Novosibirsk District. President Drachyov had grown up in a military family and had been taught to deeply dislike Americans. Yet, when the missionaries knocked on his door, something in their message and in the Book of Mormon touched his heart. President Drachyov today is a powerhouse in the church. He is an inspiration to the youth and to all around him. I am grateful that the spirit inspired the missionaries to find these two men who had been prepared to hear the Gospel message. I have a strong testimony that the Lord knows his sheep throughout the world and will gather all of them to his fold in time.

President Gibbon’s own story of his inspired call to lead the Novosibirsk Mission is also one of the most incredible and inspirational stories. In a way, it is a shame that it is broken up throughout the book. When a young missionary in Germany, President Gibbons taught a Russian speaking family and felt strongly prompted that he should learn Russian. He did so in college, but later neglected his Russian. Ten years before he ultimately received his mission call, he had a dream where he saw himself in a church building. He could hear the voice of Russell M. Nelson from the chapel, and then was approached by an elderly woman who spoke to him in Russian. After the dream, he began to study Russian again. He eventually received a call to serve in an American mission, and was surprised by the call, but prepared to serve. A few months before the start of his service, President Gibbons’s call was changed to Russia, and he was set apart by Elder Nelson. In his first weeks in Russia, he visited the church building in Krasnoyarsk and was strongly struck that it was the same building he saw in his dream. Serving under President Gibbons I strongly saw the hand of the lord at work. I knew that he was called there by God. He was truly a “visionary man” led by God to do his work in the nethermost part of the vineyard.

            Ultimately, I highly recommend the book to any who wish to be inspired by powerful evidence of the condescension and love of God. The book can also be purchased on Amazon for only $5. Additionally, if you want to read more, President Gibbons has excerpts from the book on his website.

Our Most Distinguishing Feature

I was really struck by Tom Stringham’s guest post on The Millenial Star speaking about the importance of testifying about the foundational truths of the Restored Gospel. As I read it , it just so happened that I was finishing to read Elder Holland’s wonderful collection of conference talks, Broken Things to Mend. The last section of the book focused on the restoration and those essential truths that Tom also spoke about in the post. I was especially struck by a quote from President David O. Mckay

“If at this moment each one [of you] were asked to state in one sentence . . . the most distinguishing feature of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, what would be your answer?

 

“My answer,” he replied, “would be . . . divine authority by direct revelation.”

Holland, Jeffrey R. (2008-01-01). Broken Things to Mend (Kindle Locations 1685-1687). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

Divine authority by direct revelation encapsulates so much of what makes our church special and worth testifying about.

For instance, it is by direct revelation through a prophet (actually a series of prophets) that we have the Book of Mormon and it’s incomparable witness of Jesus Christ. As I have been reading and thinking about the Old Testament this year, I have been especially grateful for the revelation that came to us through the Prophet Joseph Smith that helps us to understand the continuity of the Gospel of Christ. 

In another talk in the book, Elder Holland expresses this thought very powerfully 

“[O]ne of the remarkable contributions of the Book of Mormon is its seamless, perfectly consistent view of divinity throughout that majestic book. Here there is no Malachi-to-Matthew gap, no pause while we shift theological gears, no misreading the God who is urgently, lovingly, faithfully at work on every page of that record from its Old Testament beginning to its New Testament end. Yes, in an effort to give the world back its Bible and a correct view of Deity with it, what we have in the Book of Mormon is a uniform view of God in all His glory and goodness, all His richness and complexity—including and especially as again demonstrated through a personal appearance of His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. How grateful we are for all the scriptures, especially the scriptures of the Restoration, that teach us the majesty of each member of the Godhead.

Holland, Jeffrey R. (2008-01-01). Broken Things to Mend (Kindle Locations 2082-2088). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

 

Likewise, each of the doctrines that make us unique are rooted in the understanding that we are a living church led by a living prophet. Temple ordinances, knowledge of the plan of salvation, the sealing ordinances, the eternal significance of the atonement, and many more doctrines are known and more importantly understood thanks to divine revelation by proper authority.

As a missionary, I often repeated the missionary purpose: To invite others “to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.” I often focused on the elements of the Gospel of Christ such as repentance and baptism, but the restored gospel plays a key role in that process. I believe this is because it is only through the fruits of the restored gospel, namely continuing revelation through divine authority that we fully come to understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I bear my witnesses that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was restored to the earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Thanks to him I am able to fully appreciate the atonement and all facets of God’s plan of salvation. I am so grateful to my Heavenly Father for restoring his Church to the earth.  

The Rock of Revelation: Continuing Revelation and the Living Prophet

Today I was reading through the most recent General Conference and was struck by a quote from President Harold B. Lee that I have had a complex relationship with:

“The only safety we have as members of this church is to do exactly what the Lord said to the Church in that day when the Church was organized. We must learn to give heed to the words and commandments that the Lord shall give through his prophet, ‘as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; … as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.’ There will be some things that take patience and faith. You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. But if you listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord himself, with patience and faith, the promise is that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory.”

When I first jointed the church, I had a really hard time accepting this quote. Having come from a very different political, religious and social background, the idea that one would change ones political or social views based on the teachings of the Prophet struck me as strange. Indeed, I came from a Jewish tradition that strongly encouraged divergence of views on just about everything. Even as I left to serve on my mission, this quote and others such as the Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet drove me crazy. It wasn’t until my mission, that I truly began to understand how fundamental this truth is.

As I began to interact with good and sincere people of faith in Russia, I was struck that they were built on a shaky and uncertain foundation. Without a source of revelation about divine truth, each person became a light unto him or herself. Of course, because people need sources of knowledge, they turned to alternative sources for knowledge. Some turned to political leaders, others to the Russian Orthodox Church, others to drugs and alcohol seeking inspiration in oblivion. Teaching people in Russia truly helped me appreciate and be grateful to have actual answers to difficult questions in life. 

As I looked back on my youth, I realize how much of my soul searching and hunger came from a lack of answers. Judaism provided an endless series of questions and paradoxes without resolution. No one could give a clear answer to eternal questions. No one could definitely speak in the name of God. I had felt aimless and lost. 

I came to really love and appreciate the rock of revelation upon which the Church is built. The powerful words of D&C 21 (4-5) resonated with my need for answers and inspired truth. 

Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.For by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory. 

Today, I have a strong testimony for the living Prophet and Apostles and continuing revelation even when it touches on controversial topics such as politics. Indeed, because such political pronouncements are relatively rare, I pay especial attention when the Prophet or First Presidency speak out about issues of public concern. If they find it important enough to speak out, then I am convinced that those rare topics are ones that we should listen to especially closely. I know that if we truly do hearken unto the Lord and his servants that we will be blessed in all that we do.

Elder Maxwell’s prescient words on the efforts to legalize marijuana

Almost 40 years ago (1976) Elder Maxwell (at the time a member of the Presidency of the Seventy) wrote about the continued relevance of the Word of Wisdom’s warning of “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days.” In so doing, he gave an example that today has increasing relevance given the successful efforts to legalize Marijuana in several states:

Combine the profit motive with the fanning of human appetite in things narcotic, or near narcotic, and the warning is not too dramatic at all. Suppose those who now profit from cigarettes were to seek dominion over the legalized use of marijuana. You can be quite certain that those who were resistant to calling attention to the harmful effects of nicotine will end up extolling the harmlessness of “pot.” There is already a built-in, national constituency favoring such legalization.

Now, if such were to happen, and time and real research were to demonstrate the harmfulness of marijuana, how easy do you think it would be for a whole society to disengage? Whose lock-them-in style does this sort of consequence suggest? Such a condition would be brought about by the very “conspiring men in the last days” who brought us accelerated alcoholism, prostitution, and gambling. Such conspirators will not view with favor a minority of sin-resistant souls who seem to block their path, any more than their evil counterparts tolerated the Old Testament prophets who were an irritating interruption centuries ago!

Maxwell, Neal A. (2009-08-17). Deposition of a Disciple (Kindle Locations 802-808). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

I admit that my feelings about the potential legalization of marijuana have been mixed. As a teenager, I had many friends that were potheads and I saw them waste their life away in a blaze of marijuana smoke. It can be an addiction and a lifestyle as harmful as any other addiction even if not quite as physically addicting as tobacco. Yet, I have also had friends and family members benefit from the medicinal use of marijuana to cure physical and mental ailments. I also feel like throwing young pot users into prison has wrecked havoc in certain communities and is grossly disproportionate and inequitable. As such, I support the legalization of medicinal marijuana with strict controls on availability, as well as a decriminalization of simple marijuana possession (although a continued criminalization of illegal sales of marijuana).

However, reading Elder Maxwell’s words helps to solidify my opposition to full legalization of marijuana. Legalization opens a gateway that once open can never be again closed. There are too many individuals who will become invested with selling marijuana as the newest craze. Just as with alcohol and tobacco, a harmful substance will be sold as sexy and cool.

Right now in Colorado, small businesses and marijuana dispensaries are thriving. Does anyone doubt that in five years or ten, the marijuana industry will be made up of the same large players that peddle alcohol and tobacco? As Elder Maxwell predicts, they will move in and seek to profit in this lucrative potential market.

Although I know that many smoke today despite marijuana’s illegality, it is self-evidence that legalization and increased availability coupled with increased marketing will increase demand. Indeed, Marijuana will be marketed as the “safe” alternative to tobacco and this legalization will undo decades of exceptional progress in the war on tobacco. I am also cognizant for the potential discovery of yet unexpected harms as marijuana consumption reaches critical mass. Even though it now appear that marijuana is less harmful on the whole than tobacco or alcohol, it is with an eye to the future that I stand in opposition along with Elder Maxwell to the out and out legalization of marijuana.