Unshakable Faith and the Mighty Change of Heart

Today all of Utah and Wasatch Counties as part of Stake Conference watched a broadcast with addresses by Church leaders including Elder Clayton, Sister Stevens, Elder Scott, and Elder Nelson. I really enjoyed the conference, and enjoyed Elder Clayton’s remarks in particular.

Elder Clayton began with a story from a recent trip to Texas. On a lake, he saw tall trees that had sunk their roots deep into the water. Amidst the trees were also weeds that were withering and wilting due to a drought. They had completely failed to sink their roots into the water.

Elder Clayton urged all of us to become deeply rooted in the Gospel. Our roots need to be deep enough to overcome any challenge, endure any affliction and withstand any challenge to our faith. Indeed, Elder Clayton emphasized the importance of have a through enough conversion to withstand even subtle enemies of our faith.

Elder Clayton also emphasized that being ridiculed by non believers has always been the lot of believers. In our modern day where messages critical of the Gospel can go viral in an instant, we especially need to be vigilant and prepared. Elder Clayton explained that criticism of the Church is like a mirage which can be alluring to those who have not become rock solid in their faith. Yet, those who listen to the seductive voices of dissidents, will miss the grandeur and scope of the restored gospel and ultimately will pay a heavy price in the breaking of covenants and the loss of eternal blessings.

As I listened to Elder Clayton’s talk, I thought about my testimony and my conversion pre mission. I had a miraculous and powerful conversion experience, and so I felt that my testimony was firm and secure. I received an unmistakable answer to my prayers. I knew without a doubt that the Church was true. Yet, despite all of that, looking back now I realize how fragile my testimony truly was. I didn’t really have a testimony that the leaders of the Church were inspired. I believed that my views on political and social issues were far more enlightened than the Church’s position.

On my mission, I don’t think there was a particular moment or experience that changed my views. In the MTC and even months into my mission I still was uncomfortable with some of the things the Church taught on gay marriage and the family. Yet, as I left all of that behind and labored with all of my heart. As I did so, my roots become more deeply grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. As I labored, the spirit transformed my heart and reinforced my faith. I am deeply indebted to my father in heaven for my mission and the mighty change of heart that I experienced.

Elder Clayton offered some very valuable advice to those seeking to deepen conversion. Specifically, for those with doubts he urged us to spend more time reading the scriptures and far less time dwelling on the words of dissidents in blogs. He urged us to not look for flaws, but instead to study the doctrines of the Gospel. We also need to accompany faithful study with a devoted righteous living. We need to maintain a temple recommend, and continue to build upon the rock of the savior. If we do these things, Elder Clayton promised that we would be able to develop an unshakeable faith in the savior that would withstand all of the challenges of life.

I second Elder Clayton’s testimony. I know that as we continue to develop faith in Christ and serve him, our doubts will melt away with time. Our doubts will be replaced by a firm foundation of faith. I have been deeply blessed as a result of this miraculous change of heart.

78 Mormon Answers to 78 Questions

78 Mormon Answers to 78 Questions

Renowned Atheist blogger Friendly Atheist has a video posing 78 questions to believers in God. Other Christian bloggers have taken on these questions, and I thought I would do the same. I do so with the caveat that I am only one member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint (a Mormon) and that my views may or may not be representative of others of my faith. I do however see my views as generally in line with the mainstream teachings of the Church and hope that they are fairly reflective of broader sentiments in the church.

(A Note on numbering – I based my list of questions on that found on Approaching Justice, and numbered them myself. By my count there are only 72 questions, but if someone reading these notes some questions that I missed, please let me know and I will answer them).

 

1) Is Anne Frank burning in hell?

No

2) How about Mahatma Gandhi?

No

3) Is Fred Phelps in Heaven since he believed in the divinity of Jesus? 

I cannot judge his ultimate spiritual state and condition. Certainly, he preached of Jesus Christ but did not seem to truly understand the savior’s teachings of mercy and grace. Ultimately God will judge us according to the feelings of our hearts and our deeds. He is the ultimate and just judge.

4) Should a killer who genuinely repents at the end of his life go to Heaven?

Yes, although it isn’t entirely clear whether a murderer can qualify for the highest degree of heaven in the Celestial kingdom. It is possible that murder committed by those who have accepted Christ and should know better could qualify as a sin so heinous that it is not possible to be fully redeemed of.. We know this is likely the case with David’s sin with Bathsheba. I prefer to the take the more charitable position and believe in the power of God’s infinite mercy and grace. He is ultimately the judge.

It is also worth noting that repentance is not an instantaneous action. Genuine repentance for an act of murder would be heartbreaking and soul rending. It would require an individual to experience the torment of conscience and to bear an awful burden. Only through the atonement of the savior is this act of repentance possible

5) Should a kind-hearted atheist go to Hell for all eternity?

No

6) Do kind-hearted religious people who just aren’t Christian also deserve to burn?

No

7) Would you be happy in heaven if someone you loved was in Hell?

I would not be happy. For me, heaven is heaven because of the relationships that will exist there. In the Celestial Kingdom we will have eternal relationships with God and our families. Thus, anyone who is absent is a true tragedy.

However, I believe that my sorrow would be soothed by knowledge that everyone truly had an opportunity to be saved and to receive exaltation. God’s plan is not capricious or based on birth or chance. Each person will truly have a chance to understand God’s plan and make an informed choice. Some will have that opportunity in this life, while others will have it after they die in the spirit world. God is no respector of persons.

______________________

A couple of comments on the first couple of questions. I think that Mormons/Latter-day Saints are uniquely qualified to answer these questions because of the greater light and truth revealed true the prophet Joseph Smith. Because of this, seemingly paradoxically members of the Church can both be among the strongest believers that our church is the one and only true church and also the strongest believers that people from many different faiths will ultimately end up in heaven.

I am so grateful for my knowledge about God’s eternal Plan of Salvation. This knowledge is one of the things that first drew me to the Church and makes answering such questions rather simple. _______________________________

8) If your child were dying, and I hope that never happens, would just pray for them or would you take them to a doctor?

I would pray for them and take them to a doctor

9) And if you’d do both, which one do you think has more of an impact?

I think both have a great impact. Moreover, developments in medicine come as a result of the gift of intelligence which God has given to us. He expects us to use our intellect to better our condition. Science and modern medicine are inspired by God.

Elder Russell M. Nelson, one of the living Twelve Apostles is a world renowned cardiac surgeon who helped pioneer techniques that have blessed countless lives. He has spoken about his feelings of being divinely led to develop procedures and techniques and about miraculous guidance in the midst of surgical procedures. I believe that God works through doctors and modern medicine to perform miracles.

Faith on the part of the patient and those that love and are praying for him/her can also make an immense difference.

10) Whose prayers does God answer?

God answers everyone’s prayer. He does not always answer in ways that we expect or recognize. Moreover, his answers are sometimes no, and at other times are delayed or occur on a different timeline than we would want.

It is incredible and wonderful that the being that created the whole universe loves each and every one of us enough to talk to us personally on a one on one basis. Incredible and wonderful, but true.

11) And if it’s ultimately His Will, why bother praying?

The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s will, but instead to help us better align ourselves with God’s will. Moreover, prayer is enabling and gives us the spiritual strength to do difficult things. Prayer also is a source of revelation and we can receive answers and guidance that we could receive in no other way

12) If you have cancer, what would help you more: Certain drugs, or prayer? 

Both, see answer #9.

13) If you had an amputated limb, would prayer ever bring it back? 

I do believe that in certain circumstances faith can have the power to perform incredible miracles of healing. Certainly, Jesus Christ was a great healer and performed incredible miracles or restoration and rejuvenation. In more modern times, the Prophet Joseph Smith performed miraculous healings as well. However, often having faith to be healed also includes having faith not to be healed. Certain conditions that seem like limitations in this life are there to give us experience and ultimately are for our good. We can be certain that whether healing occurs in this life or not, that when we are all resurrected we will receive perfect bodies free of stain or blemish and all tears will be wiped away.

14) If you have an exam coming up, what would contribute more to a higher score: Prayer or more studying? 

Prayerful study is the correct answer. Prayer before study can help concentrate the mind and lead to effective and fruitful study. Prayer can also help return things to our recollection. However, God will not give us knowledge that we have not diligently worked to acquire. It is against the principle of human agency to do so. Those who go into an exam relying on blind faith and the spirit are foolish and do not understand divine principles.

15) If you prayed for me over YouTube right now, do you think I would know it?

I don’t know if would know it. Certainly, I have felt the power of other’s prayers throughout my life. On the other hand, it is a subtle feeling that one must be attuned to feel. Whether you know it or not, ultimately our prayers are recorded in heaven. When we are all resurrected and stand before God, all will be revealed and understood and our recollection will be perfect.

16) What matters to God more: The quantity of people praying or the quality of their prayers?

I think both mater to God. Certainly, the prayers of those with immense faith can have great power (For instance, in the Book of Mormon one prophet’s prayer was able to shut the heavens from rain and open them back up again). On the other hand, quantity matters as well especially on the aggregate and nation state level.

17) If quantity matters, shouldn’t the most popular team always win the Super Bowl?

No, because I don’t think God cares about which team wins the Super Bowl. He might answer prayers to help keep players safe or ensure that they perform well, but that is because he cares about the individuals and not the teams/outcomes.

18) If quality matters, why do people you love sometimes die no matter what you do? 

I don’t perfectly know the answer to this question. Yet, having experiences this personally with my Mother, I do have some insight. When we keep in mind that this life is neither the beginning nor the end, death is seen as a mere transition to an ultimately better place. God’s plan is perfect and those that die do so at the right time. Our days shall not be numbered less.

The challenge of maintaining faith in God and those around you even when prayers are seemingly not answered is one of the greatest spiritual challenges in life. The savior provided the perfect example of this in the Garden of Gethsemene when God did not take away his burdens. Yet, he persevered. So should we.

This is not to say that faith and prayer makes no difference. I have seen the healing powers of faith and prayer even in extreme circumstances. We can receive a peace that exceeds all earthly peace through prayer.

19) Is it possible that your prayers have no supernatural effect and only serve to make you feel better?

I have experienced far too many answers to prayers to doubt the efficacy of prayer. Specifically, I have received answers to prayers that went completely contrary to my intuitions and personal desires/opinions. Yet, when I have followed the advice and guidance received through prayer I have been blessed beyond belief.

20) Is there anything in your life that makes you doubt God’s existence?

I think it would be delusional to look at human suffering or our own failings and not have some doubts. We are meant to walk through life on faith rather than certainty, and so some doubts are inevitable. Probably the most significant doubt I have is when I consider God’s commandment to become perfect and then look at my own inadequacies and weaknesses. However, I have far too powerfully felt the enabling power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ working in my life. I have received too many answers to prayers and too many confirmations of the truthfulness of Church doctrines and teachings to truly doubt God’s existence.

21) How would your life change if you had serious doubts about God’s existence?

I spent two years as an ardent atheist, and I don’t want to return to that state. Before finding faith in Jesus Christ, I didn’t see a higher purpose in life and I was filled with so many more doubts and insecurities about myself and my place in the world. My faith gives me a solid foundation and grounding in the knowledge of God’s plan and his love for me.

22) Was Jesus white?

I don’t know and don’t really care. I do know that his countenance now is like a brilliant and radiant white light, but I think that has more to do with spiritual purity than skin color.

23) Why does God seem more likely to answer the prayers of a talented athlete than a starving child overseas?

This question is based on a fundamentally false understanding of what it means to answer prayers. Prayer is not really about giving us things, but about empowering, guiding, comforting and helping us to understand God’s will. God loves all of his Children and answers the prayers of all. He does not play favorites.

In one sense, I think that God might be more “likely” to answer the prayer of the African child, because that child is much more likely to humbly petition the Lord.

24) Why does God Seem [sic] to hate Africa?

God loves all of his children. He has commanded us to take care of the least among us and to help and empower them. Instead, human history has been a history in which the people of Africa have been brutalized and suppressed. Such human suffering literally makes God weep. And yet, he respects human agency and works through righteous individuals to empower communities and individuals. It is our responsibility to work to improving the lot of those in Africa.

25) If a group of Africans swooped in to your community with the intention of converting you and your neighbors to their tribal faith, what would your reaction be?

Having served a two year full time mission for my Church, I have deep respect for anyone that seeks to proselytize and invite others to learn of God. I would love to engage in respectful dialogue and learn about their faith. I would also invite them as I did countless Russians on my mission to read the Book of Mormon and pray to God to know if it is true.

26) Does God speak to you? 

Yes, though I have never heard his voice, but he speaks through the promptings of the Holy Spirit and in response to prayer.

27) If God spoke to you and told you to kill someone, would you do it?

I would follow the pattern of Nephi in the Book of Mormon and first sincerely doubt that such a prompting was from God. If after wrestling with God and continued prayer and introspection, I knew that such a prompting was from God I would do so.

28) Is God always watching you?

Yes

29) How about when you’re on the toilet?

This is a really silly question. Yes, but I think he has better things to focus on than that.

30) How do you respond when someone who’s not a Christian tells you about their religious faith?

I love hearing about the faiths of others. On my mission and elsewhere I have spent hours learning about the faith of others. I deeply respect and love people of all faith.

31) Do you listen and consider what they have to say or do you just ignore them because they don’t believe what you believe?

I always consider carefully what I hear about religion from others. As a convert to my Church, I would be foolish not to. I have prayed and pondered the messages I have received from others

32) What do you make of Muslims who think the Koran is the true holy book?

I think the Koran contains a great deal of truth and it is even possible that God revealed a great many things through the Muhammad. However, I would invite anyone to examine the Book of Mormon and pray to God to know if it is true. I believe that anyone can gain more light and truth from its teachings and from knowing Jesus Christ. We invite people to bring all the goodness and truth they have and to gain more.

33) Are they wrong?

No, there is much admirable and good in the Koran. However, there are also false teachings in Islam which limit the ability of adherents to gain a fullness of truth and happiness. For instance, believing that prophecy ended with Muhammad, or rejecting Christ as a savior/more than a prophet.

As I mentioned earlier, individuals will have an opportunity to learn about the fullness of the Gospel whether in this life or the next. I truly believe that those that are believers and living consistent with the teachings of their faith will readily embrace the Gospel of Christ once they learn of it. Their faith and spiritual experiences will prepare them for that ultimate conversion.

34) Have you read the Koran?

Yes

35) Why do you dismiss them so easily?

I don’t. I deeply respect Islam and have pondered and considered its truth claim extensively.

36) Is homosexuality itself a sin?

Homosexual conduct is a sin just as all sexual conduct outside of a marriage between husband and wife is a sin.

37) Should gays and lesbians have the right to get married?

No, gay marriage can never be a true marriage in God’s eyes. As far as society goes, we should continue to place heterosexual marriage in a favorite position, but can extend to gay couples civil unions with the full benefits of marriage. However, preserving the title and status of marriage is simply that important for society.

38) Why would God make people gay and then punish them for being gay?

Being gay is not a punishment. It certainly is a difficult temptation that many face in this life. However, ultimately God knows our hearts and minds and is fully aware of all of our burdens and temptations. He will judge us based on our own opportunities, knowledge and challenges.

39) If God’s already sending gay people to hell, why do you feel the need to persecute them here on Earth [sic]?

Gay people are not going to hell. I believe that those that I have known that are gay are often some of the choicest spirits and have made a wonderful contribution to society and to the world. God will not unfairly focus only on one challenge that we face. He sees us as bigger than merely one trial. Every person will be judged with the utmost mercy and love.

I do not feel a need to persecute gay people and find anti-gay bigotry abhorrent. We all sin and all fall short of God. We should not judge or hate others because we sin differently than they do. On the other hand, I will continue to reject all efforts to silence those that speak out about the divinely inspired nature of marriage or attempt to call divine truth bigotry.

40) Why does God playing [sic] hide and seek with all of humanity? 

God sent us to this earth so that we could learn to have faith without seeing him. Before this life, we were in his presence and knew him personally. Yet, for us to fully grow and make choices we needed to come here, forget and rely on faith. If we had absolute certainty of God’s existence, our choices would become less meaningful and our agency/freedom less full. We are here to make choices and rely on faith rather than perfect sight.

41) Do you believe Jesus is coming back to Earth during your lifetime? 

I don’t know. I do know that these are the latter days and that his coming is soon, however no man knows the exact date or the time of his coming.           Prophets and Apostles have spoken of those of the current generation having children, grandchildren and great grandchildren which leads me to believe that his coming might not be in my lifetime. Either way, I eagerly await the day and look forward to it with an eye of faith.

42) If you do, what do you say to the many generations of people who have been saying that for centuries?

Christ’s coming could not have been before his church was restored to the earth in 1830 through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Moreover, his second coming requires preparation and will be preceded by certain signs such as the great spread of missionary work to all corners of the earth. Only in the past 30-50 years has technology so developed to allow the message of Jesus Christ to spread to truly all the world.

Those who have waited for Christ’s return will be rewarded for their diligence and faith.

43) Why is the story of Jesus’ birth and life so similar to that of mythological beings well before his time? 

I see this as proof of the truthfulness of the teachings of Christ. Whether understood under a different name or not, God has inspired civilizations around the world to get some understanding of the savior. Adam taught his descendents of Jesus Christ, and knowledge of his plan have been on earth from the beginning. As such, it is not surprising that many civilizations across the world would know about Jesus Christ.  Moreover, some of these mythological tales may be from actual visits of the savior such as the Mesopotamian myth of Quetzecotol.

44) How do you decide which sections of the Bible are literally true and which ones are just metaphorical?

I believe that the Bible is the divine word of God insofar as it is correctly translated. I look to the living Prophet and to those that have come before such as Joseph Smith for further insights and revelation. Absent some revelation from them to the contrary I see the teachings of the bible as literally true. In many instances, however, our literal reading is simply based on inaccurate cultural assumptions rather than the text itself.

45) What are the minimum requirements for being a Christian?

I would include in that umbrella all those who believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah and the Son of God, and believe that he took upon himself our sins, died on the cross and was resurrected on the third day.

Of course, membership in the Church of Christ involves more than mere faith in Christ, and requires repentance, baptism, confirmation/receiving the holy ghost, and enduring to the end. However, because so many are not aware of or understand these teachings I do not see them as a minimum to be considered Christian. One day, those who have that essential faith in Christ will come to understand the fullness of his teachings and will enter into his fold.

46) And who falls under that definition?

I give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who claims to be a Christian. God ultimately is the one that judges us according to our words, deeds, and thoughts of our heart. Even many members of the Church will ultimately be found wanting because they have failed to live according to the teachings of Christ. As such, it is not my place to judge and certainly not based on external labels.

47)Fred Phelps? 

Yes

48) Pat Robertson? 

Yes

49) James Dobson? 

Yes

50) President Obama? 

Yes

51) Do your really believe Mary was impregnated without ever having sex?

Yes

52) If someone came up to you and said she was pregnant but she was totally a virgin, would you believe her?

No. I wouldn’t. Which is exactly why the story of Mary and Joseph is so amazing. Joseph reacted as any of us would. He sought to end his engagement with Mary. Thus, what is incredible is that because of divine revelation he had enough faith to stay with Mary and endure the ridicule that they probably received. That Joseph stayed is compelling evidence of the truthfulness of the gospel account.

53) Why did God have to rape a teenage girl in order to become human?

I certainly do not believe that God raped Mary in order for Christ to be born. I do not understand fully how Christ was conceived, but I know that God understands the laws of nature far better than we do. He would never violate human agency in such a fundamental way.

54) If you could go back in time when Jesus was being crucified, would you try to save Him or would you stand back and do nothing because your entire faith depends on Him being crucified?

I would certainly do everything I could to try to save him. God requires us to do all that we can to ensure justice. The savior was innocent and should not have been killed. That his atonement was inevitable does not change the fact that he was brutally murdered by the Roman and Jewish leaders.

On the other hand, certainly Christ knew his death was foreordained, and he even commanded his disciples to not resist the Roman guards by the sword. I would thus do all that was in my power to preserve Christ’s life unless he himself told me not to do so.

55) What would it take to change your mind in God’s existence?

At this point, I have had such powerful confirming experience of God’s existence and the truth of the Church, that I think that it is only through personal wickedness and the influence of Satan that I could fall away.

56) Do you think it is a little strange when someone says they’re gonna believe in something no matter what, even when all the evidence seems to point in the other direction?

Yes, I do think that is strange and unnecessary. Every individual can receive a personal answer from God and know that he is there. God does not want us to have faith without evidence. He wants to give us personal revelation which is the most powerful evidence of all.

57) What is something your pastor has said in church that you totally disagree with?

I have written extensively about how I struggled with the teachings of the Prophets and Apostles on gay marriage. Now, I can’t think of any teaching that I currently struggle with.

58) And when that happened, did you confront your pastor about it or did you just let it slide?

I certainly spoke extensively to Bishops and to everyone else that I could about my concerns. I even asked an Apostle a question about the Church’s position on gay marriage However, as I have written because of my openness to the promptings of the spirit I eventually gained a personal witness that the Church’s teachings on the subject are true.

59) Why are there so many different Christian denominations?

When Christ was on the earth he established one Church led by prophets and apostles. They were meant to ensure uniformity and consistency of faith. However, as people killed the apostles and persecuted believers, the teachings of Christ were distorted and lost. The church fell into apostasy and many denominations splintered off, none containing the fullness of Christ’s teachings and gospel.

60) And are the people who are in those different denominations bad Christians, are they wrong?

Christians in other denominations are attempting to follow Christ but are misled by the teachings of man and the distortions built up over centuries of falsehood. They seek the truth but know not where to find it.

61) Which denomination is right?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one true and living Church on the earth. True, because the doctrines it teaches are pure from God, and living because Christ leads the Church through a living Prophet and Apostles. Joseph Smith was the prophet through which God restored his Church to the earth.

62) Or, which group of denominations is right?

See above

63) Who or what do you think is responsible for natural disasters, like earthquakes and tsunamis?

We live in a fallen world and natural disasters are part of that world. I think disasters often ehelp us to focus on those things that matter most and realize how temporary our life on this earth is. Man can also at times contribute to disasters through our mistreatment of the world.

64) Can you pause the video right now and tell me what the Ten Commandments are?

Yes: One god, No Idols, Do not take the Lord’s name in vain, Sabbath Day Worship, Honoring Father and Mother, Do not Kill, Do not commit adultery, Do Not Steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not covent

65) And if you know them (and good for you if you do), why do so many Christians believe the first four of them belong on government property and in classes?

Many believe that the commandments belong because they are part of the heritage of this nation. The Founding Fathers quoted the bible and other sermons extensively, and the Ten Commandments were always seen as underlying commandments or laws. However, there is also a strong case to be made that they do not belong in a pluralistic society in order to ensure that others do not feel excluded. I certainly see the strength of both arguments.

66) Would you feel comfortable saying the pledge of allegiance in class everyday if the words were “one nation under no God, with liberty and justice for all”?

No. I do believe the nation was founded based on a common belief in God and that the nation prospers when its people believe. However, I completely respect the argument that such words alienate those who do not believe and therefore do not belong. Certainly, I am against compelling anyone to swear, affirm, or pledge anything contrary to their belief.

67) Do you think it’s just a coincidence that different religions are popular in different parts of the world?

No, it is not a coincidence. I believe that certain faiths have truths that appeal to those of different cultures and backgrounds. Ultimately, religion grows because it connects to the spiritual needs of adherents.

68) Do you believe that if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you would be a Muslim rather than a Christian?

I don’t know. In Saudi Arabia it is highly unlikely that I would have heard of Jesus Christ or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the other hand, as a convert who ended up joining the church while at a heavily Jewish University I believe that everything is possible in God’s plan. I do believe that God puts us in a position to hear and learn about Jesus Christ either in this life or the next. Because he doesn’t see a difference between someone who learns of it here or in the afterlife, I don’t think it matters too much.

69) Is it possible that religion has less to do with what’s true and more to do with the circumstances of where and when you were born?

No, Jesus is the Christ and that is true no matter where we are born. He atoned for the sins of all mankind whether an individual believes in him or not. Ultimately ever knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is the one and only Christ.

70) Do you believe childbirth is an example of a miracle?

Yes

71) Does that mean Hitler was once a “miracle baby”?

Yes, each of us is a miracle because we are born with divine potential. However, it is tragic that some people fall so far short of that divine potential and lead to the destruction of millions of innocents. How much wickedness can come from one individual who rejects divine truth and how much good can come from one disciple of Christ!

72) And if childbirth is a miracle, how come that miracle happens thousands and thousands of times every week?

The greatest miracles are not infrequent but common place. The greatest miracle of all is not just that thousands are born, but that everyone of them is known and loved by God.

 

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.