Disciples of Christ – Undelivered Convocation Speech 4-24-2015

Today is my convocation for my law school graduation. Two students are chosen by their class to give remarks at the ceremony. Although I would have loved to have been chosen it was not to be. Nevertheless, I have thought about what I would have said were I able to speak at this event. I decided to write a draft of what I might have said were I given that opportunity.

Fellow students and faculty, it is an honor to stand before you today and speak to you. I pray that the spirit will be with me and guide my remarks today.

I first would like to begin by remedying a wrong. Nine years ago, I spoke at my high school graduation as Salutatorian. It was about five months after my mother died from Ovarian cancer, and at the time I made the unwise decision not to mention her directly in my remarks. I love my mother and miss her more than I can express. Without her love, guidance and support I would not be who I am today, let alone where I am today. Thankfully, as a result of my membership in this Church, I understand now what truly matters most, which is why I dedicate these remarks to her. I know that God’s plan will allow me to see her again and to be with her eternally.

Ultimately, I begin with that dedication not merely as an indulgent aside, but because I hope to speak today about heavenly father’s plan for each of us. I have come away from my law school experience with renewed certainty that God lives and that he loves each of us deeply. He knows us personally and knows our needs and wants. While we all chose to attend BYU Law School for a variety of reasons, ultimately I am firmly convinced that we are here because it is part of God’s plan for us. He has given you the knowledge, skills and training to be effective disciples and work to build his kingdom. If all you take away from your law school experience is a JD with low debt, you have failed to truly come to know God’s will and purpose for you. As Judge Griffith of the D.C. Circuit has memorably expressed at the Law School several times, if you just go away from school hoping to make a ton of money, you are going to hell.

Instead, I invite each of you at this moment where we are receiving our degrees, to reflect on those moments where you have felt divine guidance. Perhaps you felt it as you considered whether to go to law school, perhaps you felt it when deciding which law school to attend. Perhaps you felt it as you selected classes or decided on co-curriculars or summer externship opportunities.

For me personally, while I long knew that I wanted to attend law school, BYU did not hold an attraction. I was a recent convert to the Church when I was applying to Law Schools, and BYU seemed too constricting and too Mormon for my tastes. I applied to other law schools and got accepted at several extremely highly ranked schools. Shortly after that, I felt prompted to serve a mission and before leaving I deferred admission at one of those schools. While on my mission, I felt strongly prompted again that I needed to apply to BYU Law School and attend BYU.  I did not then know why God wanted me to come here, but I knew it was God’s will.

I am so grateful for my experience at BYU Law School. While here, I have been able to marry my incredible wife and to have our ten month old daughter Ilana. I have also had opportunities at BYU that I could have had nowhere else, from in depth discussions in National Security Law about Gospel teachings on war and peace, to the opportunity to accompany delegates, academics and faith leaders from across the world to General Conference as part of the annual Law and Religion symposium. I love this law school and the incredible experiences that I have had here. With each of these experiences I have felt the guiding hand of the Lord.

One of my close friends in our class shared with me an experience which I believe illustrates this principle. She heard from a member of the admissions committee that they personally pray over the files of the various applicants to know if they are meant to be students at the law school. When they came to her file, they felt a powerful spirit telling them that she needed to be a student there. They hadn’t even opened the file to look at GPA, LSAT scores or those other tangible factors that usually are the determining factor. God knew that she needed to be at this law school at this time.

I testify that God knows each of you and has sent you to this law school and at this time for a reason. He will use you for greater things than you can at the present time imagine.

This semester while taking Professional Responsibility I learned about the different roles that I am expected to play as a lawyer from counselor to advocate. Yet, I believe that there is one far greater role that should define us as graduates of this law school: disciples. First and foremost, as graduates of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, we should see ourselves as Disciples of Jesus Christ.

As disciples we have dedicated our lives, our careers and all that we have to him. If we allow him to guide us in our endeavors he has promised us that we will prosper and be great instruments to help him bring to pass his work and his glory.

Of course, in many ways we will be just like graduates of any other law school. We will work at firms or in the government. We will represent clients in court rooms across the country. We will be expected to deliver competent and complete work produce and to bill our hours. Yet, God will provide us with innumerable opportunities, if we keep our eyes open for them, to inspire, uplift, and bless those with whom we interact.

One of the most valuable things that we can do as Disciples of Christ is to provide peace, calm and perspective in times of tumult and difficulty. My Mission President was a judge up in Sandy before his call. He told us that behind the bench he kept a picture of a hurricane with an arrow pointing to the eye of the storm. When thing in his courtroom would get crazy, he would look at that picture and strive to be a force of calm just like the eye of the storm. Interactions with the legal system often represent low points in the lives of so many. As disciples we can be the eye of the storm and help to guide our clients to peace and safety.

At other times, we will have to stand up for our values. In an increasingly secular world, we will sometimes be called to take unpopular positions and stances. As President Monson noted, sometimes we will have to stand alone. Yet, these moments of courage and conviction will shape or character and define our destiny. We may have to walk away from an assignment or even a job in order to stay true to our values, but that sacrifice is always worth it. As Disciples of Christ, we should strive to never compromise our values in order to fit in or get by.

God knows our skills and talents and he also knows our weaknesses. He has promised to help make weak things strong. If we put our trust in him, he will always lead us and guide us upward and onward. Though the path may be long, and at times we may suffer setbacks, if we stay dedicated to the gospel, and to the Savior we will ultimately be led back into his presence. And if we do so we will also be able to help lead others on that eternal path.

Ultimately, we are not defined by how much money we earn from our work, but how our works transforms us and those around us.  Whatever the size of your paycheck, know that your worth is infinite in the eyes of God. He does not measure the size of your bank account, but he does measure our dedication and willingness to serve.

I bear witness that Jesus Christ is our savior and redeemer. Because of his atonement, we can be given the power and strength to edify and uplift those around us. As lawyers, we will be given unique opportunities to do so. God knows us and will help us throughout our careers and our lives on this earth. Ultimately, I pray that we may be defined first and foremost as Disciples of Jesus Christ and be willing to follow him in all that we do. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Satan’s Rebellion and Agency

I want to draw attention to a fantastic article in this month’s Ensign called Satan’s Rebellion. The author discusses a tendency that he noted among some members of the Church to equate rules and consequences for disobedience with Satan’s plan. As the author notes, this is based on an unfortunately common misperception about the role of Satan in the Divine Council and human agency.

The author discusses some of the negative consequences of this misperception: parents feeling that they are coercive when they encourage their children to attend church, a rejection of the need to make sacred covenants, and support for “the legalization of serious moral sin.”

It seems to me that this error is a natural outgrowth of the Church’s focus on freedom during the Cold War. Soviet Russia stood for the proposition that Government needed to regulate every facet of life in a top down fashion. This government domination was deeply inconsistent with the plan of salvation and the importance for individuals to work out their own salvation.

Yet, the Gospel tends to avoid extremes of all sorts. Just as a society where the state regulates everything is part of Satan’s plan, so to is anarchy and the absence of government. The Book of Mormon makes clear that Satan is just as content with a society that has collapsed into anarchy (such as that pictured in 3 Nephi before the coming of the savior) as he is with one that is controlled by a dictator or tyrant (e.g. King Noah).

The rejection of Satan’s plan in the pre-mortal council should cause us to be cautious about either extreme. The Article quotes J. Reuben Clark who noted that Satan’s plan could have taken one of two forms: “Either the compulsion of … man, or else saving men in sin.” Either extreme would have been contrary to the laws of heaven. Satan’s second lie is echoed in his injunction to eat, drink, and be marry and in an extreme form of libertarianism which rejects any need for moral or social restraints. But “[h]onoring agency does not mean embracing anarchy.”

As I have read the words of the Founding Fathers, I am struck by their wisdom in realizing that the functioning of democracy requires a just and a moral society. Respect for the rights of others, respect for the rule of law and other hallmarks of a democracy require a citizenry with shared values and principles. They understood that “establishing righteous laws in society are all practices approved of the Lord and not part of ‘Satan’s plan.'”

This is why the Church has and will continue to call for legislation that can be seen as ‘legislating morality.’ For instance, the Church has repeatedly urged members to fight for legislation to limit the spread of pornography. In Utah, the Church has opposed making it easier to buy alcohol. And of course, the Church’s infamous involvement in Proposition 8 is exemplary.

In light of this, it seems to me that the urge to deregulate and to go to the libertarian extreme on social and legal matters is unwise. This has at times been very difficult for me to accept. I consider myself for instance pretty close to a free speech absolutist and so it has been interesting for me to attempt to reconcile that with the Church’s open call for members to fight against pornography.

Yet, it has become clear to me that God is displeased if we simply let society further decay into a libertarian and libertine pleasure paradise. As Saints and members of his Church, we must be a light unto the world and that involves fighting for legislation and doing our best to shape society according to Gospel principles. We cannot and should not give up the fight or abdicate this arena.

Employee Protections in the new Utah Anti-discrimination Ordinance

The Church and gay rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign both came out yesterday in favor of S.B.296 entitled Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom Amendments. This bill strikes a good balance between anti-discrimination and religious freedom because it essentially just adds sexual orientation to existing legislation regarding race and gender which in Utah is quite protective of the Church.

There are a couple of nice new additions such as an exemption for the Boy Scouts which is Constitutionally required by the 2000 Boy Scouts v. Dale Case (though I though I found it strange that the Boy Scouts were singled out even though there may be other expressive organizations which fall under the Dale decision), and making it clear that “a religious leader, when that individual is acting in the capacity of a religious leader” is not an employer for discrimination purposes. There were also a couple of novel provisions needed for the addition of gender identity to the group of protected classes: Employers are expressly allowed to have separate gender facilities (bathrooms etc) and also allowed to have uniforms, but must offer reasonable accommodations to trans-gender individuals. I think all of this is quite rasonable and strikes the right balance.

There is one section which is substantively completely new that I have seen little to no focus on. It is a provision that I would expect would elicit much more controversy especially from libertarian groups who focus on employer freedoms. This section makes it illegal for an employer to fire an employee for the expression of religious belief in the work place and also prohibits firing employees for “expressive activity outside of the workplace” on “the person’s religious, political, or personal convictions.”

 34A-5-112. Religious liberty protections — Expressing beliefs and commitments in
workplace — Prohibition on employment actions against certain employee speech.
(1) An employee may express the employee’s religious or moral beliefs and
commitments in the workplace in a reasonable, non-disruptive, and non-harassing way on equal terms with similar types of expression of beliefs or commitments allowed by the employer in the workplace, unless the expression is in direct conflict with the essential business-related interests of the employer.
(2) An employer may not discharge, demote, terminate, or refuse to hire any person, or
retaliate against, harass, or discriminate in matters of compensation or in terms, privileges, and
conditions of employment against any person otherwise qualified, for lawful expression or
expressive activity outside of the workplace regarding the person’s religious, political, or
personal convictions, including convictions about marriage, family, or sexuality, unless the
expression or expressive activity is in direct conflict with the essential business-related
interests of the employer.

The first provision regarding religious speech in the workplace might be of limited applicability. It is clear that an employer can ban all expression of belief or commitments” such as discussion of politics,or religion. However, if the employer allows some such expressions he must also allow religious expressions. The speech must also be done in a “reasonable,” “non-disruptive,” and “non-harassing” way which gives pretty wide latitude to employers to determine that religious speech is not reasonable or unacceptable. Finally, if the speech conflicts with the essential business-related interest of the employer it can be prohibited. I think this provision will likely just cause employers to draft stronger policies against speech on controversial issues in the workplace. The threat of possible litigation might help deter an employer from firing a religious individual for mentioning her belief, which seems to me to be a net positive. It also sends a strong message that religious speech is equivalent to speech and can not uniquely be excluded

The second provision on expressive activity is on the other hand a really big deal. This would make Utah one  of a  select few states where individuals cannot be fired as a result of their political views. While Utah would not join Louisiana, California, Connecticut and South Carolina which guarantee employees the right to talk about politics in the workplace as well as outside, it would join a small group of states such as California, Colorado, New York and North Dakota which offer off-duty protections. The religious liberty protections also seem strong here, as it would likely prevent things such as the firing of the Atlanta Fire Chief for the publication of a book critical of homosexuality.or individuals fired for content on religious blogs. This provisions also has the exception for the business-related interests of the employer, but this seems much narrower in the context of off the clock expressive activity.

These changes are major and have significant implication, which is why I am surprised they have not gotten much attention yet.

I admit that I am really pleased by the second provision in particular. As one who blogs about religion and touches on controversial political and social topics such as gay marriage and abortion I am heartened and excited that Utah is passing protection for such speech. Though I do not hope to work in Utah for long after graduating law school, I hope that this approach spreads to other states. While I think employers should have great freedom about the employees they argue, I think that such provisions strike the proper balance in offering protection from termination over expressive activities unrelated to the business. It has always seemed somewhat wrong to me that individuals could be fired for private speech done outside of the confines of work.

I hope that this provision gets more attention and debate before the bill is voted on, and that these provisions become templates for other states as well.

What does it mean to be a Christian?

Recently, Scott Walker got a great deal of media attention for how he answered a question about whether President Barack Obama was a Christian. This was his response:

“I don’t know. . . . I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that. I’ve never asked him that. You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian? To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press. The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”

A wide variety of pundits jumped on Scott Walker for his answer and sharply criticized him. At least a few thoughtful pundits have considered his remarks in light of the theological perspective he brings as the son of a minister and a member of an evangelical church.

Tim Graham for instance pointed out that: “Walker, the son of a Protestant minister, hears the question very differently: asking if someone is a Christian is a very personal question, asking whether someone has committed themselves to Jesus in their heart. It’s like asking if he knows how often Obama prays. His reluctance to answer for someone he doesn’t know is not a “No.”

Over at New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig likewise echoed a similar thought: “And so Walker is probably right: Without knowing Obama personally and having enough of a relationship with him to both probe his convictions and develop an intuition of his beliefs, it is impossible to begin to forward an educated opinion about whether or not he is Christian. More to the point, it is not even possible to advance a litmus test for proving his Christianity that the general public can widely agree upon, and even if it were, there is no reason to presume one’s Christian-ness can or should be decided democratically. In short, we lack the public agreement necessary to begin to decide how we would even know whether or not Obama is truly a Christian.”

When I first read Walker’s answer, my immediate reaction, other than cheering for his willingness to take on the media who asks such irrelevant question, was that his answer was theologically consistent. Since joining the LDS Church, I have had conversations with many evangelical friends and we discussed the question of whether Mormons are Christian. The answer that I have most often heard from those who take their theology seriously is that while Mormonism as a religion is not in their mind Christian, Individual members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be Christian. For them, being a Christian has more to do with one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. A Christian is one who has accepted Christ as his personal savior and is therefore saved. There are many many members of ostensibly Christian churches who are not Christian because they themselves have never accepted Jesus as Savior. Likewise, there may be members of Churches that teach falsely (such as ours in their mind) who nevertheless have come to know Jesus Christ and received a remission of their sins.

For someone like Scott Walker who comes from this background, the only proper answer when asked about whether another is Christian is “I Don’t Know,” This is especially true for someone that one has not had a religious or theological conversation with to asses whether that person truly knows Christ.

I think this goes to a deeper point about society and the role of religion. In popular culture, we like to treat religion as something like a hobby or a diversion. Religion is a social club that we belong to and attend sometimes. For the media, anyone who takes religion seriously is a fanatic and not to be taken seriously. Yet, this view is alien to the millions of religiously devout Americans who take their faith seriously. It is easy to grow somewhat cynical of those who attend church only periodically or seem to wear their religion solely as a social status symbol. Yet, Walker’s answer should remind us that we are not the one’s to judge the hearts and minds of others.

As for me, for me it is pretty easy to answer the question in the affirmative. In the Book of Mormon, we read about Individuals in the ancient Americas who were called Christian: “ For thus were all the true believers of Christ, who belonged to the church of God, called by those who did not belong to the church. And those who did belong to the church were faithful; yea, all those who were true believers in Christ took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come.” (Alma 46:14-15). While some might read these verses as suggesting that only members of the LDS Church are to be called Christians (those who belong to the Church of God), I think this is an inaccurate reading. At the time of Moroni, there was not the diversity of churches that exist today. Just as with the Church of Christ at the time of the Savior, there was one fold for all of those who believed. Moreover, the verse also speaks about “ALL true believers in Christ” taking upon themselves the name. Christian was a title that was at one point given derisively, and became a badge of honor for those who accepted Christ.

For me, these verses suggest that anyone who i willing to take upon themselves the name Christian and pledge to follow the savior is a Christian. This is true whether or not someone has some faulty theological ideas, or fully understands the savior. Christians are those who head the call of the Savior to “Come Follow Me.” They may do so imperfectly. The Apostles and Disciples of Christ who followed him did not fully understand him or his divine nature.

In the end, the wheat and the tares will be separated. Those who claim to follow Christ and yet do so without a sincere heart will be sifted like chaff and burned. Some of those who are burned will be those who claim to be members of Christ’s true Church. Yet, for this life all those who claim to be Christians are welcome to take upon themselves that badge. It is not my place to question them or to doubt their sincerity.

Finding My Corner of the Sky

This past weekend, I was in Minneapolis for a Moot Court competition (my team won third place and I got an award for being one of the best oralists so it was a very successful trip). While there, I bought a ticket to see the musical Pippin which I had never seen or heard before. I came into the musical completely not knowing what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised not only by the incredible direction and choreography of the revival, but by the Gospel friendly plot that unfolded.

For those who have not seen Pippin, the story is told by a narrator who is the head of (in the revival at least) a Circus troop. She tells the story of Pippin who is the son of the ancient king Charlamange. The narrator expressly describes this as a “miracle play” which suggests that ultimately it will teach a moral lesson about life. (“Magic to do”). As the story turns to Pippin, he is just graduating from University and seeking purpose in his life.

One of the most well known songs from the musical is called Corner of the Sky and has Pippin singing about his yearning for meaning in life. Pippin longs for greatness and for life to be “Something more than long….” He laments that “[s]o many men seem destined  To settle for something small” and declares “But I won’t rest until I know I’ll have it all. So don’t ask where I’m going. Just listen when I’m gone. And far away you’ll hear me singing [s]oftly to the dawn.” He longs “to be where my spirit can run free” and declares that he’s “[g]ot to find my corner of the sky.”

The narrator encourages Pippin to try a variety of activities in order to find meaning in life. He goes to war and engages in a bloody battle seeking “Jubilations!” and “a grateful nation’s Cheers!” but finds it horrific and empty. Encouraged by his grandmother, he begins to live a life of debauchery and sexuality, but feels empty as well. He tries music, and religion without success. Then, he becomes a political revolutionary and kills his father to take over the throne and bring justice to the kingdom, but finds that this only brings him greater troubles.

Depressed, Pippin wonders if he will ever find his happiness. The narrator urges him onward declaring that he is “on the right track” and that “each step’s indispensable.” Yet, Pippin despairs and ultimately collapses in a state of grief. He is revived by a widow who finds him on the road and puts him to bed and ensures “that he’s bathed and clothed and fed.” She is a self-described “everyday, customary kind of woman” who is “Practical as salt” and “Modest to a fault,” but Pippin develops a relationship with her. He helps around her farm, but yet longs for something more. Filled with delusions of grandeur Pippin declares that “When you’re extraordinary [y]ou gotta do extraordinary things.” In regard to the everyday tasks of life, Pippin declares “Well, I’m terribly sorry but I don’t care” he sees them as something that only those less extraordinary than him should be required to do: And don’t make me think about everyday things. They’re unnecessary To someone who is very Extraordinary Like me!”

Yet, Pippin and the widow (Catherine) fall in love as they talk until dawn and develop a strong relationship. Pippin however  is extremely moody and focused on his own happiness. As Catherine explains, “Some days he’d scowl and curse” and he had “His gloomy solitudes” and “His blunt abrasive style.” Ultimately, Pippin decides that he must leave to find his purpose in life.

The narrator urges Pippin to perform the finale act in the circus which would involve his death in a blaze of glory.  She taunts him by urging him to “Think about your life, Pippin . .  .Days are tame and nights the same . . . Now think about the beauty . . . In one perfect flame . . .And the angels of the morning . . . Are calling out your name.”

Pippin is tempted and yet finally realizes that “if I’m never tied to anything I’ll never be free.” Pippin declares his love for Catherine and explains “I wanted magic shows and miracles Mirages to touch I wanted such a little thing from life I wanted so much I never came close, my love We never came near It never was there I think it was here.”  Despite the seductiveness of the narrator’s offer of “crimson, gold and lavender: A shining parade” Pippin realizes that “there’s no color I can have on earth That won’t finally fade.”

The show ends on an interesting note, but showing that Catherine’s son for whom Pippin serves as a father figure has also begun to hear the seductive songs of the narrator and has begun to dream of grandeur and finding his corner of the sky. As such, the show suggests that Pippin’s indulgent focus on grandeur is a manifestation of youth that all of us must overcome or be overcome by.

The message of the show ultimately really resonated with me. In my youth in particular, I was filled with really strong delusions of grandeur. Everything seemed more important than the basic relationship and persons around me. I neglected people I cared about in order to spend time seeking to right a great political wrong or make a meaningful contribution to society. I saw myself as a great poet and writer. Yet, all of these desires didn’t truly bring happiness. From all of them, I only felt emptiness and a lack of ultimate meaning.

I am grateful for the role that the Gospel of Jesus Christ plays in giving me that higher purpose and direction that I had been missing. It truly helps me to focus on the things that do not finally fade.

Since being married, I have found that I still sometimes struggle with those same temptations to grandeur and to take upon myself more than I can handle. In law school, I feel the relentless drive to take on as much as I can. Having done really well in law school actually makes it harder to settle for anything other than the most prestigious position I can find. And yet, I also deep down know that these things cannot bring ultimate happiness. A job and a career can be incredibly satisfying and yet they must be means to an end. That end must be life eternal united with family and those we love. Diversions come and go, tasks and assignments fade but the relationships we form are ever lasting and significant.

When I now think of my Corner of the Sky, it is surrounded by those whom I love and filled with happiness and laughter. It will not be a piece of heaven because of the legal work I did during my life, but because of the work of salvation that I did in my own home.

Watching Pippin was for me a great reminder of the importance of setting proper priorities and focused on the things that truly matter most. Pippin drifted because he was tied to nothing. As members of Christ’s Church, we are tied to him and to each other with cords stronger than death.  May we always prioritize and place those things that matter most at the center of our lives.

The Voice of the Lord and D&C 1

One of my favorite things about the Doctrine and Covenants and especially Section 1 is how it democratizes revelation. In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord makes it clear that he is speaking to the whole world and inviting every man to receive personal revelation, a knowledge of the truthfulness of the scriptures and the modern prophets.

In verse 2, the Lord emphasizes that “verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated.” The message of God will come to every person whether or not the person is willing to receive it

Again in verse 4, the Lord emphasizes “ And the voice of warning shall be unto all people, by the mouths of my disciples, whom I have chosen in these last days.”

In Verse 11 the lord focuses on the fact that all mankind has the agency to choose whether or not to listen to the Gospel message.  “Wherefore the voice of the Lord is unto the ends of the earth, that all that will hear may hear:”

The Lord desires each one of us to be personal witnesses of him and to speak in the name of the Lord. “ 20 But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;” The authority to speak on behalf of the lord is not limited only to those who are leaders in the Church but i given to all mankind in our own capacities and callings.

God also desires that each one of us have the opportunity to gain a personal witness of the truth of the restored gospel and the impending second coming:

 “34 And again, verily I say unto you, O inhabitants of the earth: I the Lord am willing to make these things known unto all flesh;

 35 For I am no respecter of persons, and will that all men shall know that the day speedily cometh. . . . “

For me, this is one of the most unique and powerful messages of the doctrine and covenants. While the New Testament is full of examples of God inviting individuals to pray for things, the invitation to truly pray for a witness is pretty extraordinary. Likewise, while the Book of Mormon also emphasis the centrality of personal revelation exemplified by Moroni’s promise, this is nowhere to powerful as in the D&C. Here, the lord is speaking in his own voice through a living and modern prophet. The message is clearly to all the earth and for all of us.

Nicodemus – Coward or Heroic Convert

In a few weeks we are teaching New Testament lesson 5, which focuses on two of the most powerful examples of the savior’s personal ministry: His night sermon with Nicodemus, and his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well.  Today, as I was reading about Nicodemus, I was strongly intrigued by his character and the way his story is told.

One thing I find especially intriguing about Nicodemus is that his life can be read in two distinct ways. In the first and perhaps more traditional way of viewing his life, Nicodemus was an individual who tragically could never fully commit to the savior. though the savior personally bore witness to him of his divinity. Nicodemus tepidly stands up for the savior before the Sanhedrin before ultimately backing down, and gives him a gift of embalming spices after his crucifixion — Too little too late. Nicodemus fails to live up to his full potential because he fears for his social prestige and position. This article lays out the scriptural case for this take on Nicodemus.  This interpretation has been propounded by several general authorities including most prominently Spencer W. Kimball

President Kimball powerfully spoke of Nicodemus and his lost potential: ”

O my brother, opportunity’s doors are closing. Why can’t you understand? Too many materialistic obstacles? He knows your influence, wealth, erudition, your exalted place in community, in government, in the powerful church group. . . . Your decision seems weighted with earthly treasures and the plaudits of men and the conveniences of affluence. My heart weeps for you, friend Nicodemus. You seem such a good man, philanthropic, kind, generous. You could have been such a power in the Lord’s kingdom. You had a spark of desire. It could have been kindled into a living flame. You might have been one of his seventies, to proselyte as an advance agent, or an apostle, or even the President of his Church. You might have filled the vacancy when Matthias was called or have been an apostle to the gentiles with Paul and suffered with him in his perils of the sea, among robbers, in prisons, in his beatings and stonings, and even in his death. How little we realize the doors of opportunity which we oft close with one wrong decision. But the price was too high, wasn’t it, man of wealth?”

On the other hand, others read the same verses and see Nicodemus as a courageous individual who converted to the savior and ultimately gave everything for him. Those who favor this interpretation see Nicodemus coming at night to the savior not as an act of cowardice, but instead motivated by a desire to speak one on one with the savior at a less crowded time. They see Nicodemus as putting his life on the line by standing up in the Sanhedrin, and then publicly declaring his belief in the savior by helping prepare him for burial. This article lays out the case for this interpretation. Other leaders of the Church, most prominently Bruce R. McConkie who explained that “We are left to assume that following his interview with Jesus, the processes of conversion continued to operate in the life of Nicodemus.” (Mortal Messiah 1:471). “The faith which had once required the curtain of darkness can now venture at least into the light of sunset, and [be] brightened finally into noonday confidence.” (Mortal Messiah 4: Chapter 109) McConkie relies on possible historical sources which suggest that Nicodemus was a wealthy man who eventually lost all of his fortune and his social position, presumably by following Christ. .

I admit that I personally am far more sympathetic to the more optimistic account. I love to imagine Nicodemus gradually becoming more and more confident in his testimony. I love to imagine in line with Catholic tradition that he was baptized by the apostles and ultimately martyred for his testimony. However, regardless of which version is ultimately correct (or if the truth is somewhere in the middle), I think the story of Nicodemus teaches some powerful truths.

Each of us will have moments in our lives when we will come face to face with the savior. Each of us will be called to sacrifice some things that we care deeply about. We might have to give up popularity of the world. We might have to lose friends. Yet, Christ’s invitation to one and all is to follow him and be baptized and be born again as a disciple. Our choices in those moments determine destiny. Nicodemus faced the choice. He could either be a coward or a hero. Whatever he chose, that same choice standards before us. We must make the choice to follow Christ fully, or to stand on the sidelines and watch.

President Kimball powerfully bore witness of this point:

Now, my beloved, listening friends, you too are generous and kind. You too are prayerful and religious. But are you also like Nicodemus, burdened down with preconceived and prejudiced notions? Do you think that no good thing can come out of Nazareth (John 1:46), or Palmyra, or Salt Lake City? Are you too biased to accept new truth? Too wealthy and fettered with the cares of this world to accept the difficult demands of Christ’s Church? Are you so influential as to fear to prejudice your position or local influence? Are you too weak to accept and carry a load of service? Are you too busy to study and pray and learn of Christ and his program? Are you too materialistically trained to accept the miracles, visions, prophets, and revelations?

If any of you, my listeners, is a modern Nicodemus, I beg of you to grasp the new world of truths. Your Lord Jesus Christ pleads with you:

My true Church is restored to earth with my saving doctrines.
I have placed in authoritative positions apostles and others divinely called, and in leadership a prophet who today receives my divine revelations.
Churches are many, but they are churches of men, not mine.
Creeds are numerous, but they are not of my authorship.
Organizations are everywhere, but they are not organized nor accepted by me.
Pretended and usurping representatives are legion, but I called them not; nor do I recognize their ordinances. My second coming is near at hand.

. . . I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne . . .
He that hath an ear let him hear (Rev. 3:20-22).

This testimony I bear, in the name of Jesus Christ our Master. Amen.”