Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy

Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy

I was especially moved this past weekend to hear Orrin Hatch (R-UT) speak at the funeral of Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy funeral as well as on NPR and on television about his close friendship. Orin Hatch was such a close friend and compatriot that upon hearing of his friend’s ultimately fatal illness, he wrote and dedicated a song to the Senator. Yet, Hatch and Kennedy were at times fierce rivals across the isle as well as allies in passing important and vital legislation. What struck me the most was the amount of respect and reverence that was felt between people of different political persuasions. Orin Hatch knows that one can be a Democrat and a true patriot and lover of this nation; something that I think unfortunately members of this church often forget. Seeing this funeral made me long, as President Obama expressed in his Eulogy, for a time when to disagree was not to disdain and when the senate was home to Lions such as Kennedy and Hatch that were willing to put America ahead of their political parties.

I also love how Kennedy, a recovering alcoholic Roman Catholic, and Hatch, a devout latter day saint. Were able to share elements of their faith and worldview while remaining respectful and loving. Hatch shared several stories relating to his faith that were amusing, touching and moving all at once.

“Hatch also loves to tell the story about how in Kennedy’s drinking days, Hatch once convinced a somewhat tipsy Kennedy to agree to speak to about 200 LDS missionaries.

Hatch said about 11 p.m. one night after Kennedy had several drinks, he remembers saying something like, “I have a favor to ask …”

“It’s done,” Kennedy immediately replied.

“Do you remember Frank Madsen, my old administrative aide?”

“Sure, sure. Great guy.”

“Well,” Hatch said, “he presides over 200 LDS missionaries in Boston that would like you to meet with them and me at a conference.”

“Done.”

“Well, they would also like you to arrange to have it in (historic) Faneuil Hall.”

“Done, no problem.”

He said the next day he quickly wrote up a detailed letter about what Kennedy had agreed to do. He said Kennedy’s hands shook when he read it, and Hatch realized Kennedy didn’t remember the promise.

“What else did I agree to?” he asked.

“Oh, this is just page one,” Hatch quipped, as Kennedy threw up his hands and walked away. But he did as agreed and met with the missionaries in Faneuil Hall.”

I love the humor and energy that was shared between these two giants of the senate. I am very pleased that Ted Kennedy would live up to his agreement and went on to speak to the Missionaries and deliver what Senator Hatch described as

“The tremendous altruistic talk that he gave to them on that day.

Well, all I can say is it was really something. He didn’t try to weasel out of it. Instead, he produced the hall and he gave that beautiful speech.

I was impressed as usual. And those missionaries will never forget that. And though they were of a different faith, he commended them for their willingness to serve a cause bigger than themselves and thanked them for their selflessness. This is just one example of the graciousness of my dear friend, Ted Kennedy”

Senator Hatch also shared a story that relates to the completion of the Boston Massachusetts LDS temple.

“There was another time when the Mormon church was nearing completion of its temple here in Boston. Belmont (ph), I think. I was approached by several people working in the temple and informed that the city would not allow a spire to be placed on the top of the temple with an angel on top of it as is customary on Mormon temples.

I immediately called Ted and asked for help. Not long after that conversation, he called me back and said, “All of western Massachusetts will see the Angel Gabriel on the top of the Mormon temple.

Though I was tempted to leave it alone, I had to inform Teddy it was actually the Angel Maroni, a prominent figure in the LDS faith. And at that point, Teddy replied, does this mean I’m going to get another book of Mormon for Christmas? Of course he did.”

I am brought a lot of joy by the fact that these two men were able to casually and even humorously share their faith. Both were able to find inspiration and meaning in the other’s faith. It is a moving tribute to interfaith relations and being a light unto the world.

Walking on water- Peter as a paradigm of faith

I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen Robinson this past week, (both Believing Christ , and How Wide the Divide) and so my mind is on the relationship between faith and work.  I have been pondering the famous scripture “For it is by grace that we are save, after all we can do” and trying to fully understand what it means in theory and in practice.

This past Wednesday at institute, we were talking about the story of Peter attempting to walk on water, and I realized that this story is a pretty good parable for faith rescuing us from our failures after all we do.

Mattew 14 25-33

25And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.

26And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.

The disciples are out alone on the sea. Jesus approaches them and they fear and do not realize who or what he is. Jesus identifies himself and encourages them to have encourage and to not be afraid.

27But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.

This seems like the relationship that all members, and perhaps especially converts, such as myself, have with the church and the gospel. We find ourselves alone or else trying to understand forces in our life that are beyond our comprehension. Eventually, at some point that source of influence is identified as the Lord Jesus Christ, through the impact of the light of Christ and the Holy Ghost.

28And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.

Peter’s response is instructive. Peter asks with faith for an invitation to come follow the lord. Peter knows, that the tender mercies of Christ are miraculous. None of the other apostles seem to respond in this way at all. Peter is calling on the lord with faith for the blessings that he knows that Christ can give to him. Thus, Peter is asking for a way to make his faith manifest through action. Just as we could have perfect theoretical faith in the spiritual world but needed to be embodied in order to truly have our faith tested, here Peter realizes that if he truly believes that this man before him is Lord, he can expect to do be empowered to perform miracles.

29 ”And he said, Come.”

Christ then beckons to Peter to come. Thus, Peter’s request is responded to by an invitation to partake in the blessings and miracles of Christ.

It is through his initial faith in Christ and his willingness to ask for the bestowal of blessings, that Peter is given the invitation to try to do that which has only been done successfully by the Lord Jesus Christ.

“And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.”

Peter begins to walk through his faith. It is often too easy to skip to the moment when Peter loses his faith, the point where he falters and descends into the water. Instead, we should realize that it is miraculous that Peter had the faith to take this step at all. Peter really was able to walk on water, even if it was merely for a time.  Also significant is the direction in which Peter moves. His effort through faith has moved him closer to Christ and bridged the gap between them.

30But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.

Just as inevitably will happen to us, Peter reaches a point where the limitations of his courage or conviction overpower. Peter begins to sink. Despite all of his efforts and faith, Peter was only able to overcome his limitations for a time.

We can learn a lot from Peter’s almost instantaneous response. As he sees himself beginning to sink, Peter does not flail or thrash about attempting to restore himself. Instead, he immediately cries out to the lord for salvation. In difficult moments it is too easy to feel unworthy of the saving grace of the Lord. Peter must have felt ashamed and weakened by his inability to continue on the path with perfect faith. Still, he did not allow that to stop him from reaching out to the lord. It is at the moment when after all we do, we still find ourselves in the sinking in the depth, when the atonement of Christ is most real and most valuable.

31And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

Christ’s response to Peter’s plea is immediate. Christ does not wait to first chastise Peter for his failures. Instead, Christ extends a hand and allows Peter to be caught. Likewise, we should not be held back from receiving the atonement of Christ for fear of chastisement or guilt. Help will always come first.

The Words of Christ to Peter are stark. They are a reminder of the absolute standards to which we must aspire. They are a clear indication that more is even more is expected of Peter in the future. Having overcome the first hurdle of faith by taking those first steps onto the water, Peter must refine and perfect his faith by removing shreds of doubt.

32And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.

33Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.

Yet, peter is not denied the presence of God because of his weakness. He has been cleansed by his willingness to reach out in his time of failure.  The storms pass, as they always do. Even though Peter failed to achieve a perfect faith, he has progressed on the path towards developing that faith. At the point of failure, he knew whom to reach out to, and he was willing to accept his flaws and proceed with willingness and perseverance. Peter here is thus a paragon of faith in the saving power of the Lord Jesus Christ, even as he is besot by his own weaknesses.  He is saved by the calling out to the grace of Christ at the point where his own faith and conviction had reached their limits.

This scripture is incredibly versatile and useful as one that allows us to reflect on how we are to deal with adversity. Thus, when faced with an unfamiliar and frightening situation, Peter has the courage to ask the lord for strength and to follow him in faith. Even when he finds himself failing, he continues to call onto the lord and is saved from his plight.

This is also a very apt metaphor for our own personal Journey. When we become aware of the lord’s presence in our lives, we must willingly ask for all of the blessings that he can offer us and must be willing to act upon our faith. We always know that when (for in this life it is not really a matter of if), we fall, we can immediately reach out to the lord and that he will grab us. We do not need to wait to have our flaws perfected and are not expected to get back out of the water on our own merits. We will receive a reminder that we are not living up to our full potential, but not be denied the presence of the lord because of our failure to do so perfectly.

John Walton’s The Lost World Of Genesis One and LDS cosmology

John Walton’s The Lost World Of Genesis One  and LDS cosmology

While I am no expert in biblical scholarship or analysis, I find discussions over biblical intent and historiography to be fairly fascinating and so follow some of the latest developments. I just stumbled upon a pretty incredible series on Beliefnet about the latest book by Old Testament scholar and Wheaton college professor John Walton entitled The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. I’ve not yet gotten to read the book, but I plan on ordering it soon and am going to be making some comments based on what I’ve discerned from the many reviews of the book as well as the Beliefnet series. Walton is a non-lds scholar and this work is primarily addressed at the evangelical community as shown by the lengthy discussion of the relevance of his conclusions in regard to Young Earth Creationism and Biblical Literalists. Frankly, the last half of the book seems a bit more concerned with debate within protestant circles, but the scholarly research in the first half on ancient near eastern cosmology seems to be something that is in incredible concordance with the Latter Day Saint traditional view of creation.

Walton begins by writing about how Genesis one can only be understood as an ancient cosmology rather than an account of the physical world as we might discern it by today’s science. This perspective seems even more useful to a Latter Day Saint, as we have some other wise curious and difficult to place passages of cosmology in the Pearl of Great Price. Walton m akes some insightful comments here that we should keep in mind as Latter Day Saint scholars “In other words, God gave his revelation in a way that would be understood by his audience. To ignore this fact would be “cultural imperialism” (pg 21).” (One blog post from the Bloggernacle that I found recently very compelling on the topic of cosmology and LDS symbolism– “The Great One is Kolob, Because It is Near unto Me”)

Walton then moves on to a topic of much concern to LDS scholars. He spends the rest several Chapters analyzing the creation account of Genesis One. His conclusion is that the account is not “material oriented” but instead “function oriented.” By stating this, Walton affirms the LDS view that the account in Genesis is one of cosmic organization rather than creation. Walton “propose[s] that people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by vertue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system…in relation to society and culture” (pg 26, italics his). Walton focuses on how the Hebrew word Bara refers to function rather than structural creation and argues that Genesis one parallels other Ancient Near East texts by showing a move from nonfunctional to functional.  The Hebrew Phrases Tohu and Bohu, he argues never relate to material form and always to a lack of function. Walton argues that the notion of Creation Ex Nihilo is imposed on the bible from a materialistic ontology that is foreign to it.

Its amazing how closely this scholarship parallels the cosmology expressed by Joseph Smith in the last years of his life and in the King Follet sermon in particular. Joseph also focused on the meaning of the word bara and talked about how ““God had materials to organize the world out of chaos … [which] may be organized and reorganized but not destroyed.” Indeed, this modern scholarship almost eerily seems to mirror restoration ideas that would have been completely foreign to Joseph Smith in the 19th century environment.

Walton next goes to show how days one through three in the Genesis account establish function, while the next three days Install functionaries. Thus, in Walton’s understanding the first-fourth, second-fifth and third-six days are paired. On the first day, time is given structure through the delineation of light and dark, while on the fourth day the sun and moon are established as functionaries to rule over these forces and mark the passage of time. On the second day, sea and water are divided for their varied functions establishing weather, while the fifth day concerns the establishment of functionaries in the waters and sky. The third day involves the growth of food and vegetation while the sixth day places living creatures and especially human beings as functionaries in this regard. It seems to me that this functional divide is completely consistent with the LDS point of view and it seems like a quite elegant way to understand creation.

The next part of Walton’s book seems even more relevant to Latter Day Saints. Walton offers a very meaningful analysis of the Sabbath day as a day on which God is established as functionary of the Universe. Thus, he speaks about the cosmos as the “temple” of God and views the notion of God’s ‘rest’ in a profoundly unique way “Rest is what happens when a crisis has been resolved or stability achieved.” Thus, the Sabbath day is primarily concerned with the final sanctification and purification of the Universe. On the other days, the universe has been brought from chaos into form and on this day God is installed in a ruling position. Walton speaks about parallels with Near Eastern temple rituals, which usually occurred over a seven day period with the seventh day being a focus of Holy Activity. Thus, Walton advances the notion that temples were anciently created as Microcosms of the cosmos.

I was reminded of Hugh W. Nibley’s work on the Meaning of the Temple. Indeed, it seems that this view corresponds very nicely with the Latter Day Saint iteration of a temple as a place of theopony and cosmic encounter with deity. It is rewarding to see yet another mainstream protestant scholar offer views strikingly in parallel with scholarship and work that has been done by Latter Day Saint scholars for decades.

I recommend this work heartily because it is likely to be a vastly influential work on academic protestant circles and something that should hopefully help to show some of the inherent strengths in our elegant cosmology that seems rooted so deeply in Ancient Near Eastern thought. I am so thankful for a restoration which has brought all of these ideas to beautiful and rewarding light.

Proselytizing in Israel- Free speech?

As some of the readers of my blog may know, I was born in Israel and I am a dual citizen ( American and Israeli). I have not visited Israel since my finding out about the church. Indeed, I have not been there in more than two years. However, I was curious where the closest branch would be to me. I got an e-mail back with that information, but also with information about policies to be followed in Israel

Also, here are some policies that we observe in Israel.

Policy Regarding Visitors to LDS Church Services in Israel

In keeping with commitments made to the government of Israel, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should not invite others to attend LDS Church services who hold Israeli passports or who are permanent residents of Israel, the West Bank or Gaza.

What Can be Said in Response to Questions Regarding the Church, Its Doctrines and Personal Religious Beliefs

In an agreement with the State of Israel, the Church gave assurances that no efforts would be made by it or its members to induce, encourage or lead individuals in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to take an interest in the Church or its doctrines. This agreement applies to all Church members, whether permanent residents, expatriates living the in area, or individuals on short term visits, including tourists. It applies to discussions or other efforts that might be construed to be proselytizing with anyone who is not a member of the Church, whether a resident, expatriate living in the area, tourist or other short term visitor. A simple answer to questions regarding Church doctrines or practices is: “By agreement with the Government of Israel, we do not discuss the Church’s doctrines or personal religious beliefs.” If asked specifically, it is appropriate to indicate that “Mormons” are Christians. Tourists who are members of the Church should not invite non-members to attend Church services.

I knew that Proselytizing was not done in Israel in any formal capacity (i.e. I knew that we did not have a “palestine mission.”) What I did not realize was to what extent personal contact even with friends or relatives was curtailed. I am not permitted to speak about the church or its doctrines aside from in the vaguest sense of saying that we are Christian. I can not invite relatives to attend church with me, or encourage them to read a Book of Mormon. This was very disturbing to me. I wonder, how a country can claim to be an enlightened free speech haven and still hold such starkly unfree policies in regard to freedom of religion.

Indeed, while Israel has shown some blatant disregard towards its critics and while extreme nationalist parties have proposed laws that would dramatically curtail criticism, Israel is generally regarded as a “free” country in regard to its press and general speech freedoms. Religious proselytizing in particular has been an area of much controversy as there have been cases of citizenship denied or individuals deported due to accusations of being involved in ministries.

Of course, a lot of the restrictions are due to special agreements between the church and the government rather than national law. Thus, missionary work is only technically illegal if material inducement is involved. Indeed, some Christian ministries openly boast about their missionary activities, others suggest that Messianic Jewish ministries but not gentile ministries may be permitted. It is a bit unclear based on the status quo of the law if such things as passing out a Book of Mormon or our DVDS would be considered illegal. Also, there have been accusations of widespread persecution against messianic jews and others living in Israel. Thus, even if the de jura law does not outlaw all of these activities, they are de facto both discouraged and actively punished. Indeed, the history of these anti-proselytizing laws show a clear pattern of bias against christian ministries. The law currently on the books, for instance, was passed on Christmas day 1977.

As an Israeli, I am very disappointed by the status quo. Indeed, for members of many faiths, such as my own but even more so Jehovah’s Witnesses, proselytizing is such an essential part of ones religious practice. To claim to have religious freedom but to ban or restrict such a vital part of what ones faith encourages one to do seems to me a bit absurd. I hope and pray for the day when Israel will truly be opened up for a free religious market place of ideas, and when the gospel will flourish throughout the land.

Outsiders to History

Outsiders to History

I know that I should not be surprised considering that Latter Day Saints make up such a unique historical and cultural minority, but I was still a bit shocked by the complete lack of any mention in documents, exhibits or art of the Latter Day Saints or our historical perspective. I went to the National Gallery, National Archives and the American History Museum. I did not find even the slightest scrap or mention of Latter Day Saints, Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City, and Brigham young or even the specter of polygamy and negative stereotypes that have been perpetuated over the years.

Latter Day Saints unfortunately do not figure prominently in any of the major artistic movements of the 19th or 20th century. Thus, the lack of representation in the National Gallery was expected. Saints have mostly stuck to devotional art as their artistic contribution. Perhaps our most well known artists would include Arnold Friberg whose work on B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments brought him attention, or renowned sculptor Avard Fairbanks. Neither these nor any other artist that I know of have done much to bring LDS emotions, perspectives and views together as a distinct form that has been observed by outsiders. I’d love to see a renaissance of LDS involvement in the art beyond the realm of devotional works. If you know of any artists that are doing this (working within mainstream movements but maintaining uniquely LDS identities or themes) or have any comments on this notion, feel free to comment.

I was much more surprised to see the complete absence of the pioneer perspective at the American History museum. The museum seemed to take efforts to include exhibits covering a wide variety of minorities. Jewish immigrants were featured in at least two distinct places. The 19th century focused on abolitionism and the fighting in Kansa and Nebraska but never mentioned any of the varied restoration movements. Considering that Mormons are now a substantial religious group in America, I guess I really feel like some mention of our past and shared history should be included. Do you think this trend of exclusion has changed in recent years? How has the involvement of the church in high profile political situations such as proposition 8 or the Romney run for the Republican Nomination impacted the need for public engagement with the unique Mormon narrative? It seems to me obvious that our history of persecution and lack of government protection does not neatly fit into the preferred narrative of American History.

Liberating the captives at the National Gallery

I spent the day in Washington D.C sight seeing and going to various museums. I went to the National Gallery for the first time which was exciting because I’d heard a lot about their vast collection. I must say, that I am probably spoiled from the vast quality and quantity on display in European museums, because I was less impressed with the museum than I expected. One painting really stuck out for me–not so much on an aesthetic level, but on a theological level.

Christ in Limbo

Benvenuto di Giovanni
Christ in Limbo, probably 1491

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about baptism for the dead and the work that we do for those in spiritual prison. In the next few weeks, I am going to be doing the temple work for my mother and so the topic is pressed especially strongly on my mind. I recently read Hugh Nibley’s incredible article on Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times. Still, it was pretty encouraging and powerful to see clear evidence that this idea of liberating the captives is not just some new idea invented by Joseph Smith in the 1830’s, but is an authentic take on an ancient practice that lingered in memory although perhaps in distorted form.

1 Peter 3:19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

I am so happy that we are living in the dispensation of the fullness of times, where we as members and priesthood holders can participate in this divine act of redemption. It is so enriching to have a deeper understanding of what exactly christ did when he descended and harrowed the prison.

D&C 138 is especially rich with wonderful details that illustrate how Christ’s church operates on the same eternal principles in this life and the next. Missionary work is transformed into an eternal and spiritual phenomena and human agency emphasized.

“But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.”

Most importantly, later revelation shows that this act of liberation is fundamentally an act of generations and family. Thus, each living person is responsible for those that preceded him. This beautiful revelation really creates reciprocal relations with those that have come before us and those that will come after us as well.

Hebrews 11: 40 “God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.”

The other thing that seeing this painting made me reflect on, is that Catholics often get a bad unnecessarily among Latter Day Saints. I’ve come to realize that the Catholic church likely should be viewed as a force heroically struggling to preserve truly doctrines even after the apostasy, rather than a cause of that apostasy. Indeed, this is apparent by the fact that so many of our restored doctrine are reflected in the Catholic tradition but lost in mainline protestantism. Thus, the very idea of a spiritual prison remained in the unbiblical notion of Limbo, the notion of priesthood and authority was preserved in the papacy even as it lost spiritual authority and marriage was preserved as an eternal sacrament even if the notion of sealing was not properly understood. One could think of probably tens of other ways in which Catholic orthodoxy preserved bits of our faith that may have been otherwise totally lost to time. We owe an enormous debt to the work of the Church for the fact that we had as much correct knowledge of Christ as we did before the restoration.

I think we can do more to reach out with appreciation. Certainly, we need to get rid of the orthopraxy view that equates Catholicism with the church of abomination. This is not only unscriptural, it is dangerous, deceitful and antithetical to the truth.

A proposal for Mission Leaders

A proposal for Mission Leaders (I realize of course that this will alas never happen)

As a recent convert to the church, and one heavily considering serving a full time two year mission, I think that I’ve discovered one invaluable tool that the church should load up all of its missionaries with. Single handedly, this tool has given me more scriptural knowledge and spiritual insight than any other. I know that many others in wards and stakes across the country are also discovering that it is an invaluable tool for allowing them to connect with other members and magnify their callings. I am speaking of course of the ipod touch/ iphone with its incredible array of LDS related applications. Indeed, on my iPod touch I can currently: Read all the standards works as well as conference talks, church manuals and hymn lyrics (not to mention Preach My Gospel); Search the scriptures by keyword, highlight, bookmark, annotate and take notes; listen over the internet to any general authority talk over the past 11 years and to audio versions of all the standard works; find the phone number, address or contact information for every single member in my stake.

Technology has put the whole world at our fingertips and frankly, to me it is shocking that we sending missionaries out into the field without access to the latest innovations. It is my proposal that every missionary should be equipped with an ipod touch loaded with all of these incredible applications as well as mp3s of sacred music and general authority talks and video clips of core teaching components. These could be recycled within a mission, so that when one missionary leaves his device is given to a new missionary. There could also be one given per companion pair rather than per individual.

Of course, precautions would have to be taken, the internet would have to generally be disabled accept for perhaps access through a select few applications, a way to charge the ipod touch without giving the missionaries the temptation to upload their own music from home, a way to update applications to reflect the newest conference talks would have to be found that would not compromise mission standards, the playing of any and all games would have to be disabled etc. However, most of these restrictions can actually be done on the device itself. Moreover, with the quantity of missionaries the church sends out each year, it is very likely that the church could make a deal with apple to allow an ipod touch tuned to the unique needs of church missionaries.

As I consider the option of missionary service, frankly, the idea of going without my ipod touch is in fact one of the most terrifying things. I love the incredible referencing tools it gives me, and the ability to find almost any scripture just by remembering one or two words from it. I never have to struggle with the inability to find an exact scripture. I have made tabbed categories based on how a particular scripture is useful ( scriptures about faith, testimony, salvation by Christ etc.) which has been incredibly useful in conversations with friends. I have been edified through the listening of authority talks, and been a more effective home teacher because of access to the directory. I can’t imagine being as effective of a missionary without it, and I implore you to find some way to grant to our missionaries access to the same arsenal.