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.

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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.

First Presidency Christmas Devotional 2014

I really enjoyed watching the Christmas Devotional tonight. I always love the Christmas music conducted by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the focus on the savior. Though I did think it strange that President Monson and President Uchtdorf did not speak tonight, I still thought that the speakers covered a wonderful variety of topics and really helped the viewer remember the birth and atonement of Christ.

I especially liked Elder Maynes (of the 70) talk where he focused on how the Christmas story was truly a family story. He talked extensively about the character and virtues of Mary and Joseph as well as the savior. As a still relatively new husband with a small child, I have gained a deeper appreciation for the tender feelings that Mary and Joseph must have felt as they looked upon their child. Scholars hypothesize that Joseph must have died quite young in the life of the savior, because he is not prominently featured in the life of the Savior, but I am appreciative of his character and integrity. Just as Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of the Savior, I also believe that Joseph was chosen to be the earthly father of the savior.

Sister Oscarson spoke about how one of the greatest miracles of the Christmas story is the love that it reflects. She urged us to be generous with our time and money and to be more Christlike in our association with family and friends not in this Christmastime, but throughout the year. My wife and I are going later this week to visit my family in Israel, and so this advice was really relevant to me.

Elder Christofferson  spoke of the condescension of the savior.  He emphasized that Christ needed to come down to earth and experience the full range of the human experience in order to help us be lifted up. I loved his message that if we look to god in every thought, everything we suffer will also lead us to be better. Just as savior’s experiences were redemptive, so too will our experiences help us to redeem and lift one another.

Finally, President Eyring spoke of the light of Christ. I am excited to read this talk more thoroughly once it is in print. I especially liked that President Eyring emphasized that everyone can feel the light of Christ no matter what faith or religion one belongs to. I remembered instances in my life before my conversion, when I felt drawn closer to God and uplifted. Given that I am the only one in my family that is in the Church, it is often easy to forget about the role of the light of Christ and the role It plays witnessing truth to all. I am grateful that God truly loves all of us and bears witness of truth to each of us no matter who we are or where we are from.

The Rock of Revelation: Continuing Revelation and the Living Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Made Perfect in Christ

I want to highly recommend an article in the July ensign by Elder Gerrit W. Gong entitled Becoming Perfect in Christ. It is a really powerful article which testifies of the Atonement and the fact that each of us can become perfect in Christ.

 

One of my mission president’s favorite scriptures was/is Moroni 10: 32-33. He would often close conferences by discussing Moroni’s beautiful penultimate words

32 Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

33 And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.

My mission president emphasized that in in this verse perfection is never referenced without being followed by the words “in Christ.” Our perfection is not measured by never making a mistake in life. We are not expected to be absolutely flawless. Instead, perfection implies a process whereby through the grace of Christ and the power of his Atonement we are cleansed.

I also love the sense of progression in these verses. First, we may be perfected in him, which seems like a distant goal. Next, after we have denied ourselves of ungodly things and loved God, we may be perfect in him which is to me seems a more immediate and attainable goal. Next, through the power of God ye are perfect in Christ. I love that it is not our own efforts that move us from being potentially perfect to actually being perfect, but the power of God. As we continue to be perfect in Christ by his grace, we are sanctified in Christ due to our covenant relationship and his atonement. It is only ultimately after that process of perfection that the scripture says that ye become holy, without spot. For the first time, this last reference is without the words in christ implying that it is only after the process of refinement through the atonement that we can become holy and pure independent of the grace of the savior. Even still, while Holy, without Spot is wonderful, it is not quite the same thing as fully perfect, and to me that implies a continuing reliance on the Savior and his atonement that will continue beyond this life.

Elder Gong beautifully captures this process in his article

Understanding the Savior’s freely given atoning love can free us from self-imposed, incorrect, and unrealistic expectations of what perfection is. Such understanding allows us to let go of fears that we are imperfect—fears that we make mistakes, fears that we are not good enough, fears that we are a failure compared to others, fears that we are not doing enough to merit His love.

The Savior’s freely given atoning love helps us become more forgiving and less judgmental of others and of ourselves. This love heals our relationships and gives us opportunities to love, understand, and serve as our Savior would.

His atoning love changes our concept of perfection. We can put our trust in Him, diligently keep His commandments, and continue in the faith (see Mosiah 4:6)—even as we also feel greater humility, gratitude, and dependence on His merits, mercy, and grace (see 2 Nephi 2:8).

In a broader sense, coming unto Christ and being perfected in Him places perfection within the eternal journey of our spirit and body—in essence, the eternal journey of our soul (see D&C 88:15). Becoming perfect results from our journey through physical life, death, and resurrection, when all things are restored “to their proper and perfect frame” (Alma 40:23). It includes the process of spiritual birth, which brings “a mighty change” to our hearts and dispositions (Mosiah 5:2). It reflects our lifelong refinement through Christlike service and obedience to the Savior’s commandments and our covenants. And it recognizes the perfecting relationship between the living and the dead (see D&C 128:18).

 

Elder Gong explains that knowing this truth is essential to allow us to continue to develop and become more Christlike while avoiding the pressures of perfectionism and the accompanying feelings of guilty and inadequacy. I also bear witness that it is through Christ and his atonement that we are able to be made whole. While sanctification is a gradual process, it really does work. If we continue to have faith and press forward, we will be perfect in Christ and made whole, pure, and holy.

Equity and Justice: Divine Principles of Judgment

As I have witnessed arguments regarding the potential excommunication of Kate Kelly as well as the general debate over the whether women, gays, and others are treated equally in the church.

Last week, we had a stake priesthood meeting in which the speaker discussed Alma 13 and Alma’s discourse on the origins of the priesthood. I was struck by a phrase that Alma uses regarding the savior “who is full of grace, equity, and truth.” I was intrigued by the combination of equity, or treating others with fairness, and truth.  I searched the scriptures to see other instances of the term equity to see what other words it is associated with

Alma is the only prophet in the scriptures to use the phrase “grace, equity and truth.” He uses it both in Alma 13 and Alama 9 to describe the savior.  I love how this phrase links equity and the savior’s grace. I am also reminded of the Savior’s description of himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Without faith in Christ and his grace, true equality is not possible.

The phrase equity is also frequently used elsewhere in the scriptures and these uses are also revealing.

Far and away the most common word linked to equity is the Justice.

This term is often used regarding the savior. Isaiah explains that the savior “with righteousness shall . . . judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth) (and Nephi repeats this phrase in 2 Ne 30). The Psalsm likewise speak of the savior coming “to judge the earth with righteousness . . . and the people with equity) (Psalm 98). Equity or equality is expressly linked with righteousness judgment.

In some instances, the term “justice and equity” is used to refer to righteous earthly rules such as Helaman (Helaman 3), or the people at the time of the coming of the savior (3 Ne 6).

Proverbs also urges individuals to aspire towards  “wisdom, justice, and judgement, and equity” as well as “righteousness, and judgment, and equity”

Given the news this week, it’s interesting that the same phrases are used in the Doctrine and Covenants in regard to disciplinary councils: In D&C 102 the lord urges those who speak as part of the council “to speak according to equity and justice.”

Thus, in almost every instance equity is based on the act of judging between good and evil and between competing claims. Equity comes as a result of deciding fairly and justly between competing claims. True equality comes from discernment and is based on God’s standards.

It is important to keep this in mind when voices in the world clamor for equality and are offended when Christ’s church is judgmental and rejects claims of equality. Without a knowledge of right and wrong, and without judgment based on God’s paradigm there is no meaningful equality. We are all equal in God’s eyes precisely because we are given agency and held accountable for our choices. Equality is always linked to judgment because Christ’s perfectly just judgment is ultimately what makes us equal. For all will stand as equal before God to be judged.

As Christ’s representatives on the earth, Bishops and Stake Presidents sitting in council must also judge based on equity and justice. Those that commit sin, or rebel must be judged, not because of a desire to treat unequally, but because the very principle of equity requires such judgments. I am grateful to belong to a church that is willing to make hard choices and take unpopular steps in order to truly act consistent with principles of “equity and justice.”