Sunday, May 21, 2017

Where the Streets Have No Name

And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people. ...neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.
4 Nephi 1:15, 17
 
I'm always interested in seeing how religious themes are represented in art, especially in art that isn't explicitly spiritual. Yesterday, I went on a road trip to Joshua Tree National Park, and my traveling companion and I decided that the perfect soundtrack to our trip was U2's album The Joshua Tree.

Yucca brevifolia in Joshua Tree National Park

The album starts out with "Where the Streets Have No Name". When I got home, I was curious what the song was about, so I looked it up. It's apparently a reference to the social divide in Belfast that was prevalent at the time. Upon meeting someone new, people would ask what street they lived on. The city was so segregated that, just by finding out what street someone lived on, you could tell immediately someone's religion and socioeconomic status. Bono envisioned a better world - one where those divisions didn't exist, i.e. where the streets have no name. Basically, it's a song about Zion - a place of unity where the pure in heart dwell.

Where the Streets Have No Name - U2 - 1987 - The Joshua Tree


That got me thinking about what our "streets" are these days. What divides us as a church and a society?

In the LDS context today, a few things come to mind. People are divided by whether or not they served a mission (and if they served, whether they served in the US or outside the US), whether or not they're married, how many kids they have, whether or not their kids have checked off societally prescribed boxes, whether a woman is employed, etc.

Let's work to create a society where our "streets" have no name.

And, just as a bonus, here's a picture from the trip I took to Belfast back in January.

Peace walls were erected throughout Belfast during The Troubles to separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. The violence has stopped, but the streets still have names.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Hymns I wish were in our hymnal

First off, my deepest apologies for dropping off the face of the planet for a year. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say, 2016 was a pretty terrible year for me, and I was so busy keeping myself afloat that there wasn't really time for blogging. I'm back on my feet, so here I am.

Without further ado...

I love music. I've always said that I have three dream callings in the church - gospel doctrine teacher, seminary teacher, and ward music chair. A little over a year ago, I got called as ward music chair, so only two more dream callings to go. :-)

I used to collect hymnals. (I've lost most of them over the years, sadly.) There are so many really wonderful hymns that aren't in our LDS hymnal. For a while on Facebook, I had a Sunday feature where I would highlight some of them for my friends so they could see what's out there. I haven't done it in a few years. However, I still have a love of hymns.

Here are a few of my favorites that aren't in our hymnal.

1. Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
This is probably my very favorite hymn of all time. The music is beautiful, and the words are comforting and uplifting. It's a well-known hymn tune called Hyfrydol. You'll probably recognize it as the tune that "In Humility, Our Savior" is set to.


2. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
I was first introduced to this hymn in the MTC when I joined the choir and we sang it for some occasion or other. (Fireside? Sacrament meeting? I don't remember.) It resonated with me instantly. The sacrament hymn selection in our hymnal is kind of small, and this would be a lovely addition.


3. Shall We Gather at the River?
I first heard this hymn when I was rehearsing for a choir tour the summer between high school and college. In addition to the music we were traveling to debut, we practiced this one so that we could use it at another occasion on the trip. The other occasion fell through, so we never got to perform the song, but it stuck with me anyway. I love the hope that the song conveys. "Soon we'll reach the shining river. Soon our pilgrimage will cease."


4. Holy, Holy, Holy
This one will probably never make it into a LDS hymnal because of the line "blessed Trinity" (even though the Book of Mormon is explicitly Trinitarian, though that's a subject for another day), but I love it because it brings out the wonder and majesty of God so beautifully. For what it's worth, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed a version that used the words "blessed Deity" instead.

5. I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
You'll recognize this as the tune to "If You Could Hie to Kolob" (or if you're into Irish folk music and speed the song up to about double speed, "Star of the County Down"). I love the music, and this one has lyrics that are a little more traditionally Christian.


Honorable Mention: Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
No mention of hymns not in the current LDS hymnal would be complete without this one. It's lovely and grace-filled. I hope it gets put back in the next version of the hymnal.


Friday, February 5, 2016

The Gluten-free Bread of Life

My new calling at church has me sitting on the stand a few times per month, so I get to observe things from a different vantage point. Last Sunday, a few minutes before sacrament meeting started, a woman brought a baggie with a piece of corn tortilla up to the priests at the sacrament table. She said that she was gluten free and needed an alternative way to take the sacrament. One of the priests placed the tortilla in a paper cup so that it wouldn't be contaminated by the bread and then put it on a sacrament tray.

I found this whole exchange very moving. It was beautiful to see an accommodation made so that a fellow saint can participate in worshiping with us without doing herself harm. The tortilla wasn't labeled as inferior, different, or non-ideal. When the priest blessed the bread, the tortilla was blessed right along with it. Both the bread and the tortilla became equally representative of the body of Christ.

This got me thinking about spiritual gluten. What things are we doing at church that nourish the majority but harm a few? So often, I hear people say things like "we can't worry about people who don't fit the mold because we have to teach 'the ideal'." That's the spiritual equivalent of telling someone with celiac disease to eat the bread and be happy about it because it's good for 98% of the population. To do this is to spiritually poison some of our fellow saints.

Sometimes we'll do lip service to different circumstances, but it often comes off as condescending and exclusionary. I'm reminded of how Mother's Day is often handled at church. Women without children are patted on the head and told that we matter, but it's immediately followed up with language like "motherhood is the most important thing you can do with your life." (Subtext: "so what you're doing isn't.") Our spiritual corn tortilla apparently isn't good enough. It's not just those without children who are subjected to language like this. Single adults, parents with children who do not practice the faith, people married to non-members, mothers who are employed, fathers who are stay at home parents, and many other people who won't be featured on the cover of the Ensign experience this to varying degrees.

How much better, how much more Zion-like, would our church be if, instead of merely tolerating differences, we blessed the spiritual corn tortillas our fellow saints brought to church? What would it be like if we truly believed that God's hand can be found in the lives of all His people, not just those whose lives look like the general authorities.

It would go something like this: "Brother and Sister Smith, your temple marriage is good and holy, and the ward is here to feed your soul. Sister Jones, your singleness is good and holy, and the ward is here to feed your soul. Brother Johnson, you are doing a wonderful job raising your children alone, and your single parenthood is good and holy. The ward is here to feed your soul. Sister Diaz, your marriage to a non-member is good and holy, and the ward is here to feed your soul."

Blessing and validating the lives of Sister Jones, Brother Johnson, and Sister Diaz does nothing to take away from the lives of Brother and Sister Smith. They are not harmed by the spiritual corn tortillas that others bring, but denigrating spiritual corn tortillas in the name of conformity - because wheat bread is good enough for most people - unnecessarily separates our fellow saints from fully partaking of the wonder that is the gospel.

For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins.
Doctrine and Covenants 27:2

When we remember the body of Christ, it doesn't matter whether that body is represented by bread made from wheat or a tortilla made from corn as long as we have an eye single to God's glory when we eat. The church is often called the body of Christ. As long as we have an eye single to God's glory, the circumstances of our lives don't matter. Don't make our spiritually gluten free saints choose between eating something harmful or going away hungry. Our spiritual corn tortillas should be blessed alongside the bread.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Come, Lord Jesus



Many followers of western Christianity celebrate Advent beginning four Sundays before Christmas. It is a time of spiritual preparation for and anticipation of the coming of Jesus. It’s viewed as a two-fold celebration, both a commemoration of His first coming millennia ago as a humble child in a manger and a hopeful awaiting of His future second coming in power and glory to rule and reign on Earth for a thousand years of peace.

This Advent season has been particularly poignant to me as I’ve been following the news. It seems that there is a new tragedy every day, and much of that tragedy is caused by humans, compounded by other humans heaping upon the tragedy by blaming the victims for their suffering. I’m a fixer of things by nature, and I find myself feeling helpless because I’m powerless to fix things that are so fundamentally broken. I find myself longing for Jesus to come in power, take names, and set things right.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Parable of the Bad Shepherd, part 2

A shepherd had 99 sheep in his sheep fold. One day, a lamb came to the gate and said to the shepherd, "Your sheep fold is good and true and safe. I want to come in and be a part of your flock."

The shepherd said, "You cannot. Your parents are black sheep. I am denying you entrance to the fold for your protection. Besides, most lambs with black sheep for parents don't even want in the fold. If you must, you may walk around the outside perimeter of the fold. Someday I might consider letting you in, possibly."

The lamb sat outside the gate sorrowing. Then a wolf came. The sheep inside the fold were safe and protected. The little lamb left outside was devoured.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Spirit of Prophecy

A story in scripture that I really like occurs in Numbers 11. The Israelites were wandering in the desert, and they stopped to camp for a while. Moses took 70 people outside the camp and commissioned them to prophesy. Two people who were still in the camp (and thus who were not among the number commissioned by Moses) had the Spirit fall upon them, and they likewise began to prophesy.

Joshua approached Moses and told him what was happening, requesting that Moses tell the two people prophesying in the camp to stop. Moses responded, "Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" (Numbers 11:29)

Elsewhere in scripture, we are taught that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." (Revelation 19:10) What these two verses, taken together, mean is that all Christians should be prophets.

One major role of the prophets is to tell people about Jesus. So, in that vein, let me tell you about Jesus.

Jesus is loving and compassionate. He welcomes all to come to Him - every single member of the human family. He invited sinners (which we all are) to His table when the world rejected them

I echo the words of Nephi who said:
He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation.
Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.
Behold, hath he commanded any that they should depart out of the synagogues, or out of the houses of worship? Behold, I say unto you, Nay.
Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men; and he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men to repentance.
Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.
2 Nephi 26:24-28
 Some people have tried to add asterisks to this warm welcome. But Jesus didn't qualify His invitation. He said, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28, emphasis added)

People who cast humble seekers away from the body of the saints are gravely mistaken. People who say that casting those seekers away is the will of Christ are taking the name of God in vain and must repent.

When we meet our maker, we won't be judged on whether we checked all the boxes on the checklist. We'll be judged on what kind of person we have become. Are we kind, loving, grace-filled people, or are we self-righteous people who follow policies at the expense of people?

The people Jesus will welcome into His kingdom are those who love Him enough to become like Him - kind, forgiving, merciful, willing to mourn with those who are mourning, willing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and afflicted. Let us be those people.
 

The Sin Next to Murder

It's commonly taught in the church that the "sin next to murder" is having sex outside marriage. This view comes from a misreading of Alma 39.

However, the sin next to murder isn't non-marital sex. The sin next to murder is using one's power and position to draw people away from God.

Alma speaks to his son Corianton beginning in chapter 39. He rebukes Corianton sharply, listing his wrongs. Alma's chief complaint against Corianton was that he forsook the ministry. While he was forsaking the ministry, he visited a prostitute, which is what most people latch onto, but from the text, Alma is much more worked up over Corianton setting a bad example and leading people away from the word of God by his behavior.

Alma goes on to say: "[T]herefore I command you, my son, in the fear of God, that ye refrain from your iniquities; That ye turn to the Lord with all your mind, might, and strength; that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly." (Alma 39:12-13, emphasis added)

The view that Alma sees leading people away from God as the sin next to murder is further strengthened in his counsel to his son Helaman in chapter 36. In this chapter, Alma recounts the story of his youthful activities with the sons of Mosiah as they went about trying to destroy the church. "Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments. Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror." (Alma 36:13-14, emphasis added)

The Book of Mormon was written as a warning for our day. What we're being warned against in this passage is setting a bad example, and by that bad example, drawing people away from Christ. Anyone who professes to preach the word of God but then by word or action draws people away, either explicitly by pushing them away and telling them they're unwelcome, or implicitly by setting a bad example of what a Christian should be, from the healing power of Christ and the ordinances of the gospel is committing spiritual murder and will have to answer before God for that one day.

However, all is not lost. Alma, while counseling Corianton, shows the way to right the wrong of drawing people away from Christ. "[R]eturn unto them, and acknowledge your faults and that wrong which ye have done." (Alma 39:13)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sacrament Meeting Talk on the Atonement

This post is adapted from a talk I gave a few months ago at church. Several people have asked for a copy of the talk, and I'm finally getting around to writing it up. When I do public speaking, I never write my remarks out verbatim. Instead, I write notes of the main points I want to cover and then speak extemporaneously. As a result, instead of the text of my talk, what follows is an essay based on the same notes I used to give the talk. It will be similar but not identical.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Finding God Alone in the Desert

Fifteen months ago, I moved to Phoenix from the San Francisco Bay Area. I didn't know anyone when I moved, and I didn't have a job. I had a few hundred dollars to my name. It was kind of scary, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

When I arrived, I settled in to my apartment and began to unpack. The first Sunday I was there was General Conference, so I didn't get a chance to go to my new ward yet.

The second Sunday, I checked the church website for the location and meeting time of my ward. I showed up at the appointed hour only to find out that I was 45 minutes late because my ward's meeting time had been changed and the site hadn't been updated yet.

The third Sunday, things started to settle in to the new normal.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

My Mission - 10 Years Later

Ten years ago today I returned home from my mission. While I had some great experiences on my mission, and I don’t really regret doing it all that much, it wasn’t the “best year and a half of my life” that it was billed as. They say that missions are hard, but words can’t quite convey exactly how hard, and 19 to 21 year olds aren’t likely to listen anyway.

I joined the church shortly before my 13th birthday, and through my teenage years, I decided that when I was old enough, I was going to serve a mission. I didn’t really know what missionaries did all day, and I was painfully shy, but I figured that if the guys were expected to do it, I shouldn’t be exempted based on something as irrelevant as my chromosomal makeup.

People tried to talk me out of it, saying that I should get married instead. I thought that was kind of silly, since by the time I was a legal adult, I wasn’t in a serious relationship. It’s not like I could dial 1-800-Find-a-husband and be wed by the next month. There was a guy I sort of had kind of an on-again-off-again thing going on with, but he was totally supportive of me serving a mission.