Sunday Sermon: Parables, Points of View, and the Nature of Infinite Love

The titles that we give to Jesus’s parables are important, Amy-Jill Levine teaches us in Short Stories by Jesus, because they covey assumptions about the point of view we should adopt when we read them. “The Parable of the Lost Sheep” is going to be substantially different than “the Parable of the Careless Shepherd,” even if everything else remains the same. Perspective matters. [Read more…]

Lesson 41: Jeremiah and the Weight of Prophecy #BCCSundaySchool2018

Was he really a bullfrog? Hard to tell–we know so little about the private lives of Old Testament figures. But we can be sure that Jeremiah never sang “Joy to the Word”–or to anything else for that matter. Not to the boys and girls. Not to the fishes in the deep blue sea. Not to anyone. Joy, in Jeremiah’s life was not a thing.

But Jeremiah was both a great prophet and a great poet–and his life and ministry can help us understand a lot about how both prophecy and poetry work in the Old Testament. [Read more…]

The Nightmare Before Christmas as a Spiritual Allegory: A Halloween Sermon

I woke up this morning with the strange idea that I needed to write a Halloween sermon. Never having done such a thing before, and unaware of any biblical texts to support the Halloween story, I turned to the only Halloween texts that I knew anything about: the movies. But even there, I found little to go on.

There aren’t a lot of really great Halloween movies. Hocus Pocus deserves a mention. It’s not great, but it’s pretty good. And after that we are left largely with with soft-core slasher porn and campy after-school specials–and movies that happen to be scary but I jhave ahave nothing else to do with Halloween.

But there is Tim Burton’s 1993 masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas-easily the best Halloween movie, and maybe the best movie about any holiday, ever made. It’s got it all: visually stunning stop-motion animation, an amazing musical score by Danny Elfman, a unique and interesting story, and a kidnap plot involving Santa Claus. So The Nightmare Before Christmas it is. Here is your Halloween sermon. [Read more…]

Making Stories Sacred

9781641700498The word “consecrate” has a special resonance for Latter-day Saints. The Law of Consecration was once the basis of our social order, and we believe that it will one day be the order of Zion, or the Kingdom of God. To consecrate, from the Latin consecrare, means to make sacred. Anything can be consecrated because everything can be made to serve God. We can consecrate our time, our talents, or treasures, or suffering, and, perhaps most importantly, our stories. [Read more…]

Misreading Scriptures the Right Way

The strong reader, whose readings will matter to others as well as to himself, is thus placed in the dilemmas of the revisionist, who wishes to find his own original relation to truth, whether in texts or in reality (which he treats as texts anyway), but also wishes to open received texts to his own sufferings, or what he wants to call the suffering of history.–Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading

 

Americans tend to approach two documents–the Bible and the Constitution–as self-interpreting units of meaning that neither require nor permit interpretation. These are privileged textual entities that mean what they say and say what they mean, and all anybody needs to do is figure out exactly what their authors meant by every word so we can download the right meaning directly into our brains and live our lives accordingly.

Treating the Constitution this way gives us the curious legal doctrine of “originalism,” which is fashionable for jurists to talk about in Senate hearings but has never actually been practiced in any meaningful way by confirmed judges. Treating the Bible this way gives us the religious doctrine of fundamentalism, which is at the center the Evangelical Protestant tradition–and, allowing for an expanded scriptural canon, the Latter-day Saint tradition as well. [Read more…]

Lesson #36: Isaiah Made No More Difficult than it Needs to Be (a.k.a. “The Glory of Zion Will Be a Defense”) #BCCSundaySchool2018

Isaiah 1-6

I am ordinarily very skeptical of books and articles that advertise some or another scripture “made easier.”  I think, we make the scriptures too easy already. I prefer James Faulconer’s approach in the Scriptures Made Harder series. We should not be too comfortable when reading the scriptures. They are supposed to be hard. [Read more…]

The God Who Snips

Here is what I checked off my bucket list today: Teach a priesthood lesson about castration and tell a room full of Mormon men that it is a procedure that God, at least metaphorically, wants them to undergo. [Read more…]

Mormons, the Mormon Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: A Spiritual Taxonomy

I am a Mormon. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  And I am a proud part of the Mormon Church. These identities overlap, but they are not identical. I could imagine being one or two of these things without being all three. I know Mormons who are not members of any Church. And I know people who are firmly committed to the Mormon Church who have disaffiliated, or all but disaffiliated, from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Substantial overlap is not the same as equivalence. [Read more…]

The Testimony Trap: Does it Matter if the Church Is True?

“If I claim to possess the truth, I will be unlikely even to entertain the possibility that others may be right, or at least partly right, and I wrong, or at least partly wrong; unlikely to enter imaginatively into the world of others so as to learn to appreciate the force of their account. . . . Claims to possess the uncontestable truth aren’t always wrong, but they are always dangerous–especially when a person’s claim to possess the truth matters more to her than the truth itself.” –Miroslov Volf, The End of Memory

 

I’m not a relativist, moral or otherwise. I believe that some things are true and other things are false, and that it is often possible (though rarely easy) for human beings to know the difference. And I believe that the difference matters. [Read more…]

The Mandala Sermon

I knew exactly what was going to happen–I had even seen it happen once before–so I shouldn’t have been so surprised. But I was. And shocked, and saddened, and embarrassed about feeling shocked and saddened. And then revelation happened.

This week, my university has been hosting seven Buddhist monks from the Tashi Kyil Monastery in Uttarakhan, India. As these particular monks are wont to do, they spent all week painstakingly creating a beautiful mandala out of colored sand. They finished it at about 12:00 this afternoon. And at 12:15, they destroyed it, swept it into an urn, and took the now-brown sand and dumped it in the Ohio River.

[Read more…]

Job and Genre: Why Poetry Is True (aka Lesson #32 “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth”) #BCCSundaySchool2018

“OK, that’s all good and stuff, but was Job a real person?”

That is the most frequent question that I have gotten from Latter-day Saints since I wrote a book about Job four years ago. This is apparently a really big concern for some people.

Here is the answer: “Probably not, and even if he was, there is no possible way that the Book of Job records an actual historical occurrence–and of all the questions that someone might ask about Job, the question of whether or not he was a real person is perhaps the least interesting and least important. Job is a poem, and poetry can be revelation and scripture as easily as journalism.”

That’s the short version of the book. Everything else is just filling in the details. What I want to do in the next few paragraphs, though, is fill in just enough of the details to fill an average 45 minute Gospel Doctrine lesson. [Read more…]

Worthiness vs Boundary Maintenance: Thoughts on Ecclesiastical Endorsement

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

–William Bruce Cameron, “The Elements of Statistical Confusion Or: What Does the Mean Mean?”

Most educators have at least a passing familiarity with the difference between what can be counted and what actually counts. Some things that students learn–how to spell words, how to do math problems, the capital of North Dakota–can be measured easily, with machine-scored bubble sheets, and used to compare students across the country.
[Read more…]

Lesson 30: Come to the House of the Lord #BCCSundaySchool2018

2 Chronicles 29-30; 32:1-23; 34

 

This week’s lesson is about two righteous kings–Hezekiah and Josiah–who had a positive effect on the people of Judah. In some ways, it is a parallel lesson to Lesson #28, which was about wicked kings. But there is an interesting twist. So far, most of the lessons about Israel’s history have come from the sequence that we call the “Deuteronomic History,” which includes Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. The readings for this lesson, however, are drawn from 2 Chronicles.

Both Hezekiah and Josiah are treated in some detail in 2 Kings, and I am tempted to import those stories into this lesson and mix the stories all together. But I will resist, as the use of Chronicles seems quite intentional, and it gives us an opportunity to spend some time talking about the differences between the two books. [Read more…]

The Kingdom of God is Like Money

51Sn8PEXwcLAlmost everything that makes us human occurs at the nexus of fiction and faith. This is the most important thing I learned from Yuval Noah Harari’s much-lauded book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It isn’t the author’s main point, and he probably wouldn’t even agree with the way that I phrased it. But these two attributes–the ability to make up stories and the ability to believe them–strike me as the defining characteristics of humanity. [Read more…]

Lesson #27: The Influence of Wicked and Righteous Leaders #BCCSundaySchool2018

1 Kings 12-14; 2 Chronicles 17

Jerry BoamIn this week’s reading, the Old Testament finally enters the world of history as, for the first time, we read something in the text that we can verify, and precisely date, from an external source. This occurs in 1 Kings 14:25: “And it came to pass in the fifth year of king Rehoboam, that Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem.” We know that there was a Shishak. We know that he invaded Judah and Israel. And we know that it happened in 926 BCE

This little bit of historical detail is important, as it allows us to date–if not precisely, at least approximately–the time of the United Monarchy and the split between Israel and Judah. All of this happened in the 10th century BCE. [Read more…]

Spiritual Anchors

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
   —Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”

Here are three things that I learned when I was very young and that have had an enormous influence on my spiritual life.

  1. Satan can hear every word I say but can never read my mind.
  2. If I repent and am forgiven, and then commit the same sin again, my previous repentance will be revoked.
  3. If a prophet or Church leader tells me to do something that is wrong, and I do it anyway, then I will be blessed for my obedience and the Church leader will be punished.

[Read more…]

“We Are a Nation of Refugees”: An Interfaith Call for Compassion and Positive Action

 

Note: The following statement was released this week by the Evansville Executive Interfaith Partnership–a remarkable collection of people of faith and goodwill centered in the Southwestern corner of Indiana of which I, dear reader, am a part.

An open letter to politicians and Americans everywhere: 

For most of our history America has been a safe destination for people seeking a better life.

For hundreds of years, people from all over the world have flocked to our borders to escape famine, poverty, war, political oppression, natural disasters, religious persecution, and tyranny.

We are not merely a nation of immigrants; we are a nation of refugees. America is a place of refuge, and this has become one of the most profound and important truths in our nation’s story.   [Read more…]

Saul and the Zero Tolerance Trap #BCCSudaySchool2018

Note: This is a follow up Lesson 22: “The Lord Looketh on the Heart,” which discuss 1 Samuel 9–11; 13; 15–17. Today’s post is about Chapter 14, which got lost in the cracks. It may also have something to do with a contemporary social issue, but, of course, that is purely incidental.

1 Samuel 14 explains the second of the three events that caused God to reject Saul as Israel’s king. The other two get a lot more lesson time because their morals can be easily adapted to the standard call-and-response format of the Sunday School Liturgy.

In Chapter 13, Saul is condemned for initiating a sacrifice on his own athority–thus proving that only priesthood holders can perform valid ordinances. And in Chapter 15, Saul is rejected for insufficiently destroying everything in the city of Amelek because he wanted to hold back some of the best animals for the Lord–demonstrating (just in case we needed another reminder) that “to obey is better than to sacrifice.” [Read more…]

The Immigration Debate and a Fact-Based View of the World

Swedish medical researcher Hans Rosling spent his entire career trying to convince Western nations that we have a fundamentally messed up view of everybody else in the world. In public forums, private meetings, and viral TED talks, Rosling presented comprehensive data to demonstrate that–contrary to Western opinion–most people in the world are not starving to death in rat-infested s***holes. Most people, in fact, are doing much better than they ever have.

Rosling created the data-rich, interactive web site Gapminder before he died in 2017. HIs children Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund completed the book he was working on when he died. In April of this year, they published Factfulness in 24 different languages in the hopes of convincing global policymakers to start basing their decisions on an accurate picture of the world.

Many people need to read this book. Americans trying to understand the immigration issue need to read it twice, because the picture of the world that comes out of the data is fundamentally at odds with the assumptions underlying much of the debate. [Read more…]

How to Use the Bible to Break Democracy

 

Let me take an aside to discuss concerns raised by our church friends about separating families. Many of the criticisms raised in recent days are not fair or logical and some are contrary to law. First- illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.–Attorney General Jeff Sessions

 

Poor Jeff Sessions; he just can’t buy a break. All he did was remind people that obeying the law is a good thing, and all of a sudden he is facing a firestorm of criticism about his use of a Bible passage to defend his policy of separating children from their parents at the border. What is even the point of a scripture like Romans 13 if you can’t use it to support the law?

So far, most of the reaction to Sessions has focused on the fact that the Bible also supports things like families and treating children well. Others note that the same scripture that Sessions invoked was also invoked by proponents of slavery and opponents of the American Revolution. This is all true, but it doesn’t quite get to heart of Sessions’ argument. What he actually said was even more insidious than these criticisms would suggest. [Read more…]

The “What Kind of Country Do We Want to Be?” Question

A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. —1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

 

First, let us be very clear about a few things:

  1. This has nothing to do with enforcing our laws. Seeking asylum is not a criminal act. People have a right to come to the United States and make a petition. The right to seek asylum is a recognized principle of international law and has been recognized in the United States for decades. When somebody shows up on our doorstep asking for asylum, we do not have to give it to them. But we do have to consider the request and treat the people making it as fellow human beings.  They are not criminals. They have broken no laws. And they are entitled to the same due process that we must constitutionally afford anybody over whom we assert our jurisdiction.
  2. This has nothing to do with jobs or the economy. We have acute labor shortages in our agricultural sector right now, and it is getting worse. Nobody involved in the current immigration debate has asked, or even appears to care, whether or not we currently allow enough immigration into our country to meet the needs of our economy. The point is to be tough on immigrants and asylum seekers because that is politically popular–not because it is economically necessary or even fiscally responsible. Border security theatre is a political issue not a national-security concern.
  3. This has nothing to do with being a nation that espouses religious values. The current practice of separating children and their parents is wrong from just about every conceivable system of religion or morality. For those who happen to be Christian, it is a fundamental rejection of perhaps the most important religious obligation that we have: the responsibility to care for the stranger among us. And for those who happen to be Latter-day Saints, it is a rejection of the Church’s official position on immigration, the second point of which is “the importance of keeping families intact.” To tear children away from their parents at our border, we must actively reject the pretense of being a religious people

[Read more…]

Lesson 22: “The Lord Looketh on the Heart” #BCCSundaySchool2018

1 Samuel 9–11; 13; 15–17

“But the People, exorbitant and excessive in all their motions, are prone ofttimes not to a religious only, but to a civil kind of Idolatry, in idolizing their Kings; though never more mistaken in the object of their worship.”—John Milton, “Eikonoklastes”

 

Our reading this week begins with the comforting announcement that the man chosen to be Israel’s king is tall and good looking:

There was a man of Benjamin, whose name was Kish . . . . He had a son whose name was Saul, an excellent young man; no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people. (1 Samuel 9: 1-2, JPS Tanakh)

It may seem strange that the first things we hear about Saul describe his outward appearance, but the text knows what it is doing. Saul’s main qualification for being king is that he looks like a king. As it turns out, though, this is the only qualification that matters. The Israelites want someone who looks kingly. [Read more…]

Sunday Sermon: Praise the Source of Faith and Learning

Over the last ten years, I have worked for both a Catholic and a Methodist university and, in the process, have spent a lot of time attending different religious services. Lots of good things have come into my life this way. One of them has been the opportunity to hear the hymns I have known all my life sung with different words.

At first this was disorienting, but now it feels normal. There are a lot more hymns in the Christian world than there are hymn tunes, and since most hymns fit into fairly simple metrical patterns, a lot of hymn texts can be used with a lot of standard melodies. The beautiful song that Mormons know as “Be Still My Soul” is actually a melody from Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia” and is known in much of the Christian world as “This is My Song.” And the wildly speculative LDS hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob” is, for many Catholics, the theologically tame, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.”

So, when I went to the baccalaureate celebration at our campus United Methodist Chapel earlier this month, I was not at all surprised to hear the music that I had always known as “In Humility Our Savior” accompanying the words to “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning,” our opening hymn. I nodded approvingly through the first two stanzas. [Read more…]

Are Mormons Christian? Sometimes. But Bigots Are Always Bigots

Anybody who has played the “Are Mormon’s Christian?” game knows that it is a trap. The only possible answer is that it depends on who gets to define the terms. Under some definitions, Mormons are Christian. Under others, we are not. Since Christianity does not have anything like the royal language academies of France and Spain, the only logically coherent way to ask the question is, “are Mormons whatever it is that I think that Christians are?” [Read more…]

Lesson 17: “Beware Lest Thou Forget” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Deuteronomy 6; 8; 11; 32

Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the Lord God of thy fathers hath promised thee, in the land that floweth with milk and honey.
–Deuteronomy 6:3

I was very fortunate that during my one and only trip to the Holy Land last year, I had an amazing expert tour guide: Dr. Norma Franklin of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. Norma patiently answered every question I had ever had about Israel, archeology, and the Bible. I learned more about all of these things that week that I had managed to gather during the previous 50 years of my life.

One of the questions I asked her was supposed to be sarcastic. When we reached a particularly inhospitable hilltop in the Jezreel Valley, I turned to her and said, “Is this where they keep all the milk and honey?” She looked at me quizzically and said, “you know that that was a joke, right?” I knew no such thing, so she patiently explained it with an interpretation that I had never seen before and have not been able to find since, but that fundamentally changed the way I saw the covenant of the Old Testament. [Read more…]

Don’t Just Do Something—Stand There

 

I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.  And especially if it’s given from the heart.  When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them.  Just take them in.  Listen to what they’re saying.  Care about it.  —Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom

 

A few weeks ago, I met with a group of students who had some legitimate concerns about the way they had been treated at the university. It was an uncomfortable meeting but a necessary one, and by the end of it I was ready to get to work. I told them that I would fix everything—we would create some student organizations, incorporate new material into our core curriculum, revise our conduct code, and take care of the problem once and for all.

“You are missing the point,” one of the students told me when I announced these plans. “We don’t need you to fix all of this today. We need you to listen to us. We need to know that we are being heard.” [Read more…]

The Quarter-Inch Hole in My Heart

I spent the last part of this week in a design-thinking workshop, which is kind of a new thing for a guy who majored in English three times. But it was well-worth the effort. The first thing the facilitator told us was that nobody ever wants a quarter-inch drill; people want a quarter-inch hole. They ask for a drill because they think that there is no other way to get what they want.

[Read more…]

You’ve Got to Admit It’s Getting Better: Steven Pinker and “The World”

If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be–what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into–you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now.
                          —Barack Obama, 2016 graduation speech at Howard University

 

51sBWhI4e9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Christianity is based on a narrative of decline that goes something like this: The world began as a perfect place where people walked and talked with God and lived in harmony with the natural world. But human beings sinned and were cast of paradise, where they became wickeder and wickeder until God had to destroy all but eight of them. Those eight started a new society that also became wicked, and God had to periodically destroy cities and send Assyrians and Babylonians to punish His chosen people. Then he sent his only son into the world, and we killed him. Since then, we have been getting wickeder and wickeder and, sometime in the near future, everything will be destroyed again and Jesus will come back and be king. [Read more…]

Lesson 9: “God Will Provide Himself a Lamb” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Silently he arranged the firewood, bound Isaac; silently he drew the knife. Then he saw the ram that God had appointed. He sacrificed that and returned home . . . From that day on, Abraham became old, he could not forget that God had demanded this of him. Isaac throve as before; but Abraham’s eye was darkened, he saw joy no more.  —Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Abraham 1:1, 5–20
Genesis 15–17; 21
Genesis 22

I once wrote a thing about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. It was a chapter in Julie Smith’s award-winning collection As Iron Sharpens Iron. Mine was the free sample, so you can read it here (but you should definitely buy the book anyway). Following the design of the volume, I wrote a dialogue between Abraham and Job, with Job asking Abraham, “why did you agree to sacrifice your son?”

The original intent of the piece was to have Job, who had lost ten of his children when God took them without asking, attack Abraham viciously for agreeing to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham would wither under this questioning and admit his error. And thus we would see that Job was right to resist God while Abraham was wrong to give in to divine bullying. That is pretty much how I saw things before Julie asked me to write the chapter. [Read more…]

Armageddon, Guns, and Walking Away from Omelas

They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas. –Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

 

I’ve been to Armageddon, and it’s not as bad as they say. It’s actually called Har Megiddo, and it is a major archaeological site in Israel. It is the highest place for miles, so you can always see what is coming. It has an ingenious tunnel to its water source, which shows that its inhabitants were willing to do extraordinary things to keep its people safe. And it is in a country that strictly controls access to guns for non-military use. [Read more…]