Lesson #2: “Be It unto Me According to Thy Word” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (Matthew 1/Luke 1)


What did the Jews of Jesus’s time think about the Messiah? Who, exactly, were they expecting to show up? Why would anybody think that Jesus would fit the bill? These, I believe, are questions we need to try to answer before beginning to read the New Testament, and, especially, the Book of Matthew.

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Magnificat


The Magnificat is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, and one might even say, the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. . . . . This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is, instead, a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of mankind. There are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth. –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Mystery of Holy Night

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Last week, the Washington Post ran a feature story on the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings in Luke 1: 46-55. It’s about time, really, the song is more than 2,000 years old and has been an important part of Christian liturgy for nearly all of those years.

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When Presents Become Revenge: Retaliatory Altruism and the Spirit of Christmas

The worst thing I ever did at Christmas was buy somebody a present. I am still ashamed of my actions on this occasion. I was a truly horrible human being, and my failure still haunts me every Christmas season.

Let me explain.

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Joy to the World, the World Is Come

My son learned his first Christmas song when he was four years old–“Joy to the World,” but he sang it wrong. Instead of “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” he sang “Joy to the world, the world has come.”  

When he was six, I decided to try to correct him. “You’re missing the point of the song,” I told him. And he replied, as only a six-year-old can, “no daddy, YOU’RE missing the point of the song.” It has taken me 15 years to realize that he was right and I was wrong. Joy, in its most essential form, is precisely the profound comfort that we take in the goodness of the world. 

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Viral Marketing, Echo Chambers, and the People Who Used to Be Mormons

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There Are Many Ways to Come to Christ: A Review of Eric Huntsman’s Becoming the Beloved Disciple

“Some disciples came to Jesus through the witness of others, while others found him independently. Some immediately recognized and followed him, while others, like Nicodemus, questioned more and took longer to come to their faith. In a time and culture that privileged men and a particular ancestral lineage, the experience of the Samaritan woman shows that in Christ there are no outsiders: all can come to him, find salvation, and share that joy with others.” (Eric Huntsman, Becoming the Beloved Disciple, p.123)

For the last few years, my observation of the Advent season has been guided by Eric Huntsman’s excellent book Good Tidings of Great Joy–a feast of art, music, scriptural interpretation, and inspiration that celebrates the miracle of Christ’s birth. This year, my Christmas gift list will also be guided by an Eric Huntsman book: Becoming the Beloved Disciple, a reading of the Fourth Gospel by one of the best Latter-day Saint scholars around. 

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Hope Is the Thing With Oxen

Hope is the Jan Brady of the theological virtues–the sober, responsible middle-child stuck between the mountain moving urgency of Faith and the flashy  never-failething of Charity. Hope does its essential work much more quietly. But it is nonetheless essential work.

If we aren’t careful, we can confuse hope for a sort of lesser faith. Some people know that certain things are true, and the rest of us just hope they are. If we nourish this seed of hope carefully, we are told, it will eventually grow into faith and we will know things too.

Well, I’m not there, and I don’t think that I will ever be. Hope is as much as I can muster, even on a good day. I hope that there is a God. I hope that there is some kind of existence after this life. I hope that my Redeemer lives. And I hope that the universe is organized around principles of goodness and meaningful justice far superior to those I have seen on earth. [Read more…]

Lesson 45: “If I Perish, I Perish”–The Superheroes of Non-Assimilation #BCCSundaySchool2016

Daniel 1, 3, 5; Esther 3-5, 7-8

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Let’s start with Superman.

America’s quintessential cultural hero is an icon of assimilation. He is a refugee whose home has been destroyed by an environmental disaster. He immigrates, not only to the United States, but to the American Heartland and grows up on a farm in Kansas, moves to the big city, and becomes a metaphor for the way that America saw itself in the 20th century. He is amazingly powerful, eternally good, and completely assimilated. So assimilated, in fact, that the only thing that can hurt him is a piece of the world he left behind. A small pebble from the Old World reduces America’s greatest hero to a simpering weenie. To be powerful, Superman must leave his old life behind.

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The Common Table: Thanksgiving Thoughts on Inclusive Gratitude

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt famously examines the “banality of evil.” If I understand her correctly, what she means by this is something like the ordinariness of evil. The horrific evil of the Holocaust was not perpetrated by inhuman monsters with horns and talons, but by ordinary people (like Adolf Eichmann) just doing their jobs.

I take her point, and I agree. Evil is ordinary. But goodness is ordinary too. Most of the time, ordinary people doing ordinary things results in something rare and wonderful. Speaking religiously, the word ordinary comes from the same root as the word ordain. An ordinary life is the kind of existence that God has ordained for human beings. It is a life where everything is in order–the way that things are supposed to be.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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“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

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