Things that Aren’t Religious Freedom

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Rejoice with Me; for I Have Found My Sheep Which Was Lost”: #BCCSundaySchool2019:

Luke 12–17
John 11

The centerpiece of this week’s lesson comes in three interlinked parables about finding lost things. In the Christian tradition, the three parables have been given the titles “The Lost Sheep,” “The Lost Coin,” and “The Prodigal Son.” We need to keep in mind though, that Jesus did not name these parables–and sticking too closely to the traditional titles can cause us to focus our attention on the wrong things.

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“What Shall I Do to Inherit Eternal Life” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Matthew 18, Luke 10

The Sapiential, Constitutive, Consequential Kingdom of God

To read the Gospels is to become obsessed with a vision. And the name of the vision is “the Kingdom of God,” or, sometimes, “the Kingdom of Heaven” or just “the Kingdom.” It is the most powerful vision in any of the standard works, where it occasionally also goes by the name of “Zion.” It is the focus of nearly all of Christ’s parables, and of the vast majority of His teaching and ministry. And it remains one of the most poorly understood concepts in the churches that use His name.

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Palm Sunday: Being on the Right Side When it Is Easy

Today is Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem triumphantly on the back of a donkey. All four gospels tell the story, as well they should. It is the moment that Christ is recognized as the king that he is. As Mark relates it,

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God the Father vs The Godfather: When Forever Families become Eternal Hostages

 

In “The Problem of Pain,” CS Lewis famously says that many people mistake the Father in Heaven for the Grandfather in Heaven—”a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.”

The Grandfather in Heaven is a perversion of the Christian doctrine of God because he does not ask anything of his followers. He doesn’t care if they eat ice cream for breakfast, or if they do their homework, or if they progress in any way into adulthood. He doesn’t have to deal with them when they are the spiritual equivalent of 30 years old and failing to launch. He just wants to make sure that everybody has a good time on his watch.

There is another common perversion of God the Father that rears its head from time to time in both Christian and Latter-day Saint circles. Let’s call him “The Godfather.” Unlike God the Father, the Godfather works through fear and intimidation. He gives us presents and helps us find our car keys, of course. And we may, from time, discreetly ask him to whack an enemy or two and make it looks like an accident. But, in exchange he demands our absolute loyalty. And if we fail him, we may end up sleeping with the fishes.

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The Kingdom of Hell Is Within You Too

Last night I dreamed about Hell. Here’s what it looked like.

It was a hilly region filled with big boulders that people were pushing, at great effort, in big circles. There were two groups of people in this version of hell–Mormons and ex-Mormons–and they were pushing the rocks in opposite, though circular, directions. Boulder pushing took most of their effort, but, when they passed each other on their circular paths, they summoned all of their remaining strength to shout accusations at each other in the form of two rhetorical questions. The Mormons shouted, “Why did you leave?” and the ex-Mormons shouted “Why do you stay?”

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“Who Hath Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Readings: Matthew 13; Luke 8-13


The Gospel writers, in their wisdom, left most of the parables as open narratives in order to invite us into engagement with them. Each reader will hear a distinct message and may find that the same parable leaves multiple impressions over time. . . . Reducing parables to a single meaning destroys their aesthetic as well as ethical potential. This surplus of meaning is how poetry and storytelling work, and it is all to the good.”

–Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus

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This week we launch into the Kingdom Parables–those brief narratives in which Jesus tries to eff the ineffable and give ordinary mortals some frame of reference for talking about the Kingdom of God. This is beyond a hard sell. The Kingdom that Jesus spent most of his ministry talking about is an earthly kingdom, but it is like no earthly kingdom that has ever existed, and its governing logic is absolutely foreign to natural humanity.

But we have to see it to be it, so Jesus tells us about the parts–much like the blind men describing the elephant in the famous poem by John Godfrey Saxe. Like a mustard seed, the Kingdom starts small and becomes a place of shelter; like a fishing net, it draws in everyone and throws back what it can’t keep; like a great treasure, a person who knows about it will be willing to sacrifice everything to get it. And so on. These are all imperfect and incomplete, but every one of them contributes something to the picture, and, if we add them all up, we might be able to imagine the whole elephant.

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Visit a Mosque, Read the Quran, Pray Together, Share a Meal

Carolyn Homer makes an exceptionally strong case that we have a religious duty, as Mormons and as Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and these are two different things), to mourn with our Muslim brothers and sisters, to comfort them, and to share their burdens. I agree wholeheartedly.

And I am willing to go further still. I believe that we have a responsibility as both Latter-day Saints, and as citizens of a pluralistic democracy, to get to know our Muslim neighbors better, to understand them as we want them to understand us, and to love them as we want to be loved.

We have this responsibility with all of our neighbors, of course. It is basically what “the Gospel” means. But I believe that this responsibility is greater when it comes to those who practice Islam. There are several reasons for this. Here are three:

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Being Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Perhaps the most important single moment in my spiritual development was the moment that I realized that grown-ups aren’t supposed to be comfortable all, or even most of the time. We all need to be more comfortable being uncomfortable.
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Matthew 6–7: “He Taught Them as One Having Authority” #BCCSundaySchool2019

The last temptation is the greatest treason
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
  –TS Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

We are now on week two of the Sermon on the Mount, and, like week one, there is no way that we could cover everything that needs to be covered in one blog post. But one blog post is all we (read: I) have time for this week, so we will have to make do. We must make choices–difficult choices–to make sure that all of the highlights get hit. So I am going to trace one theme and one rhetorical style through the two chapters, with an emphasis on Chapter 6, which I think is the more important.

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“Blessed Are Ye” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (3 of 3)

Part Three: Rules, what are they good for?

There is a moment in one of the Terminator movies that perfectly encapsulates one of the key tensions in the Sermon on the Mount. In this scene, a young boy learns that his future self has sent back a killer robot (played by a pre-gubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger) to protect him and make sure that he grows up to save humanity and stuff. Naturally, the boy is nervous about hanging around with a killer robot, so he makes a rule: no killing. Being a robot and all, Arnold Schwarzenegger has to follow rules, so the kid makes him take an oath not to kill anyone.

About ten seconds later, they are stopped by a security guard who tries to prevent them from entering a compound. Without saying a word, Schwarzenegger pulls out his gun and shoots the guy twice. While the poor guard is writing and screaming on the ground, the boy shouts, “what the hell are you doing?”

“He’ll live,” says the Robot. And they go in.

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“Blessed Are Ye” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (2 of 3)

Part Two: Salt and Light, huh. Well let me tell you….


Ye are the salt of the earth, huh? But let me tell you: if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world, huh? Well let me tell you: A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. (Matthew 5:13-14)

This is my translation of the text in Matthew 5: 13-14. After each opening declarative sentence (“You are the. . .”), I add a huh? and a let me tell you. . . . This translation is not based on knowing Greek or being a great theologian; I don’t, and I’m not. But this is how I represent what I am pretty sure Jesus was trying to convey when he told his listeners that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

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“Blessed Are Ye” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (1 of 3)

Part One: Blessedness and Happiness

Matthew 5; Luke 6

NB: Though this week’s reading is limited to Matthew 5, and the corresponding verses in Luke, it is still too much for one post. Or even two. So this will be the first of three posts this week on the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, covering verses 1-10: the Beatitudes.

Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount Gustave Dore
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Mormon. And Free. Forever. Introducing The New Dialogue

 

The Dialogue Board has today unveiled some new things. A new website. A new journal. And a new philosophy of how to be the cultural and intellectual center of the Mormon world. And the essence of this philosophy is “free.” Free as in speech. Free as in (root) beer. And free as in Dialogue.

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Loaves and Babies

Half a loaf is better than none. But half a baby is not. The secret to being Solomon is knowing the difference.

I have recently started dividing my work problems into loaves and babies based on whether or not half-solutions will work. Loaf problems are problems where a partial solution is better than no solution at all. Baby problems are problems where partial solutions are worse than no solution at all.

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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…]