I’m a pilgrim, I’m a stranger.

My wife and I just took our kids on a fairly ambitious road trip: Leaving our home in upstate New York, we traveled along interstate 90 and then 80 across the Midwest and the high plains, through the Great Basin, over the Sierra Nevada and down to the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco. We spent several days in the Bay Area, then climbed the Sierra again and we spent a day and a night in Sequoia National Park. We then crossed the Mojave Desert and went west and north on interstate 15 through Nevada and nearly the whole length of Utah and then spent several days in the Logan area. After that, we traveled east through the Bear River mountains and through Wyoming on two-lane roads that approximate the old pioneer trails, joining back up with interstate 80 in Cheyenne, and making our way back home on interstate 80 and then 90 again. [Read more…]

Lesson 26: “King Solomon: Man of Wisdom, Man of Foolishness.” #BCCSundaySchool2018

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Luca Giordano – Dream of Solomon

 

This week’s lesson overviews the life of David’s successor and son, Solomon. The overall theme of his life, as it is presented in the biblical text is, much like the story of David’s rape of Bathsheba, a theme of the King’s glory, favor with God, and ultimately, fall from grace. [Read more…]

Lesson 24: “Create in me a clean heart.” #BCCSundaySchool2018

This lesson has two parts: (1) The story of David’s rape of /adultery with Bathsheba, his murder of Uriah to cover it up, and his discovery by the prophet Nathan, and (2) Psalm 51, which tradition says is David’s repentant response to the episode. [Read more…]

Prophetic Fallibility, Institutional Revelation, and Institutional Salvation.

This post is inspired by some of the discussion on Stapely’s recent excellent post on the problems with defending the church’s pre-1978 policy to exclude black members from receiving the priesthood or the blessings of the temple. One of Stapely’s points is that the reasons that Brigham Young gave for the ban were demonstrably wrong. Several commenters asked a variation of these questions: If we acknowledge that church leaders can be wrong about something so important, then can we ever trust them? And if so, how can we distinguish between when they are speaking by revelation and when they are just wrong?

[Read more…]

Church Conferences

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Illustration from Edward Eggleston’s The Circuit Rider: A Tale of the Heroic Age

I was recently given an assignment to speak in sacrament meeting. That’s a normal part of my calling. But the topic was unusual: The assignment was to speak on “the history and doctrine of conferences in the church.” I’m not a historian, but I love reading history, so I was excited to speak on a historical topic. It gave me a good excuse to learn about a part of church history that I hadn’t studied before. This post is adapted from that talk.

 

In 1829 and early 1830, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were working on organizing the church. They had finished translating the Book of Mormon in June 1829 and the prophet had received a revelation directed to Oliver Cowdery that instructed him to “build up my church” and to “rely upon the things that are written,” (that is, the Book of Mormon) to do so.

Oliver took the revelation seriously and in the summer of 1829 he prepared a sort of constitution for the church called the Articles of the Church of Christ. Joseph Smith used his prophetic gift to add to Oliver’s work, and the resulting document, the Articles and Covenants of the Church, is the source of our modern section 20 in the Doctrine and Covenants. As the June 1829 revelation had directed, Oliver relied heavily on the Book of Mormon: the Articles and Covenants follows the Book of Mormon to establish the church offices of Elder, Priest, and Teacher, as mentioned in the Book of Mormon, as well as the sacrament prayers, which are taken word-for-word from the Book of Mormon.

But, from Joseph Smith’s additions, the Articles and Covenants also establishes certain church practices that are not found in the Book of Mormon. One of these is the practice of holding conferences. [Read more…]

Lesson 16: “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord” #BCCSundaySchool2018

 

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Rembrandt’s visualization of Balaam, his ass, and the angel- Mbzt, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23551459

[Read more…]

Lesson 15: “Look to God and Live” #BCCSundaySchool2018

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The Old Testament’s hottest book is Numbers. This week’s reading has it all: burnings, plagues, miraculous leprosy, poisonous flying hell-snakes, and a meat sneeze. What’s a meat sneeze? It’s that thing where you complain about eating manna, so God makes you eat meat for a month until it comes out of your nostrils. [Read more…]

Easter Morning (A poem)

Here’s a poem I wrote for Easter a few years ago and that I’ve tinkered with recently.

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Crocuses in my backyard. Taken Tuesday of Holy Week, 2018.

 

 

I woke in the dark.
I climbed a nearby hill where I could spy the eastern horizon
through a break in the wet trees.
And I watched.

The walls of the world veiled the living sun,
and a wet, grey curtain was drawn across the sky.
But the life that was in the sun shone out
from beyond the walls of the world,
And the grey cloud-curtain glowed at its hem, the color of burnished copper.
And it turned here and there
from the color of wet stones,
to the color of herons’ wings,
and to the colors of the pale crocuses that pierce snow and brown turf
and the wreckage of last season’s leaves,
and to the color of saffron,
and the color of robins’ breasts,
and the color of blood.

And then it flamed.

And a pinprick of consuming light
pierced the circles of the world,
and grew.

And the light washed over the world,
and the sun rose, or maybe the world went down,
until the world was immersed in the light of life—
the earth, the turf, the trees,
the lichens and fungi,
worms and insects,
the robins, and blue-jays, the woodpeckers,
the mice, squirrels, deer, and all beasts,
and women and men, with all their cunning craft,
to walk (and creep, and fly, and run, and leap, and dance, and sing, and love, and build, and make) in newness of life
upon the old earth renewed.

But then the golden hour ended,
and the living light that had bathed the world drained off
and soaked into the soil,
and was gone.
And I walked back home to breakfast.

But the sun shone still,
with a cold light, a quick light,
a light to reach into dark corners and uncover secrets,
and drive out hidden things from dark places in deep woods
where snow lingers long.

“Woman, I know him not”: The Apostle Peter and the Testimony of Women.

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Doors from the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu, the site where tradition says Caiphas’ house stood. Source: By Anton 17 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28493336

 

 

 

 

Late last night, after all my family was asleep and I was restless and sleepless, I reread the passages from the gospels about when Jesus is taken. And I noticed something I had never noticed before: When Peter denies Jesus, he is denying women.

In that dark, liminal night between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Peter is put totally out of his reckoning. It begins in the upper room when Jesus tells Peter he will deny him. “Not so,” he says, “I’ll die first.” But then when Jesus asks him and the others to stay awake and just be present with him while he prays, Peter denies him that. Sleep overcomes Peter, and Jesus wakes him asking “what, could you not even stay awake with me one hour?” That must have stung. Maybe it was a desire to prove Jesus wrong, to keep the oath he made back in the upper room that he would die before denying Jesus, or a desire to justify himself or redeem himself after falling asleep that motivated Peter to take up his sword not long after that. But then Jesus rebukes him again. First he’s been rebuked for not being zealous enough to accompany Jesus in his agony, and now he’s been rebuked for being too zealous in his defense of Jesus. And on top of that, he sees his Lord and Messiah bound and taken as a captive. He is out of his reckoning. He has no idea what he should do.

So he follows Jesus at a distance and sneaks in to Caiaphas’ court. Unable to save him, but unable to leave him either, he goes along—not to do anything but just “to see the end,” as Matthew put it (Matthew 26:58).  [Read more…]

Joseph Smith’s Statement on “The Fundamental Principles of Our Religion.” Part II: The Significance of Willard Richards’ 1853 Revisions.

This is part two of my look at the textual history of Joseph Smith’s oft-quoted statement on “the fundamental principles of our religion.” In the first part, I tried to find the original source of the statement in the Elders’ Journal in 1838, and then traced it through three revisions as it was collected in Willard Richards’ Manuscript History of the Church in late 1843, published in the Deseret News in 1853, and then published again in B.H. Roberts’ History of the Church in 1905. As I noted, the statement was later published again in Joseph Fielding Smith’s 1938 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the church’s 2007 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, but these later publications did not further revise Roberts’ revised text. Roberts’ revision became the standard text quoted by church leaders and members in the 20th century and that tradition continues to this day, with the exception of Elder Ballard, who quoted the original Elder’s Journal text in his October 2014 Conference address.

In this part, we’re going to look at the significance of the revisions. [Read more…]

Joseph Smith’s Statement on “The Fundamental Principles of our Religion.” Part I: Authorship, Attribution, Revision, and Publication.

President Nelson will soon give his first general conference address as the President of the Church. When he gave his first address as an apostle, then-Elder Nelson quoted Joseph Smith as saying that “[t]he fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” He quoted the same statement in his April 2017 conference address. It’s a familiar statement. Church leaders and members quote it regularly. But where does it come from? What’s the story behind it?

A few years ago I quoted this statement when I gave an Easter talk. As I was preparing that talk, I was curious about its original context and I decided to track down the original primary source. I’m no historian, but that curiosity later led me down a rabbit hole of authorship, attribution, publication, revision, edition, and republication.

I’ve gathered those notes now into a two-part series. This part deals with the authorship, the revision, the publication, and contemporary use of the statement. The next one explores the potential significance of the revisions that later editors made to the statement. [Read more…]

The Sabbath as a Celebration of Freedom

The Old Testament contains two versions of the ten commandments: the version in Exodus when Moses receives the commandments, and the version in Deuteronomy at the end of Israel’s wandering, just as the people are about to enter the promised land. But from Exodus to Deuteronomy, the reason for the Sabbath day shifts. The Sabbath goes from being a celebration of creation in Exodus to a celebration of freedom in Deuteronomy. Two weeks ago our teacher in a priesthood lesson pointed out this difference between the Exodus version and the Deuteronomy version. I had never noticed it before. It’s been on my mind since then. [Read more…]

How (not) to pass an Abrahamic test.

In the Old Testament God decides to “tempt” Abraham (Genesis 22:1) by asking that he sacrifice his miracle son, Isaac, in whom he rested all his hopes for God’s promises to him.

But what sort of a test was Abraham’s test? Was it a test with only one right answer?

There are different kinds of tests. A well-written true/false question has only one right answer, but an essay question might have many possible right answers. Some tests are meant to test our knowledge. Others, like a driver’s test, are meant to test our knowledge and ability. Others are meant to test the depth of our reasoning. In a law school exam, for example, a student could reach the wrong ultimate conclusion and still earn a good score based on her ability to identify the issues and reason through the problem. A psychological test doesn’t measure our knowledge or ability, but is supposed to evaluate our mental characteristics and wellness.

The Kobayashi Maru from the Star Trek universe is an example of a test with no right answer. The Kobayashi Maru is a simulation where the captain receives a distress call from a ship called the Kobayashi Maru. The simulation is programmed so that if the captain does not attempt the rescue, the Kobayashi Maru is destroyed but if the captain attempts to rescue the Kobayashi Maru, the attempt provokes a battle with Klingon ships that ends in the captain’s own ship’s destruction. All choices lead to failure. It’s designed to test how the officer will wrestle with competing principles. It’s designed more to test character than to test knowledge or ability. [Read more…]

The President of the Church and the Prophet to the Church.

In July of 1843, in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith said something that observers interpreted as a proposal to call his brother Hyrum as Prophet in his place. He was reportedly confronted by church members who protested on the basis that he, not Hyrum, enjoyed the gift of prophecy. A week later, Joseph explained that he had said it “ironically,” or “to try the church members’ faith.” He explained that “the spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Jesus,” quoting the Book of Revelation, and referred to the promises of the melchizedek priesthood. [1]

These statements are open to some interpretation, but I believe Joseph Smith was getting at two things: First, his reference to the priesthood suggests that the gift of prophecy he enjoyed was something that the Lord promised not to him alone, but to all those ordained to the melchizedek priesthood. [2] But second, even more radically democratic, his reference to the “testimony of Jesus” as the spirit of prophecy suggests that prophecy was a gift promised not just to melchizedek priesthood holders, and not even just to baptized members of the church, but to any person with a testimony of Jesus.  [Read more…]

Advent 2017: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

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Hornell Branch Meetinghouse, December 17, 2017

This post is based on a talk I gave in Sacrament Meeting in the Hornell, New York Branch on December 17, 2017.

This year, as we prepare for Christmas, I’ve been especially impressed by a line in Peter’s first letter to the church. Peter says this: “[B]e clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). [Read more…]

Tolkien on Scripture Study

The single most important piece of writing about scripture study that I’ve read is Tolkien’s essay, Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics. Or, more precisely, the most important piece of writing about scripture study that I’ve ever read is Tolkien’s allegory of the man and the tower, contained in his essay, “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.” I’ve written before about how I see the most pervasive themes in Tolkien’s writings as among the most pervasive themes of the Book of Mormon (see these posts). But this post is not about how Tolkien’s work relates to the content of the scriptures; it’s about how it relates to how we approach them. This allegory is probably the piece of writing that has most improved my scripture study. [Read more…]

Martin Luther and Me

837415eeffe744ae07f5e31dbac3e579--reformation-day-martin-lutherToday is a big day. The 500 year anniversary of Reformation Day–October 31, 1517, the day that Martin Luther publicly posted his 95 theses.

As Mormons, we have a sort of love-hate relationship with Martin Luther. [Read more…]

Self-Reliance: faith in Christ, consecration, stewardship, the prosperity gospel and “the deceitfulness of riches.”

I spoke in church yesterday. My assignment was to speak about self-reliance. This post is adapted from that talk.

1. Spiritual Self-Reliance: there is no such thing.

I confess that I don’t really like the term self-reliance, because strictly speaking, there is no such thing as spiritual self-reliance in the gospel. The scriptures, the Book of Mormon in particular, are as clear as can be that we are to rely only on Jesus for salvation (see e.g., 1 Nephi 10:6, 2 Nephi 31:19, Moroni 6:4). [Read more…]

My statement.

The church’s PR arm released a statement yesterday condemning the racism and hatred on display in Charlottesville.

I’m not going to lie. I wish the statement were stronger and more specific. I wish that we didn’t have to go back more than ten years to find a statement by a prominent church leader condemning racism as the evil that it is.

But I’m not going to find fault. This is a statement that expressly condemns racism as the evil that it is. And that is a good thing. [Read more…]

Things you can’t capture

Here is a sort of poem I have written. [Read more…]

Changing the Sacrament Prayers: an example of the role of human agency in revelation.

This LDSLiving article popped up in my twitter feed yesterday. The church has revised the French version of the sacrament prayer. I don’t know enough French to really have an informed opinion, but based on my knowledge of Spanish, and my spotty knowledge of Latin, it seems to me like the change is from a word meaning willing, in the sense of willing, or wanting to do something to one that means willing in the sense of available, or disposed to do something. The idea is to more closely match the English version. (And, incidentally, this also aligns more closely with the official Spanish version, which uses “son dispuestos.”)

I would be curious to know the process that led to this change. The change was announced over the First Presidency’s signatures, which suggests either that the First Presidency made the decision, or at least that somebody in the translation department brought to the First Presidency for approval. Who brought the issue to the attention of the decision maker? What were the discussions like? What kind of information did they rely on in making the decision?  [Read more…]

(A Version of) The Eagle Charge for LDS Eagle Scout Courts of Honor

Our ward’s scout troop recently held a court of honor for a boy in the ward to receive his Eagle Scout award. Though I have been released from my calling with the young men, I continue to serve on the Scout Committee, and I had worked with this young man while I was with the youth, and I was asked to give “the Eagle Charge” at the Court of Honor. [Read more…]

The Church cuts ties with scouts (but not really).

1241908The Mormon newsroom broke the news this morning that the church is ending its venture and varsity scout programs for boys 14-18 years old in the U.S. and Canada. I was particularly interested in this announcement not just because I was active in scouts when I was younger, but because until fairly recently I served in a young men calling that required me to serve as a scout leader, and I have two sons that will eventually be part of the program. Given President Monson’s personal attachment to scouting, I never thought the church would disengage from BSA during his lifetime. There was a first presidency letter sent out this morning announcing the change, included with the letter is a set of guidelines about the activities for priests and teachers, and there is a set of questions and answers on the newsroom about the change. [Read more…]

Where faith lives

This past Sunday the stake president asked me to speak in one of the wards in our stake. The assigned topic was cultivating the faith necessary to have success in missionary work as a ward. That got me thinking about faith and how it relates to how we think about the church’s long term fate.

It strikes me that there are two extremes in the way we think about the church and its long term destiny. [Read more…]

A poem for Holy Thursday

This is a sort of free verse poem that I have written about the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As the day that we remember Jesus’s last supper, Holy Thursday seems like an appropriate time to share it, but the focus is not just on the last supper, but on the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as it exists now.

I

This meat, and this drink,
To remember the body and the blood.
This meat. A chunk of plain bread, broken in pieces.
This drink. A cup of plain water, standing in for wine–
the blood of grapes, crushed until their skins burst.
This meat, and this drink,
To remember the body and the blood. [Read more…]

Enoch and the Silmarillion Part VI: Conclusions.

 

It turns out, the lesson of pity that Nienna teaches in The Silmarillion applies remarkably well to God’s tears in Joseph Smith’s Enoch revelations. I’m not suggesting that Tolkien was secretly a devotee of Joseph Smith, or that he was intentionally hiding encrypted keys to understanding the visions of Enoch as Easter eggs in The Silmarillion. Rather, I am suggesting that seeing what lessons The Silmarillion draws out of the image of a weeping goddess can open us up to seeing the image of the weeping God in Enoch’s visions in new ways that might not be obvious given the history of how we have read those revelations. [Read more…]

Enoch and the Silmarillion Part V: How the Weeping Goddess Might Move us Beyond the Sovereignty Debate.

The lesson of pity that Nienna teaches in the Silmarillion is a lesson that applies with equal force to the image of God weeping in Enoch’s vision. [Read more…]

Enoch and the Silmarillion Part IV: The Elves’ Weeping Goddess.

Buckle up, because this one is going to get super nerdy. [Read more…]

Enoch and the Silmarillion Part III: Enoch’s Weeping God and the Divine Sovereignty Debate.

The image of the weeping God has inspired debates over whether God’s omnipotence is absolute, or is in some sense limited. Those debates are interesting, but I’m going to suggest that perhaps they miss the point of the image of the weeping God as it is presented in the Enoch revelations. [Read more…]

Shrove Tuesday

Today is what was traditionally known as Shrove Tuesday, before it became Mardi Gras. In the middle ages it was traditionally the day to be “shriven” of your sins (meaning you confess and are assigned your penance to be absolved), before beginning the fast of lent the following day, Ash Wednesday. [Read more…]