Nature, Wisdom, Spirit, Mother

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This is an expanded and re-written version of a Mother’s Day sermon I gave in church last week, on May 13, 2018. PLEASE SEE THE NOTE AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST.

I’m pretty certain that ever since I became old enough to wonder about matters theological, I hadn’t been all that enthused by the Mormon idea of Mother in Heaven. The Christian message which consistently spoke (and still speaks) most strongly to me was Pauline, Augustinian, and Lutheran; I took (and still take) seriously the omniscience and omnipresence of God presented through the Biblical tradition, and saw His relationship with us as profoundly grace-centered and not at all humanist. This left little room in my thinking for the discourse about Heavenly Mother that I was most familiar with, which seemed rooted in deeply literal and humanist presumptions about God’s identity, sexuality, and relationships. “In the heav’ns are parents single?/ No, the thought makes reason stare! / Truth is reason; truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a mother there“–to a great many of my fellow Mormons, for many years, the claim made in this old hymn seems both persuasive and obvious. But it wasn’t for me.

I write all that in the past tense, though, because not too long ago I read an essay which made me realize that maybe, just maybe, I’ve actually been thinking about, and perhaps even worshiping, Mother in Heaven all along. But let me work around to that. [Read more…]

The Three Trees: A Folk Tale for Good Friday

three trees[It has been five years since I last shared this story. Fortunately, like the whole story of Easter weekend itself, it never gets old.]

Once upon a time, three trees stood in a forest high on a mountain, dreaming of what they might become one day.

[Read more…]

Which City?

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16 [NRSV])

All we wanderers, all we watchers, have been called: called to live in a city God has prepared for us. And moreover, at least according to some interpretations of scripture, we have been called to do more than that: we have been called to help build that city. But which city is it? [Read more…]

On Stumbling Blocks and Being Strong (Sometimes)

On Sunday, was reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and these verses jumped out at me:

Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died….

Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble….

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. (Romans 14:13-15, 19-21; 15:1-2 [NRSV]) [Read more…]

The Joyful, and Mournful, Journey of Lent

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This year my employer, Friends University, a non-denomination Christian liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, decided to develop, in conjunction with our regular chapel observances, a calendar of Lenten devotionals, and they asked for students, faculty, staff, and others to contribute. Some of those who contributed were Roman Catholic or from other high church Protestant traditions, and thus the language and rituals of Lent were familiar to them. For Mormons like me, obviously, that isn’t the case. Still, this is my contribution; hopefully it fits the spirit of the occasion well. [Read more…]

Thoughts on Friendship

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers….Friendship is like Brother [Theodore] Turley in his blacksmith shop welding iron to iron; it unites the human family with its happy influence.

Or so Joseph Smith was recorded as saying on July 23, 1843. To my mind, it’s heavy doctrine–and the fact that I take his claims about friendship so seriously has been on my mind lately, for a variety of reasons. [Read more…]

“President Eyring and President Nelson expressed their appreciation to the president for the efforts by his administration to protect the religious freedom of non-Muslims.”

I may have edited the Church News blurb slightly. Feel free to correct as warranted.

Sure He’s Heavy, But Still: He’s My Brother


Hey everyone! No, no, calm down, it’s just me, your Uncle Russell. Don’t freak out; here, let me close the window behind me. Is everyone here? Great!

Now, I know your mom and dad are out, and you’re planning a special surprise party for Daniel’s 50th birthday when they return–what do you mean, how do I know? Well, I’m the author here so, duh: I’m omniscient. No, that does not mean I’ve been spying on you. Please, put down your phones. Look, I just figured this would be a good time to let you in on some secrets about your dad. [Read more…]

Mormon Scholars Take Their Brief Against Trump to the U.S. Supreme Court

This is a follow-up to a post from four months back, but we Never-Trump Mormons are a persistent bunch. (As a reader of BCC, perhaps you have noticed.) The Trump administration’s proposed travel ban–which many of us (including the three BCC-permabloggers who are co-signers of the linked amici curiae brief) believe demonstrates real discriminatory intent based on religion–will have its day before the Supreme Court this October, and when it does, a thoughtful and thoroughly Mormon argument about the dangers of religious discrimination, filed today, will be considered alongside all the other legal arguments. You can read the full brief here. This version of the brief was prepared by Nate Oman, whom Bloggernaclers need no introduction to, and Anna-Rose Mathieson, who represented the signing scholars before the Supreme Court and whom we really ought to invite to guest-blog with us here. Keep up the good fight, everyone; we are.

Trump, Scouting, my Dad, and Me

[Cross-posted to In Media Res]

I don’t know why this makes me so angry, but it does.

Maybe anger’s not the right word; I’m not angry, I don’t think. (I rarely get angry; not in my make-up, I suppose.) But I am annoyed, chagrined, bothered, upset, pissed off. And I suppose I know why too, though it’s not easy to pull it all together. [Read more…]

Amici Curiae Brief by Scholars of Mormonism Opposed to Trump’s Refugee and Immigrant Ban

There has been much commentary on President Trump’s executive orders regarding immigration and refugees in the Bloggernacle; now, that commentary–or, rather, an expertly distilled legal expression of it–has made it’s way into the courts. Today, a group of 19 scholars of Mormon history have filed a brief attacking Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from six Muslim countries in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The primary author of this brief is Nate Oman, one of the Ancient of Days in the Mormon blogging world, and a writer whose skill and insight is known to many here. Among those scholars who put their name to the brief are Michael Austin, Claudia and Richard Bushman, Kathryn Daynes, Kathleen Flake, Terryl Givens, Ardis Parshall, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and more. Read the press release announcing the filing of the brief here; feel free to read the brief, ask questions about it, and engage in the sort of argument, debate, and grammatical nitpicking for which the Bloggernacle is famous for below. (Never Trump lives!)

Last Christmas

last-christmas Last Christmas–the Christmas of 2015–was my father’s last, though there was no way any of us could have known that would be case at the time. There are probably dozens of people reading this post who could say the same. And there are many hundreds of thousands, millions actually, who can say that every Christmastime–if not about a father, then about a mother, a daughter, a son, a husband, a wife, a niece, a nephew, a old and oft-remembered teacher, or a distant and mostly-but-never-quite-entirely-forgotten friend. All these endings, all these lasts. It can really make one stop and think. [Read more…]

What I Learned from the Old Testament

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Recently a friend of mine shared a story with several of us about how he, while on vacation and with some spare time on his hands, decided to re-read some parts of the Old Testament. His strongest impression of what he read, he said, was that these were the records of a people struggling to understand what it means to no longer be God’s chosen people–or, if they were still chosen, why being chosen did not protect them from being defeated, occupied, and driven into exile, their temple desecrated and their community destroyed. He commended a reading of the Old Testament to us all, saying that it would remind us of the importance of humility, and endurance, and maintaining faith and hope even while our assumptions about the world all around us are being shattered.

(Please, no 2016 elections jokes. I’ve heard enough already. Besides, my friend is a Republican.) [Read more…]

“For We Are Here, But Little Time to Stay”

Yes, it’s been an awful year for many of us, my own family at least partly included. But, thankfully, only partly. We still have many blessings. We have each other, we still have our jobs, we still have our extended family and friends, we still have–we think, we hope, we pray–a loving God who mourns the awfulness that we endure and sometimes, just sometimes, “appoint[s] unto them that mourn in Zion…beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:3). No planting lasts forever, of course–but for the moment, it’s an experience worth being grateful for. So happy Thanksgiving Day, everyone. Remember to count your blessings, one by one by one.

Spare the Rod

Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt.
–Psalm 74:2 (KJV)

At 7am on a Monday morning, I talked with Death on a mountain. [Read more…]

Dear Mormon Voters of the American West: Maybe You’re the White Horse We’ve Been Waiting For

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Just forget about the White Horse Prophecy. It’s a fun bit of Mormon folklore, but like most folklore it’s fictitious nonsense. More important is the fact that–again, like most folklore–this fictitious nonsense is revealing of, and gives us American Mormons reason to remember, what was at one time a widely shared assumption among Mormon leaders: specifically that, as Brigham Young (and John Taylor, and Harold B. Lee, and multiple others) reportedly said, “if the Constitution of the United States is to be saved at all it must be done by this people” (see, for example, Journal of Discourses 12:204, April 8, 1868).

That’s not a reference to an LDS President of the United States–not a Romney, not a Huntsman, not a Hatch, despite the weird interpretations inspired by the aforementioned ersatz prophecy. It’s not a reference to any particular person at all. Rather, that’s a reference of the Mormon people. Many of whom will be eligible to vote this November. And maybe that is where this old teaching will unexpectedly come into its own as truth. [Read more…]

Invisible Church, Immanent Community

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

In the liturgical calendar of the Christian tradition, today is Whitsunday, the Day of Pentecost, a day to commemorate a marvelous, mostly invisible miracle. As the story goes, the resurrected Lord had left His disciples 10 days earlier; as Ronan Head put it in a fine post just a week and a half ago, “Jesus was, in some profound way, with God and not, in bodily form at least, any longer on the earth.” But the disciples continued to meet has they had been commanded, and on Shavuot, as thousands of Jews from parts both far and near gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, the miracle occurred. As the King James Version puts it (Acts 2:2-4):

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. [Read more…]

The Passing of a Senator

bennettSenator Bob Bennett, a three-term Republican senator from Utah, passed away Wednesday evening. I never met him, and never particularly cared for his political views. But my wish to bow my head, offer condolences to his family, and wish his soul godspeed at this time isn’t simply a consequence of the vague imperative we all so often feel to speak well of the departed. The plain fact of the matter is that Bob Bennett in so many ways very clearly embodied the classic ideal of a “senator” (the original meaning of which being, quite simply, “wise old man”), and that is a thing worth high praise. [Read more…]

What Matters Endures

I’m not much of a temple guy myself, but when my tribe takes a building that was so much a part of the civil and religious topography a particular, historically meaningful place, accepts what was lost, and then rebuilds…well, it makes me happy. I see they kept the staircases, and I see Mt. Timpanogos in the Telestial Room, and it makes me happier still. Despite all that is worth complaining about, I look at this and I say: this is a good day. The Tabernacle is still there, and in a small but real way, that matters.

A Year of Hard Love

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I’ve joked for years about being a closet Lutheran–joked about it for so long, in fact, I can’t remember when I first started doing it. I know it wasn’t because one day I read and found myself converted to the Lutheran Book of Concord or any such thing (though over the decades I have read and found myself agreeing with its contents a whole lot more than I disagree). It may go way back t my childhood, back to reading scriptures like Matthew 18:7, in the King James Version: “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (A nearly identical passage can be found in Luke 17:1.) There was a terrible, yet comforting, logic to those passages as I understood them, so long ago: first, that this will be world of offenses, of horrors, of hardness, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it–and second, that God will still hold by whom those offenses, those horrors, that hardness comes accountable. This was a God, I thought, with whom you can know where you stand. [Read more…]

Ten Psalms to Remember

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Last week, continuing my slow journey through the Old Testament, I finished the Book of Psalms, aided as always by the work of Robert Alter. It was a strange, often difficult and boring, but sometimes surprising and even inspiring. If reading poetry isn’t something you normally do–and I don’t–then I suspect going straight through the entire Book of Psalms and confronting its mish-mash collection of 150 ancient works of temple liturgy, private devotion, celebratory hymns, and meditative practice isn’t an ideal beginning spot. [Read more…]

The Shepherds and The Magoi

wise_men_passing_shepherds [A guest post from Glen Henshaw, a husband, a father, an engineer, a lover and raiser of animals, and a longtime reader of the blog.]

I’m looking at our family nativity scene in our bay window right now. There are Mary and Joseph, some angels, a few shepherds, and three wise men, all surrounding a creche that contains the baby Jesus, who is the focal point of the scene. When we talk about “the meaning of Christmas”, this is what we usually mean: Christmas is a story about the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.

But what is the Christmas story about, really? Is it a story about the birth of a baby who would become the Savior of the world? I don’t think so. [Read more…]

Tyler Glenn at Provo’s Affirmation Conference

Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Well done.

(Video provided by Wendy Williams Montgomery.)

The Real Handcart Song

Exactly ten years ago I posted one Pioneer Day plea: could we please at least sing the whole original song? It’s so much better than the shortened version the majority of us American Mormons learned in Primary. A decade on, unfortunately, the plea is as timely as ever. So come along every, let’s sing! [Read more…]

The Unavoidable Reality of Generational Change

sunday-school It’s become rather common here on the Bloggernacle to talk about Mormonism in terms of a “two church” theory–namely, that there are those who are internet-savvy, who have a fair amount of education, who are somewhat critical in the way the make use of science, philosophy, and history in how they think about the truth claims of the church, and then there are those who mostly are and do none of those things. Some people have made a big deal about this divide, whereas others have pushed back against it just as strongly. I don’t think it’s necessary to commit to strong sociological arguments about who belongs to which group or whether they even exist to acknowledge the very simple fact that, as times change, and especially as technologies change, the ways people think about and teach about their own religious experiences change also. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t see the church’s effort to embrace better scholarship, nor the discussions those efforts give rise to. That these changes are both motivated by and received by populations of the faithful of different ages in different ways is probably an unavoidable reality. [Read more…]

Broken Soil, Broken Hearts

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This week, I prepared our small garden space, as I do every year, for the tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, and more than we’ll plant in the coming days. It starts with layering on top of the ground wheelbarrows full of freshly composted soil (filled this year, thankfully, with earthworms and grubs), then working it into the dirt, breaking apart the soil and mixing it in with a rototiller. It’s a violent process, but with the heavy clay content of our native dirt, it almost always needs to be done. [Read more…]

Blessed Easter, Blessed Spring, Blessed Day

It’s morning. Which means, as always, by God’s grace, it’s time to begin again.

A Mormon Easter Sermon, Again

Very nearly exactly 30 years ago, on the Saturday morning before Easter, April 6, 1985, a sermon, just like those which will begin a half-hour from now, was given during the first session of general conference. Except that it wasn’t “just like” any other sermon given that day–and, I strongly suspect, won’t be like any of those who read this are likely to hear this morning, or through all conference. The sermon I’m talking about is Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s final general conference address, “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane”, given on that Holy Saturday. He’d come from the hospital, where was dying of cancer, to the old Tabernacle to give this sermon; he passed away 13 days later. Whoever may or may not speak this morning, trust me: they will almost certainly not have anything as important, or as appropriate, to say this Eastertide as Elder McConkie did, thirty years ago. I remember watching it, long ago, and it moved me. Though I struggle with McConkie’s influence on the church and his Christian theology and interpretation of scripture, I cannot deny: it moves me still.
[Read more…]

Should Mormons (or Anyone) Hope to Change the World?

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

For many decades at least–and maybe, depending on whose history you most trust, maybe ever since our beginning–the dominant American Mormon mode for thinking about this thing which the scriptures and those who claim to be able to authoritatively comment upon them tend to call “the world” has been to, if not completely flee it, then at least stand at a remove from it: to be “in the world, but not of the world.” There’s a deep scriptural truth to this formulation, reflecting as it does one of the final statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. But just as many Christians–and, of late, more and more Mormons–have been equally inspired by the tradition of the Great Commission: that we are called to go about into the world, and change it for the better. This means evangelization and missionary work, of course, something which the Mormon church has embraced from the start. But it also means many other kinds of service and charitable works as well–something which, to our credit, we’ve done our best to get caught up on in recent years.

Jesus taught the eternal value of changing lives through loving service, and that is more than enough for most Christians. Mormons, though, might imagine that there is an additional endpoint to all that going out into and changing of the world, one which which distinguishes us from many (not all, for certain, but nonetheless many) other Christian groups: the ultimate aim of building up the kingdom of God upon the earth and establishing Zion–which for Mormons like me means a community and/or state of being where all are of one heart and one mind, dwell in righteousness, and no one is poor. [Read more…]

Just Whom Are We Inoculating?

inoculationLast week, Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote another of her typically insightful surveys of current trends in Mormon life–this one focusing on the impact which the LDS Church’s recent openness regarding various complicated historical and theological issues (from the origin of the priesthood ban to the historicity of the Book of Abraham to Joseph Smith’s personal involvement in plural marriage) are likely to have as the church continues to grow and change. It was widely shared on social media–and that sharing led an old friend of mine, who no longer associates with the church, to share some thoughts with me: [Read more…]