Does Mormonism break our ability to properly grieve?

(CW/TW: Domestic abuse; gun violence)

Recently, a terrible crime was committed in Southern Utah. A man shot and killed his wife, his mother-in-law, his five children, and himself. It is a horrible story. But what interests me today are the public statements made by both the man’s family and the wife’s family. I’m sure you are already familiar with both and they are abyssmal, although in different ways. However, they both point to something I’m curious about: do Mormons know how to properly grieve?

Now I want to be clear, I understand that everyone grieves in their own way and that nobody should be held up to some sort of standard for proper grieving. But, in Mormonism, we all know what good grief looks like.

[Read more…]

Say It Again, Sam (a Plea to Bishops)

You know that moment: the person blessing the sacrament looks at the bishop. The bishop shakes his head. And, instead of standing up and handing the trays of bread or water, the person repeats the prayer. The congregation may be puzzled the second time through. By the third, fourth, or fifth time, they’re holding their collective breath, praying that this time he gets through it.

The first time, his voice is clear, notwithstanding the small error. The second time, if you listen closely, you can hear it begin to shake. And every subsequent time, the shaking gets worse.

So what’s up with that? Well, some combination of tradition and the Handbook. But we should back up a little: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t have a lot of liturgical prayers. By and large, we’re devotional prayer people. But we have a couple liturgical prayers. The big ones are the sacrament prayers and the baptismal prayer, two prayers that we get from our scriptures.[fn1]

[Read more…]

Splendour in the Brown Grass: Some thoughts on Getting Older with Poetry

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death.
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

—William Wordsworth: “Ode: Intimations of Immortality

Unlike his fellow great Romantic poets—John Keats, Percy Shelly, and George Gordon, Lord Byron—William Wordsworth did not have the good fortune to die young and tragically. While his peers blazed like meteors and consumed themselves in their brilliant flames, Wordsworth had to figure out how to grow old.

Did I mention that he was 33 years old? Yeah, Romantic poetry has always been a young person’s game.

[Read more…]

The Truth of Relationship

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

Hymn number 272 in the LDS hymn book poses one of the most important questions around: “Oh say, what is truth?” Interestingly, the song never answers the question it poses—it describes truth (a gem, a prize, the first and last) but never offers a definition for the term. The Doctrine and Covenants calls truth the “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come (D&C 93:24), which (if I’m honest) isn’t much help either given our limited understanding of the past and the future (and, really, of the present).  And since I’m not a philosopher by training, I’m not well equipped to survey the thousands of years of thinking on the subject (though Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a fabulous starting point).[1]

All that to say, the phrase “I know the church is true”—which is ubiquitous in most LDS Wards and Stakes and is common fare in General Conference addresses—is phrase I’ve always struggled to understand. You see, common usage of the term “truth” seems to be tied to claims/statements. Generally speaking, what most people seem to mean when they say a thing is “true” is that a given claim/statement aligns with facts on the ground (or in heaven!).  Yet “the church” is not a claim/statement; church is a social group. How can a social group be “true”?

[Read more…]

Introducing the New Testament (or: How I wish CFM began)

“We are Surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses” by Brenda K. Robinson.

Strangely, this year’s Come Follow Me materials lack a general introduction to the New Testament. It’s useful at the outset of a year of study to take a mile-high view. So here’s a hypothetical lesson outline.

[Read more…]

The Women of Matthew 1

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. (Matthew 1:2-6)

Readers of the Old Testament learn very quickly that, as soon as the “begats” start, it is OK to start skimming. The elaborate genealogies mean very little to us today, however important they may have been to the Bronze Age tribal cultures that produced the Old Testament.

Matthew, however, has some tricks up his sleeve that we are going to miss if we don’t pay close attention to the list of who begat whom. Specifically, we will miss the significance of the four women who appear in the 42 generations listed from Abraham to Jesus. These women are: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (the wife of Uriah), each of whom had a prominent role in the Hebrew scriptures that Matthew is consciously choosing to map his own work onto.

[Read more…]

“I can see people, but they look like trees”: Insight and Humility in the Gospel of Mark

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?”And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again, and he looked intently, and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”
                                                —Mark 8:22-26 (NRSV)

The story of Jesus healing the blind man in Bethesda is, in at least one way, the most remarkable of the New Testament’s miracle stories: it is the only time that Jesus needs two tries to get it right. The first time is only half a miracle. The man can see people, but they look like trees. He sees, but badly.

This is one of the very few stories that appear only in Mark’s Gospel—90% of which occurs in either Matthew or Luke (or both), who had access to Mark when they wrote their own versions. The fact that the later evangelists left this bit on the cutting room floor suggests that even they felt uncomfortable portraying Jesus as someone unable to heal somebody on the first try.

[Read more…]

The Little Lord of Small Concerns

My concerns are so petty.

Whenever I pause to pray, that’s almost always my first thought. Who am I to ask God for anything? He’s already given me everything. A warm home, a loving family, good health. So what if my baby won’t nap? So what if my puppy needs surgery? So what if I constantly feel overwhelmed by adulting? That’s called life.

Nearly all my petty concerns will resolve themselves, with or without divine intervention. So who am I to waste God’s time? Who am I to ask for mild creature comforts when so much of the world is suffering? I would genuinely rather God direct his energy to those who need it more. So my solution is often to just not pray. Some piece of me believes that’s a selfless act. I assume God’s energy, like mine, is finite. In a finite universe, I confess I’m not a priority.

[Read more…]

Blame Christmas

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Towards the end W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, written 80 years ago, Auden gives an imaginative narrative voice to a marvelously contemporary and thoroughly professional Herod the Great, the man responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents, at least according to Matthew 2:16-18. The Herod of Auden’s prose-poem is a hard-working, highly intelligent, rigorously sensible man, someone wise enough not to imagine that he knows everything, but grounded enough to be confident in the consequences of even that which he does not know. The story of Jesus, he realizes, whether or not it is true, must be stopped immediately, because the masses of people in the world are delicate, desperate, and often deplorable, and in need of the disciplining, dependable myths which are central to the religious and civic order. Allow them to start thinking about God’s relationship to humanity as a personal Gift, as an expression of divine Love, as fundamentally a Mystery, and madness will reign. In imagining Herod in this way, Auden was perhaps updating, and making more relatable, the equally hard-working, highly intelligent, and rigorously sensible Grand Inquisitor of Fyodor Dostoevsky, but honestly, this man is a figure well-known to many of us, and sometimes–especially for people like me who take traditions seriously enough to think they are worth arguing about–maybe is us as well.

[Read more…]

Solidarity with Ukraine this Christmas

The war being waged against the civilian population of Ukraine—denying them light, heat and life itself—shocks the conscience. There is no silver lining, no higher purpose to the horror being deliberately visited on Ukraine’s families.

Nevertheless, their resilience allows us to hope for and work toward a better future. As Timothy Snyder put it, “Ukrainian resistance to what appeared to be overwhelming force reminded the world that democracy is not about accepting the apparent verdict of history. It is about making history; striving toward human values despite the weight of empire, oligarchy, and propaganda; and, in so doing, revealing previously unseen possibilities.”

At this time of the year in particular—when Christians around the world commemorate the humble commencement of a remarkable series of events that changed the world—hope is called for. Stanislav Shyrokoradiuk, Bishop of Odessa-Simferopol, said in an interview today that “More than ever, Christmas this year is the festival of longing for real peace to come amid all the misery we are currently experiencing. We will therefore celebrate Christmas more consciously than ever this year” (my translation). 

I will do my best to join him.

In the Mountains, Everyone is on a “Thou” Basis

I know the title of my post has a strange ring in the ears of most native speakers of English—”thou” is an archaic pronoun, and even members of the church who are accustomed to hearing and even using it on a regular basis only do so when praying. So what’s the deal with the title? Well, “thou” is what you will find in English translations of the scriptures where “du” is found in German versions. Take, for example, the season-appropriate twenty-first verse of the first chapter of Mathew:

And [Mary] shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

In German, that verse reads:

[Maria] wird einen Sohn gebären; ihm sollst du den Namen Jesus geben; denn er wird sein Volk von seinen Sünden erlösen.

[Read more…]

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Photo by Pixabay on

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel.

Who needs to be ransomed? Until recently, I had always thought this “ransom” essentially meant “bail” like in the famous Boyd K. Packer analogy of the Atonement. 

But a ransom is a price that, in a just world, never would have been set to end a suffering that, in a just world, never would have been borne. 

[Read more…]

Now Let Your Servant Depart in Peace: Simeon’s Song in the Advent Tradition

Nunc Dimittis or Asunto místico by Fiovanni Bellini (1505-1510) 

The world’s first Christmas carols can be found in the Book of Luke. The three major canticles—Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Zachariah’s Benedictus (1:67-79), and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32)—are among the first Christian praise songs that we know anything about. They are much more than Luke’s attempt to reconstruct dialogue that he was not around for. They represent the powerful thoughts and feelings that the very first Christians had while contemplating the central event of their new religion.

I have written before about the Magnificat, perhaps the best-known of these canticles. Today, though, I want to focus on the third of the three, the Nunc Dimittis (“Now you let depart”), or the Canticle of Simeon.

[Read more…]

Why I Tithe

Natalie Brown holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. She is writing in her personal capacity, and her views do not represent those of her employer.

A voice on the internet recently noted that some portion of Mormons would tithe even if the Church burnt their offerings. This voice arose from understandable frustration that the Church has generated billions of dollars from tithes while oversight of how that money is spent (or not spent) is lacking.

I share this frustration. I believe that such revenue should be spent on projects that address the pressing economic injustices of our moment, including reinvesting that money in LDS families who increasingly struggle in our present economy. Indeed, I have found myself thinking about tithing lately because I have recently taken a second job in order to replenish my family’s budget by approximately the same amount we pay in tithing. From the standpoint of efficiency, tithing does not make sense.

While the membership can and should discuss how tithes are spent to promote more effective stewardship, the question of how tithes should be spent is, for me, distinct from the question of whether I should pay them. God will hold those in charge of administering funds accountable. As someone who believes in God’s existence, the more pressing personal question is whether I’m willing to make the sacrifice He asks of us today.

[Read more…]

Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”: An Advent Sermon on Love

“The Christian doctrine shows man that the essence of his soul is love—that his happiness depends not on loving this or that object, but on loving the principle of the whole—God, whom he recognizes within himself as love, and therefore he loves all things and all men.”

― Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You

We begin not with a poem, as is so often my wont, but with one of the most striking and beautiful pieces of prose that I have ever read. Leo Tolstoy’s 1895 “Master and Man” is usually classified as a short story, but, like most things by Tolstoy, it is very long. One could be forgiven for calling it a novella. And if you plan to read it (and you should definitely plan to read it), you should exit now and read it before coming back. There will be spoilers.

[Read more…]

Lullay, My Liking

One of my earliest memories is lying under the glowing Christmas tree with all the other lights off, listening to my dad’s LP collection of Christmas music.  Last year, as I tried to recreate this collection digitally, I rediscovered a song that was deeply embedded in my memory.  Lullay, My Liking—in this case sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir accompanied by the New York Philharmonic—was mesmerizing to me as a child.   

Then, I didn’t understand why it affected me so deeply, but I now realize that the interplay between major and minor chords with a sweet and hopeful resolution at the end set some of my core preferences for emotional music.  Hearing it again more than 40 years later brought memories flooding back. But as a parent, Mary’s 15th century crooning lullaby of “Lullay, mine Liking, my dear Son, mine Sweeting, Lullay, my dear heart, mine own dear darling” struck me somewhat differently.  The poignancy of the resolving chords now sound as fragile to me as they did hopeful. The emotional pull is still there, but deepened with adult understanding.  My own experiences with the devastating love of parenthood has changed the song for me.

[Read more…]

Your Sunday Brunch Special: Mormon Free Will as Primary or Emergent in History as a Superposition of the King Follett Sermon and Polygamy

Free will is often confused with what Latter-day Saints have traditionally named Free Agency (and later emphasis: Moral Agency). There is a background.

In Joseph Smith’s (JS) teaching after 1838 there is a clear notion of uncreated souls=spirits=minds. This is represented in Mormon literature after 1890 by JS’s King Follett Sermon (KFS)—a name externally attached to JS’s April 7, 1844 sermon after a relatively short time, at least by the 1850s. In KFS, Souls are not created and exist in some way as permanent beings that can have no end because they have no beginning. KFS is the historical representative of this idea because it was the most frequently published of JS’s sermons through time. Which KFS, is a legitimate question because there are many versions. That is for another time perhaps.

[Read more…]

BYU and Cryptic Standards

A couple weeks ago, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that BYU-I was declining to renew[fn1] instructors’ contracts based on nebulous and unexplained criteria.

And yes, I understand that the BYUs have odd and specific contractual provisions, one of which is that employees’ employment is contingent on getting an ecclesiastical endorsement from their bishop. But here’s the thing: the bishops of the two instructors the story interviews did provide ecclesiastical endorsements. That is, the people in question went to their bishops. They answered the questions bishops are supposed to ask. Their bishops endorsed them. They had current temple recommends. They had done everything that the BYUs say they needed to do.

But they were told they weren’t renewed because they didn’t get “ecclesiastical clearance” and therefore didn’t qualify to teach at BYU-I.

[Read more…]

The Joy of the Saints: An Advent Sermon (3rd Week)

Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (2 Ne 2:22-23; 25)

First, we must draw a sharp distinction between happiness and joy. We can see the difference in the words themselves. Happiness comes from the Middle-English root word hap which means “chance” or “fortune.” The same root can be found in words like “happen,” “hapless,” and “happenstance.” Happiness is the feeling we get when good things happen to us, and the feeling depends entirely on the situation. When the things that cause happiness go away, so does the feeling they produce. When Solon tells Croesus, “Call no one happy until they are dead,” he means that, as long as a person remains alive, their fortunes could always change.

[Read more…]

Two Great New Books and One Awesome Christmas Sale from BCC Press

Oh boy, have we been busy at BCC Press. Here it is December, and we are proud to present two more amazingly awesome, incredibly relevant, and deliciously readable new books just in time for Christmas shopping and Christmas-break reading. And, trust us, you will want them both.

[Read more…]

Blackout Recipes

My parents were born in the Great Depression and took the church’s program of self reliance seriously. We kept a cow, goats, pigs and chickens and had a big garden and an orchard of peach, plum, apricot and pomegranate trees. What we called the back porch was a room the same size as the eat-in kitchen that was dedicated to food storage. There was a chest freezer big enough to hold butchered animals and shelves of food storage featuring white five-gallon buckets of wheat and textured vegetable protein as well as the canned goods and preserves.

My parents lived full lives without ever needing to actually rely on their food storage, but I’m glad I grew up in a household where we at least practiced self reliance for several reasons. Here are just a few: First and foremost, a sun-warmed peach picked from the tree at peak ripeness is a bit of heaven on earth—definitely add this to your bucket list. Second, having thrown numerous chickens into cardboard boxes to contain the flailing following their decapitation and prior to dunking them in boiling water to prepare for plucking, I have developed a healthy respect for the suffering that the meat on my plate represents. Third, crystallized honey and peanut butter makes an excellent snack in times both good and hard.

[Read more…]

Peace Is Not a Verb: An Advent Sermon (2)

Peace is not a verb. One cannot go through the street “peacing”—not even during Advent. One might, in a very limited sense, use “peace” as a verb by appending to it the words “out” and “dude” in quick succession. But only if one drives a VW bus and wears love beads. For the rest of us, peace cannot be an action word, nor do we have good one-word alternatives to replace the unwieldy infinitive “to make peace.”

[Read more…]

The Name of the Church: Some Half Baked Thoughts

I recently wrote a guest post regarding my nostalgia for the ‘I’m a Mormon’ Campaign. In that post, I argued that the campaign espoused a sort of inclusive Mormonism that we would profit from remembering and embracing. 

It was not my intention to start a debate on the wisdom of moving away from the Mormon moniker. The comments on that post, on the other hand, almost immediately did. As did the comments on a recent interview I did with Mormonland on the same subject. 

 With that in mind, it’s time to give the people what they want and share my own thoughts on the question. In this post, I don’t intend to make a full pro/con type argument surrounding the effort to remove “Mormon” from our vocabulary. Instead, I just want to offer two points on the debate that I feel are worth further consideration and, at least in my view, offer some nuance as we continue with that conversation. Both of these points are reflective of the ongoing thinking I have on the topic and may not be fully fleshed out. With that in mind I ask for your patience, and for you to set expectations accordingly. 

[Read more…]

The Risk of Hope: An Advent Sermon

“I am a Christian by Yearning. Opposed to my doubt and perversity is a longing that the gospel be true. Christians are made, said the apostle Paul, of faith, hope, and charity. Though I have little charity and less faith, perhaps I have hope in some abundance.”—Levi Peterson, “A Christian by Yearning”

Hope is hard; let’s not pretend otherwise. And it is risky. Things with feathers are also things with talons, and those who hope make themselves vulnerable to despair. When we embrace hope, we take the same risks we take when we embrace another person: we might be rejected, we might be disappointed, and we might find that we have misplaced our hope in something unworthy of our attention. “Embrace is grace,” writes Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, “and grace is a gamble, always.”

[Read more…]

Sorrow and Thanksgiving

On Election Day, I woke up to my daughter freaking out. Our cat had fallen down her sister’s ladder and was unresponsive. Almost instantly awake, we did a quick Google search and discovered that there was a 24-7 vet emergency room a mile or so from our apartment. Ten minutes later, we had Lemonade there. They rushed her to the back; she was severely dehydrated because of what we eventually discovered was a Lego head blocking her intestine.

Long story short, one surgery, two veterinary hospitals, and almost seven days later, we brought Lemonade home. That was a tough week—sometimes we thought she was almost better. Sometimes we were steeling ourselves for our young cat’s death. (2:00 am that first Thursday night—when we transferred her from the pet hospital where she had surgery to the pet hospital that had a kidney specialist was possibly the darkest moment.)

The day before we took her in, I’d been listening to Roy Ayers’s recording of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine.” And for a significant portion of the week, that song was on a constant loop in my head. It perfectly performed how I—and my family—felt. (A friend on Twitter suggested that my goal should be to have his “Lovely Day” replace it, which happened when I got her home.)

[Read more…]

Fog. Your (Nearly) Sunday Brunch Special

I’m something like seven years old and our house sits at the boundary of the town. Our backyard has some kind of tree in it, I remember. Beyond the backyard barbed wire fence, there is empty treeless rolling grassland populated by magpies, rabbits, and stray cats in summer. At the front of the house, the house I was not born in but came home to from the birth-hospital, there is a narrow blacktopped street. On the other side of the street is more treeless grass, long grass, but at this point in time, long grass that has laid over in its silent brown death agony. I think about the old green “push mower” my brothers use to cut the grass in our yard. It’s cold. I can’t see much beyond the road, but I know very well that there are, far out there, railroad tracks. I have sometimes wakened at the 2am whistle for the crossroads. The fog is thick this evening, I mean it looks like evening. Really it’s more like four in the afternoon I guess. I want to walk out there toward the tracks but I know there are half-frozen pools that could waylay a seven-year-old, if not in life-danger, then mother danger. As in, how did you manage to get soaked just after I put clean clothes on you? I don’t go out. But I stand there, indecisive. Should I take a step into the fog?

[Read more…]

Speaking Tips

In the early 90s I was a young associate attorney in the public finance department of a large Chicago law firm. There was a public conference that our group was involved in, and we had to provide one of the speakers at this conference, and the senior partners gave me that assignment. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t because they knew I would do a good job, as they had never heard me give a public speech. I suspect I got the assignment because none of them wanted to do it, and as low man on the totem pole declining was not really a live option for me. (Public finance does not involve giving orations in courtrooms, it mostly involves drafting hella-complicated documents.) So I gave the speech, in a large Chicago conference center with about 200 attorneys from across the City in attendance. I honestly have no recollection what the topic of my speech was, but I do clearly remember the reaction of my firm colleagues. And that was back slapping and high fives. They were thrilled at the result and told me what a great job I had done. I was grateful for the praise, but not surprised that I had done an adequate job with the speech. Little did my partners know I had an advantage; as a life-long Mormon I have given many public speeches to audiences exceeding 100 people. I estimate that since my mid-teens I have given on average one such public speech (or in our vernacular, “talk”) a year, which means at the time I probably had given something like 15 such speeches in my life. Now that I’m in my 60s, that number has probably increased to something like 50.  And public speaking is one of those things that can really only be improved by the doing of it. And giving public speeches is just not something that the average non-Mormon does, unless they join Toastmasters or something like that.

[Read more…]

Thoughts on Reading (and Being Surprised by) Isaiah

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Back in 2014, I embarked on a read of the complete Old Testament, with a close focus on the text. It took me two-and-a-half years to finish, and my insights along the way were hugely important to the way I have come to think about scripture and what it has to say about my life. Last year I decided to repeat that read, since Robert Alter, whose translations of various books were central to my first journey through the Old Testament, had finally finished his edition of the entire Hebrew Bible, and wanted his poetic sensibility and commentary to guide me through what I’d missed before. Of those missing parts, none were more important than Isaiah (the image here is Marc Chagall’s surrealist interpretation of Isaiah 6:6, when one of God’s seraphim descends from heaven, touches the prophet’s lips with a burning coal taken from God’s altar, cleansing his lips and calling him to reveal God’s will). [Read more…]

Not Your Parents’ Apostasy and Restoration: A Review of Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints

Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, eds. Jason R. Combs, Mark D. Ellison, Cathrine Gines Taylor, and Kristian S. Heal. Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2022. $49.95 (hardcover), $9.95 (Kindle)

Launching this week, just in time for the savvy Christmas shopper, is the Maxwell Institute’s first word on the 2023 Come Follow Me curriculum, in which Latter-day Saints will venture forth on their quadrennial adventure with the New Testament. This volume focuses, not on the people who wrote the New Testament, but on its readers and devotees in the two hundred years or so that followed.

Right off the bat, the editors make it clear that they are not going to encourage, or even tolerate, the standard LDS view of early Christianity—the one where those silly Christians broke away from the truth after the apostles died and permitted Greek philosophy and Roman culture to permeate the plain and precious doctrines of Jesus Christ and turn His true church into something Great, Abominable, and of the Devil

[Read more…]