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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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. 

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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.”

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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.)

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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?

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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.

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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

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The LDS Church Supports the Respect for Marriage Act

You may have heard that yesterday the church came out in support of the Respect for Marriage Act. For reasons I’ll describe in a minute, this support is, in my humble opinion, a big deal.

But before we get to why it’s a big deal, it’s probably worth looking and what and why the Respect for Marriage Act is.

In broad strokes, the Respect for Marriage Act is a replacement for the Defense of Marriage Act from the 1990s. (And I mean that literally—Section 3 of RfMA repeals a provision of federal law added by DOMA that expressly allows states and the federal government to decline to recognize same-sex marriages enacted in other states.)

RfMA replaces that with its opposite: under the RfMA, states must give full faith and credit to marriages performed in other states, and cannot deny marriage benefits on the basis of the “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin” of the married persons.

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Introducing Rachel Rueckert’s East Winds—It’s Great!

BCC Press is proud to introduce one of the most remarkable books we have ever seen, much less published. East Winds, by Rachel Rueckert—a memoir, a travel narrative, a cultural tour-de-force, a love story, and a profound meditation on the core meaning of concepts like marriage, commitment, and eternity. And that’s just in Chapter One. This book will knock your socks off (if you wear socks, which you definitely should, especially in November, because it’s getting cold).

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2022 Christmas gift book guide

Happy 2022, folks! We have another year’s Christmas book list, and I hope that we all find a measure of peace, hope, and joy. Note that Benchmark has 20% off on new books and ships widely.

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The Two Great Commandments for Modern Samaritans

Adapted from a RS lesson taught in the Sacramento, CA metro area on 11/13/22

Luke 10:25-28

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up…saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
And he answering said, what is written in the law? What readest thou?
And he answering said, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself
And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

Good morning, sisters. Today’s lesson might be a little tough, so if you need to leave and get a drink of water, check on something that just came up outside the room, etc., it’s okay. No judgment.

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Your Sunday Brunch Special: Joseph Smith, Black Holes, and Minds

Fun nonsense on a Sunday Morning. I’ve been working on a book about Joseph Smith’s (JS) King Follett Discourse (April 7, 1844) for quite a few years and it could appear in print next year. In the book I don’t go into theoretical critique much since the book is focused on an oral text, its recovery, and interpretive critiques and receptive evolution over time. One aspect that I’m fascinated about is JS’s talk about human spirits, or souls, or minds (he uses the terms interchangeably and so I will do that here). I mention black holes in the title, and I don’t want to get down deep into that much. Briefly, the quandary about BH’s is that they seem to form a laboratory where questions about the very small (quantum mechanics) and the very large (gravity) come together to form sharp paradoxes.

The two things team up when you take JS seriously about what he says late in his career. Minds, spirits, whatever, are eternal beings, without beginning or end. I won’t try to drill down much here but it seems to be an empty exercise to explicate much beyond this except to say that JS deploys the idea as a notion of comfort in terms of fleeting mortality. You don’t have to worry about losing a child or other loved person because the thought, person, mind is not going away (there are issues here but they are irrelevant the point I want to crawl around) to put it his way: anything that has a beginning will have an end (there is much more to say about this idea but not here). What does this have to do with black holes? Well, go with me a bit. A black hole is a space time singularity surrounded by a kind of shell called the event horizon–stuff that may be inside can’t get out. The diameter of the shell can be very large. What’s inside? Some current thought, when I used to keep up with that–its been a few years, is that there is maybe nothing inside–what’s ought to be inside is actually reflected far away in Hawking radiation. The big problem is about information. Think of information in terms of “bits” in this case a bit might be represented as a very low frequency photon which heads toward the black hole. What happens to information that heads “into” a black hole? Does it disappear? That’s a no, no. Information has to be conserved. Now there are things like entropy and such that come in here but I don’t think we need to go there. The idea is, for JS, people are like black holes. Mind is the central, indivisible thing. There’s stuff smeared around on the event horizon that is linked into the far field but nothing else inside the horizon. It’s inviolate. And I’m off to church.

A Brief Note on Stewart Udall

I recently had the opportunity to watch “The Politics of Beauty,” a new documentary (currently touring film festivals around the country) on Stewart Udall, who was the Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969, under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and one of the strongest voices in the U.S. government on behalf of environmental protection during the whole history of the Cold War. He was also a product of the politically influential Udall family out of Arizona; the movie’s brief references to Udall’s identity as a cultural Mormon, and his relationship to the Mormon church and its people, is one of the few elements of the film which I think miss the mark, however slightly. (Marc Bohn’s tribute to Udall on Times & Seasons back in 2010 remains excellent reading in that regard.) I’ve written a post diving into Udall’s ideas, and both how they went beyond the environmental thinking of his time, and how subsequent developments in our thinking about the natural world (particularly as driven by climate change) show their limitations; you can read it here, if you’re interested. In the meantime, here is a preview sample of the documentary; the movie is quite wonderful overall, and well worth watching. At a time when, unfortunately, a majority of Mormon voters in Utah continue to support, however reluctantly, a fascist-adjacent flunky, it’s nice to be reminded of the progressives our tradition has produced as well.

Udall Sampler 12 min from Greg Davis on Vimeo.

Not yet

The Policy regarding the children of same-sex couples introduced in November of 2015 and later rescinded in April of 2019 was a watershed moment in modern Mormonism. Many of my friends in the church left over the policy and, strangely enough, its recension did not tempt them back. I didn’t leave, but I was tempted.

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Church Finances in Canada and Australia

Over the last week or so, a number of people have pointed me to investigative journalism regarding the church’s finances in Canada and Australia and asked my opinion on them. Which is flattering but, unfortunately, right now I don’t have a ton of spare time. So rather than go through in detail, I’m going to try to contextualize a little bit of what I think is going on.

And what I think is going on is two things. First, the church thinks of itself and, to the extent it legally can, operates as a single economic entity. Over the last several decades or so, it has consolidated its finances in Salt Lake (which significantly diverges from most religious organizations I’m familiar with, including other hierarchical religions like the Catholic church).

Second, the church is obsessed with being financially opaque. It values its financial privacy to a degree that it can be harmful to the public’s perception. (I’m sure I’ve blogged about this, but I’ve also written about the history of the church’s varying levels of financial transparency/opacity for Dialogue.)

And these two things, I believe, underlie the stories coming out of Canada and Australia. And frankly, my quick blog post (written between getting kids up for school, getting them breakfast, and getting ready for work) may or may not be satisfying. It’s not meant to convict or exonerate the church. And pretty much everything I know about this comes from two articles. And I believe that the church should be more financially transparent, and that such transparency would be good for it in both the short and the long run.

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“I’m a Mormon” Campaign

Guest post by Taylor Kerby

I went on my mission at the high peak of the “I’m a Mormon Campaign.” We would often watch through the posted videos, ostensibly for the sake of our investigators, but also probably as a product of having no other entertainment. It was commonplace for us to play these videos during our lessons and, as a missionary assigned to a Chinese-speaking area, it was important to have something, anything, that featured a person who looked like the people I served.

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The Church Historian’s Press Announces Two New Publications

The Church Historian’s Press, well known as the imprint for the Joseph Smith Papers Project, has gradually expanded its offerings on several fronts both in print and online, publishing such outstanding offerings as The Journal of George Q. Cannon, At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, and The Journal of George F. Richards.

The Press has now announced the online publication of two more foundational texts that will be of interest to historians of nineteenth-century Utah and others with religious or academic interests in that period. The two collections are The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow, and The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells.

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Two Quick Questions About Attending BYU Devotionals

My memories of BYU are nearly 30 years old, so I am seeking more recent information. I teach Friends University, at a small Christian (originally Quaker, now non-denominational) liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, and the university community hosts, for most of the academic year, weekly chapel services. Those chapel services have evolved a great deal over the years, and will no doubt continue to do so. In times past, a certain amount of attendance at chapel meetings (which has gone by various names; when I arrived here in 2006, it was called “Faith and Learning”) was required of the student body; that stopped a while back, but now it looks it may be coming back. I am part of a committee attempting to design attendance policies, and at our last meeting, another faculty member–one strongly opposed to any required chapel whatsoever–surprised me by citing, as part of his comparative research, BYU’s devotionals, attendance at which is not required. [Read more…]

A Church Ombudsman

Several years ago, while we were waiting for the church to build a building in downtown Chicago, my ward met in a rented public school on Sundays. And honestly, it was a great location–the nursery was in the gym, with its basketball hoops and plenty of space to run (and/or toddle) around. Primary and adult classes met in classrooms, some with class pets you could watch if the lesson was less-than-completely interesting. And kids could play on the playground out back once church was over (and—shhh!—sometimes when their primary class took them out).

But, like many Chicago public schools, this school didn’t have air conditioning. Now for real, that’s not a big deal in Chicago. It doesn’t get super-hot here, and, when it does, the heat only lasts a few weeks. (Also, those few weeks of heat tend to be in the summer, when school’s not in session.) But it could be uncomfortable, especially in the gym.

And one day, the gym was air conditioned. How? What I’m told is that a member of our ward who was related to a general authority in Salt Lake mentioned the heat and, because of that personal connection, the church provided air conditioning.

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Obviously, We’re Supporting McMullin (and So Should You)

And of course, it is equally obvious that there is no good reason to believe that anything which appears on this blog could actually convince any particular Utah voter to cast their ballot the way we’d prefer. But “no good reason” is not, in fact, the same as “absolutely no reason whatsoever.” In that bizarrely hopeful spirit, By Common Consent is happy to give voice to two Utah voters who really, really, really want every single one of their fellow Utah citizens who read this to cast a vote for Evan McMullin for U.S. Senate on or by November 8. We do this 1) because the wishes of these two voters are, in our judgment, both righteous and correct, and 2) because their perspectives—one from a self-described “conservative former Republican,” the other a self-described “independent voter”–likely express well those of many BCC readers, including, just possibly, some still unregistered voters somewhere in Utah. So consider this our public service this election year. And now, to our contributors!

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