Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ringing in the new year, Mormon style

The church’s current policies are weird about New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

First of all, fast Sundays are never to be held on New Year’s Day—the stake president is supposed to reschedule fast days for a different day when New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday (as it does this weekend). I mean, even Easter doesn’t get that treatment when it falls on the first Sunday of a month—so what’s so special about the first day of the year? I mean, one would think that church policy wouldn’t be assuming we need good hydration due to fighting off hangovers, you know?

Also, when new Year’s Eve falls on a Monday, New Year’s Eve parties can be held in church buildings. This is, as far as i can tell, the only exception to the rule that church activities are never to be held on a Monday night. I mean, we don’t even get to have a church activity on Monday night when Christmas Eve falls on a Monday, and you’d think you’d want to have some church-based observance of that day before you’d have one for New Year’s Eve, you know?

So what’s the big (religious) deal about New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day? I mean, really, i don’t get it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tattoos, again

I’ve said similar before, but i’m saying it again ’cause i still don’t get it: If putting tattoos to decorate your body is a defacement precisely parallel to slapping paint on one of our temples (i.e., graffiti, it’s a Bad Thing), then why do so many of our temples (not least the one in the middle of Salt Lake City, arguably our flagship temple) have decorations and carvings and stuff? Kind of goes against the whole idea, you know?

Unless the idea is actually that it’s carvings and not paint, so tattoos are out but scarification is okay? I don’t think that’s what they’re after, but it’s the only way i can think of to keep the image consistent.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Breaking from my usual practice of posting in the late afternoon or early evening to pause in the near-dark of a pre-sunrise Alaskan morning and enjoy the effect of the light coat of freshly fallen snow as it reflects the faint blue of the sunrise to wish you all a Merry Christmas—and, since the seasons overlap this year, to wish any Jewish readers a Happy Channukkah. Also, for any Muslim or Pagan readers, belated Eid al-Adha and Solstice greetings—and if you simply don’t care about any of those things, i offer my sincere hopes that this is one of the best Sundays you’ve ever had.

My nature is snark, but there are some days that i’m happy to put it aside.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What (and why) is truth?

So i spoke in church not this past Sunday, but the one before. Just ’cause i have a blog and therefore i can, i’m including the text of it here. (In writing this thing, i actually cribbed some of the lines from a sacrament meeting speech i gave about six years ago, also at Xmastime, but they seemed to fit nicely in this setting.)

Good morning. I was given an address from the latest general conference of the church to use as the basis for what I’m presenting today: Dallin H. Oaks’s address, which was titled “Teachings of Jesus”. I’d recommend giving it a read—it’s a good reminder of things we ought to already know, but sometimes forget. It discusses the importance of Jesus to not just our beliefs, but our lives—and it also, as the title suggests, discusses some of Jesus’s teachings and their importance.

This got me thinking: What has Jesus taught us, through his words and his examples? Well, thinking about this led me to a particular saying of Jesus, and since I’m old-fashioned enough that I use scriptural texts as springboards for my religious speechmaking, I decided to use this particular saying as my text: “…for this cause came I into the world…” This text is taken from the middle of the good news according to John, chapter 18 verse 37, and it’s from the middle of one of Jesus’s responses to Pontius Pilate at his final trial before being shown to the crowd. Introducing this as the text for my speech today, though, leads to a fairly obvious question: What exactly is the “cause”? Jesus says that he came into the world for “this cause”, but what might that cause be? To answer this, we need to look at the surrounding context.

In verse 33, staying with the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, Pilate asks Jesus directly about criminal charges, trying to find out whether Jesus is actually guilty of treason, or at least fomenting rebellion: “Art thou the king of the Jews?” After a bit of back and forth, in verse 36, Jesus says, fairly famously, “My kingdom is not of this world”. He goes further and provides some evidence for this, explaining that his servants didn’t fight for him, which is of course what servants of an earthly king would do. Pilate repeats his question (we’ve come back to verse 37 now): “Art thou a king, then?”—though the text seems ambiguous, since some translations have Pilate questioning, saying “So You are a king?” and in some he’s shocked, not even questioning: “You are a king, then!”

Jesus answers, in part: “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”

This is a simple yet dense statement—a set of statements, actually. First, Jesus announces his kingship: “You say rightly that I am a king”, as several translators have rendered the sentence. Having done that, though, Jesus announces something that is at first glance less impressive than kingship, but that I would say is at least as amazing: His purpose in coming to earth was, put simply, truth. “I was born into this world to tell about truth”.

Think about that for a second—and if you’ve been sleeping through the exegesis to this point, if you’ve been zoning out, if you’ve been analyzing the pattern on the shirt worn by the person in front of you, this is the time to come back. As Robert Young rendered it literally, yet poetically, “…A king I am, I for this have been born, and for this I have come to the world, that I may testify to the truth…” Jesus came to testify of truth. And he did testify! As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews points out, Jesus the Christ was not just a good example for our lives, he was not just a religious figure—he was the testator of the new testament, the new agreement, the new covenant between mortals and God the Father. And as the testator, he died so that the new covenant could be put into effect, just as—according to the author of Hebrews—just as the maker of a will must die for it to be put into effect. Jesus’s supreme testimony was fulfilled by his death, his death which allowed—this is a quote—“that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance”.

But death! Why in the world am I up here talking about death? We’re in the middle of the season of Advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, not Palm Sunday or Easter, when it might seem more natural to look forward or backward, as the case may be, to Jesus’s death, as celebrated on Good Friday. Sure, Jesus testified, and he testified most consummately through his death, but isn’t there something happier to talk about here?

You want happiness? There is happiness here, but I’m gonna warn you that we’ll have to stick with sadness for a while before we get to the joy. This is because I’ve talked about the supreme method, the incomparable manner of Jesus’s testifying, but I’ve pretty much ignored what he told us he was testifying of: truth. But “what is truth?” we must ask—along with Pilate, I would note, who asked the question before leaving the judgment hall. We, however, unlike Pilate, can be willing to remain and learn what this truth thing is, and why it was so important for Jesus to give everything for it.

The ninety-third section of the book of Doctrine and Covenants contains some spectacular teachings on the glory of God, and on our relationship to God. However, one of the most quoted verses in that section deals with something perhaps more foundational, and that is what I will quote here—the twenty-fourth verse, which says that “…truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come…” Now, it’s easy to let your mind wander when people read verses of scripture that many in the audience have heard and even read themselves many times before, so let me read this again, slowly, with emphasis, and with the complete attention of everyone out there: “…truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come…”

Rhetorical, but still very important, question: Can you feel the audacity in this claim? We have the answer to Pilate’s question right in front of us! What is truth? Truth is huge, that’s what it is! It would be big enough if it were just everything that is, was, and will be, but it’s much more personal than that. It’s not simply an abstraction hanging out there, something untouchable, something unreachable, it’s the knowledge of everything that is, was, and will be. The knowledge of everything that is, was, and will be. It’s something that each of us can experience personally—something that, as it says later in that same section of the book of Doctrine and Covenants, something that we can receive through communion with God.

Now hopefully, if my rhetorical skills are as good as I hope they are today, at least some of you are recognizing—or recognizing anew—the enormity of what Jesus was saying when he said his purpose for coming to earth was to testify of truth. He was testifying of everything—and not just an unreachable everything, but: everything and we can know it.

But everything’s a lot to deal with. If you try to take on knowledge of everything, if you try to take on truth all at once, it could potentially be overwhelming—or at least I know it would likely be so for me. So, a reasonable question: Where should I start?

Well, we can start by going full circle. Joseph Smith said that—quote—“The 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…” (end of quote). What are the fundamental principles of our religion? That the apostles and prophets were telling the truth about Jesus, basically—that Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected. And how central is this? Well, it’s so central—let me give you the complete sentence the quote I just gave was taken from: “The 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.” It’s that important.

This brings us back to death, though—but it also brings us to truth. And although Jesus came into this world to be killed, his death testified of truth, and if we receive the knowledge that comes with receiving that truth, we will have no need to be saddened, no need to despair—we can rejoice in the birth of Jesus with Simeon, who, even though he prophesied of the death of Jesus, he had received of truth enough to rejoice at the birth of the Son of God, blessing God and saying what are to my mind the most joyous words in the Bible: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

For Jesus is a light to all nations, the Son of God revealed in the flesh. As we celebrate Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ, let us remember that although Jesus was born to die, even though he was born to give his life as an offering, the covenant he sealed with his death allows us access to that truth that will allow us to rejoice. And this is open to all of us! As Nephi tells us in the Book of Mormon, God invites all of us, “black and white, bond and free, male and female…Jew and Gentile”—and I’d add to that list any of the other lines we might separate ourselves along these days: rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, Mormon and non-Mormon, even believer and non-believer. God invites all of us, no matter how we may label ourselves, no matter how others may label us.

I offer my hopes that I, that you, that all of us in this room, that all of us in this world may receive of the truth that Jesus has offered us, and I offer this in the name of Jesus the Christ, the savior of the world. Amen.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Once there was a gadget

Has anybody else noticed that if you hum the tune to the Primary song “Once There Was a Snowman”,* it sounds really very much like the Inspector Gadget theme song?

* I would link to the tune here, but the entire domain seems to be down at the moment, so i can’t.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Who should count?

Can we stop calling the Relief Society “the largest women’s organization in the world”? It strikes me as a bit of a dishonest label, actually—i mean, just because you happen to be female, have been baptized into the Mormon church at some point, and have survived to your eighteenth birthday (or gotten married, whichever comes first), well, that makes you a part of the Relief Society.

Sorry, folks, that’s not an organization, that’s a convenient label for a group of people. If women actually consciously chose whether to be affiliated with the Relief Society,* like used to be the case, well, then i could see that being a meaningful claim. But how many of the women whose “membership” in the Relief Society supposedly makes it such a large organization are actually involved in it? If someone’s so far outside of it as many of those women are, why in the world do we count them?

* Which was one of Joseph Smith’s quite emphatic bars to entry into the Relief Society. (Actually living according to gospel principles was another, and i’ll note in passing that that’s not a part of the requirements nowadays, either.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Prioritizing needs

Here's a meme i’d like to see us lose: “What people need most is a knowledge of the gospel.”

No, what people need most is oxygen. Once they’ve got that, well, that’s when we can start preaching the gospel to them, i figure.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Putting 5:8 odds on getting a firm answer on this

So the Mormon church has held a position against gambling for longer than any of us have been alive—and this is a radically consistent position against gambling in all of its forms, even for things like charity fundraiser raffles.

What i wonder: Is this position an outgrowth of canonical doctrine, or is this an outgrowth of Mormon cultural norms of somewhat over a century ago? If it’s the former, then i’d like to know the basis for it, since i haven’t been able to find it; if it’s the latter, then does that make it a position that’s subject to change at any point in time, should church leadership opt to do so? (And if not, why not?)

(Also, gambling isn’t part of the temple recommend questions, which makes for an interesting gap in its catalogue of orthopraxy.)

Anyway, just wondering about this particular one, and wondering if anyone out there has any insight on the subject.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In which David B reveals a pet peeve

Okay—sometimes Mormons just annoy me. Today’s issue? Mormons who get all superior by comparing fasting practices in Mormonism with fasting practices in other religions—or, even worse, saying that what folks in other religions do isn’t “real fasting”. You know the meme—saying followers of Islam aren’t really fasting ’cause the Ramadan fast lasts sunrise to sunset rather than twenty-four hours (while ignoring that these are people who are doing this for weeks at a time!), or that the Roman Catholic (among others) Lenten fast doesn’t count ’cause they’re not giving up all food and drink.

I mean, this is just wrong on many levels, not least because there’s no set definition of what would count as “real fasting”, anyway—there’s nothing magic about it involving food (let along food and drink), or about it being twenty-four hours at a go. And this is a meme i’ve heard multiple times in multiple places over the course of many years. Unfortunately, it’s considered impolite to throw an eraser at someone for saying idiotic things, or there’d be a lot of Mormons out there with chalk dust upside their heads.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Temptation as food processor

You know, the scriptures often talk about “stirring the hearts of men up to anger”. Is this as opposed to “pureeing the hearts of men up to anger”?