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Why I Believe

Tonight I had a dream. It was of little consequence other than the opportunity I was given within the dream to say why I believe in God, in Jesus, and in the Mormon Church. In my dream, I was very eloquent. I have gotten out of bed, hoping that some of that eloquence will remain with me, as I feel that it is something that needs to be said persuasively.

I get it. There is a lot to be cynical about with religion today. There are plenty of bad actors out there, who want to use religion as a tool of control. It is a very effective tool for that purpose. But, just like technology, it can be used for both evil and good.

Nobody can prove the existence of God through science. It is one of, I daresay the most important of, a whole class of questions that can neither be proven nor disproven. Science generally considers these questions useless, as they don’t fit into the framework of the scientific method, where knowledge is gained by repeatable experiment. So, some scientists ignore the question, or worse, assume the proposition false, and refuse further consideration. There is no question more important.

So then, we have a choice. What do we choose to believe? Do we choose to believe that life is random, that the only purpose in life is what we make of it? Or do we choose to have hope that a loving God gave us life, that we have been sent to this world for a purpose, known to Him, and that He can guide us through to find peace and joy amid this otherwise chaotic world? I chose the latter long ago.

Something interesting happens when you choose to believe — you find reasons to believe. Some would dismiss this as confirmation bias. Undoubtedly, much of it is that, maybe even most — at first. However, as you learn about Jesus, you will discover that He is goodness incarnate. Philosophers may argue semantics and methods and perspectives all they like, but when you see the life Jesus lived, you will understand what goodness is. I want to be like that. There is no bias there.

I am trying to follow Jesus. It’s very hard; I fail frequently. I need to read the scriptures — particularly the New Testament and the “newer” testament, the Book of Mormon — daily. They remind me of the things I need to do to follow Him. I need to pray daily, as it gives me an opportunity to assess myself and consider who I want to be.

I also need to go to church every week. I need the support system of others who are doing their best to follow Jesus. I need the opportunities to serve them that arise through that community. I also need an outside, friendly perspective, on occasion, to break me out of the ruts I so easily sink into. They need me, too.

Through my experiences with these things: studying the life of Jesus and the Scriptures, prayer, service to others, and church attendance I have learned and grown as a follower of Jesus. I no longer hope that God exists. I know that God exists. I know Jesus.

While not a repeatable experiment in the traditional scientific sense, my experiences have been repeatable to me, and are evidence enough to me. I know many others who have gotten the similar evidence. I do not know why some people don’t seem to find the evidence convincing. Maybe they are doing the experiment wrong. I can only speak to my experiences, and God has proven His existence to me.

Jesus lives. I know this not because of a single spiritual experience. I know this because He is part of my life every day. He lives in my life. He lives in the lives of so many other good Christians out there. I know this. I also know this is not the literal life that we usually talk about when we say someone lives, but there is an undeniable power in the life of Jesus that exists in my life, and connects me with my family, friends and community.

I also know that Jesus really lives — that He is God, and hears my silent prayers. Yes, this brings me back to that un-provable question. However, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has provided additional doctrine to that found in the Bible. Through the combined doctrine, I have been able to construct a viable and consistent mental model of reality that both matches reality as understood by modern scientists and which allows for miracles to be real. This may not sound like a big deal, but for me, it is.

Reality is what is. If my religion could not be consistent with it, I might be a member, but not a follower. There is a powerful motivation that comes from having a consistent perspective on reality, life and who I am in relation to God, and it helps me maintain both my sanity and my efforts to follow Jesus.

This modern world is hostile to religion in many ways. To disregard God and religion because they are misunderstood and misused by many is unwise. To assume that all those who “cling” to religion are doing so blindly is plain wrong. My faith is what it is because I see. I understand what goodness is. I understand my own failings. That knowledge is because of religion, not despite it.

I am grateful for the path of my life that has lead me to where I am today. I am fully aware of how fortunate I am to have had the privilege and opportunity to learn of Jesus and follow Him. I don’t expect I would have come to this religion if I had not grown up in it. There is too much of it to understand before it makes sense in the way that I have needed it to make sense. At this point, to me, it is my reality. To abandon it would be to abandon everything that I am.

Through believing in God, I have found peace. Through following Jesus I have found joy. Through membership in the Mormon church I have found hope. These things are real. They are not delusions or bias. They are the natural consequences of the laws of the universe, and of the laws of God. They are available to everyone, but they are not free. They require that we choose them and work toward them.

My hope is that by sharing this perspective, I might open some few hearts and minds that are currently shut to faith. Please see that there is value in faith. Please understand that un-belief is a choice, and so is hope. I chose hope. I hope you will too.

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What I learned teaching primary this year

So, an interesting thing you might not know about me: this past year I taught the primary class at church for the kids who turned 9 in 2017. Sunday is my last lesson with this class. This year we were assigned to teach church history. So, I want to ask them what they’ve learned this year. I also plan to tell them a little about what I learned.

Pioneers travel to the Salt Lake Valley from Illinois

Mary Fielding Smith and Joseph F. Smith Crossing the Plains, by Glen S. Hopkinson (62608); GAK 412; GAB 101; Primary manual 5-49

I have been changed by what I learned this year. Not by the facts – those were all at least vaguely familiar. No, it is the recurring theme of sacrifice that changed me. As we talked about the sacrifices made by the early members of the church, and how the history of the church is really a story of sacrifice upon sacrifice. Whether it was to leave home to gather with the saints, laboring on the temples when people did not even have their own homes built, leaving wives and children to preach the Gospel in far-off places, crossing the plains on foot, or even giving their lives rather than betray their beliefs, sacrifice was very much a part of what it meant to be a member of the church.

I think that in many ways, we’ve lost sight of the role of sacrifice in our worship today. It was because of the sacrifice of those members that they witnessed the miracles they did. Sacrifice has the power to build us spiritually in a way that cannot be replaced. Many modern Mormons look back on those pioneers with gratitude that we are not asked to do anything quite so physically difficult. I think that sentiment misses the mark.

We live (speaking of the average American) in a world in which there is almost no need to sacrifice anything of consequence, ever. As members of the church, a little more is asked of us – tithing, fast offerings, serving in church callings, etc. Rarely, however, do these “demands” interfere significantly with everyday life. Some might think of it as heaven. I have begun to see it as a missed opportunity.

We have been blessed in abundance. The challenge set before us as members is, can we voluntarily sacrifice sufficiently to produce the faith and spiritual growth to match that of our pioneer forefathers? There is need all around us, if we open our eyes. If we stop judging others and causes to first determine their worthiness of our help, and just help all our brothers and sisters with the gifts we’ve been given, opportunities to sacrifice will be abundant.

It does not matter if our sacrifices make a material difference in others lives, though we hope we can make their lives better. No, the reason we serve is because that is the example the Savior gave us. There is no instance in scripture where Jesus was petitioned in vain. He did not always do as asked, but he always served.

My hope and prayer for the new year is to find more ways to sacrifice, and to help those around me to find joy in sacrifice and in the service of others.

Line Upon Line

Because this is General Conference weekend and I can see everything “on-demand” as it were, I have made the choice to treat this as a Sunday when I can support my wife in her religious choices. So, twice a year, we all go to the Unitarian Universalist church she attends, the First Church in Salem. I like the congregation a lot. I particularly like the pastor, Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell. So, I had been looking forward to attending with her — to the extent that I started thinking about why that was, and formulated the seed for this post.

One of the things that I have appreciated about Pastor Jeff is that he has always taken a very humble approach to his sermons. It may be that most Universalists are that way, but I like that he does not pretend any God-given authority, and relies solely on his reasoning, education, and down-to-earth-we’re-all-in-this-together view of things to persuade in his sermons. I suspect the approach is not uncommon among the UU congregations, as there is “The Covenant” hanging on the wall to the right of the pulpit:

The Covenant (1629) We covenant with the Lord and one with another, and do bind ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all His ways, according as He is pleased to reveal Himself unto us in His blessed Word of Truth.

The Covenant of the First Church in Salem, Unitarian

In short, they believe in doing their best to live according to the spiritual truth they know. This can be applied to almost anyone, which is why I believe it’s important to support my wife, and anyone else for that matter, in whatever religion they choose. When we are true to the knowledge we have, God will give us more, guiding us ever closer to him. This is the “line upon line” principle, taught in Isaiah 28 and reiterated several times in LDS scriptures.

Interestingly, both sermons Pastor Jeff gave this morning – the “children’s moment” and the general sermon – both illustrated this principle. For the children, he had an object lesson with two pieces of fruit, one of which was made to seem much more appetizing than the other, and taught the principle of knowing good people by their “fruit”. For the adults he talked about the importance of sticking to the core Christianity from which Unitarians originated. For the kids, tools to teach them how to find knowledge, and for the adults, a reminder that extreme interpretations of Jesus Christ are not the only option, and Christianity will always have value to those able to separate Christ from the “Christians.”

We are all at different levels of spirituality, but this principle is the same for all of us. Hold on to the truth you have. Live it, use it, then ask for more. That is the way we ALL progress to be closer to Him. I am grateful for all of the good people in the world that do their best to follow the truth they understand. We should all spend more time asking, seeking and knocking.

I’ll be spending the remainder of this week watching the General Conference sessions I missed.

Cast Out the Beam: Using Your Knowledge of Right and Wrong

The Bible is full of descriptions of what is right and what is wrong. For most of the Christian world, it is THE definitive source of such knowledge. So, it should be little wonder that so many Christians spend so much time defining modern ethical questions in terms of right and wrong based on Biblical knowledge. This is generally a good thing. However, it is very easy to get into a position where one sees this information as prescriptive for the world, and to demand that the world conform to this standard. That is not why this knowledge of good and evil was given.

1790 Carey Bible

The Hebrew religion of the Old Testament as passed down by Moses was very much a societal religion. They were told how to worship, structure their lives, prepare their food, and punish the sinners. Everything had a process and a purpose, and part of that purpose was to protect the community.

When Jesus came, the religion he taught was not about the collective, but was instead focused on the individual. He taught many of the same principles, but within a completely inverted paradigm. He taught that it is not enough to perform religion, you have to believe it. It is not enough to know the scriptures, you have to understand them. It is not enough to respect others, you have to love them. In these ways and more, He showed that the purpose of religion is to make us better people, not simply to preserve a society.

As Christians, we need to understand this shift. It is a shift from looking outward to looking inward. From compelling obedience to encouraging growth. From enforcing peace, to finding peace. We must first cast the beam from our own eyes, to help a brother with the mote in their eye.

In this light, it should be clear that the definitions of wrong and right as given in the Bible and interpreted under the New and Everlasting Gospel exist for the edification of the individual. They are not meant to be compulsory, and, in fact, would be largely impotent if made so. They are a guide for the believer to find peace and joy in this life and in serving the Lord.

It is quite natural to want to share the path to this surpassing peace and profound joy with those around us, but we cannot lead them down this path if they do not wish to come. To attempt to force the issue often results in a greater resistance to these teachings. We can only effectively share the Gospel through love.

For this reason, there are few guidelines in the new testament for how to treat others except using these two principles: love and forgiveness. Yes, we want them to obey the word of the Lord, but this should be because we love them, not because we want them to be like us. When they sin, we must forgive them, as that is what we all require for our own sins.

Until we are perfect, as only Christ ever was, we must use our knowledge of right and wrong to improve ourselves. And part of that goal for which we strive is learning to love and forgive perfectly.

Are Mormons Christian?

For anyone who knows anything about Mormons, the answer to the above question is obvious. Yes.

So, the real question is, why are we still getting this question?

The people who declare that Mormons are not Christian are using a definitional argument. They are defining Christianity in a way that suits them and excludes us. As a general rule their arguments are generally along these lines:

  • We don’t believe that the Bible is the only word of God.
  • We don’t believe in the Trinity.
  • They (those who call us non-Christian) are offended that we won’t accept their baptisms or other sacraments.
  • They are offended that we proselytize other Christians.

Our divergence from other Christian religions on these points is significant, and makes us very different from them. Each of these points also stems from a much deeper core difference. For example, it’s not just the Book of Mormon that is additional scripture for us. We also believe anything spoken by prophets when they are fulfilling their callings is scripture, even talks given in General Conference by General Authorities is considered scripture. However, even when you consider these deeper differences there is nothing that reduces the role of Christ in our doctrine. We are very different from other Christian religions, but are still very much Christian.

Ultimately, it’s a desire to marginalize or denigrate our faith that motivates people to assert that we are not Christian, and ignorance that perpetuates the slander. Sure, we can try to simply retort, “yes we are,” but ultimately that carries little weight. What we need to fight is the ignorance and prejudice behind the assertion.

Next time someone asks you if Mormons are Christian, try getting some clarification. What do they mean by Christian? What do they know about Mormons? Why would you think that we are not Christian, despite the name of Jesus Christ in the name of our church? Once you get clarification, don’t shy away from our differences. Some people don’t like us because we are so different. Difference is explanatory. Our responses and our lives should show that we are Christian.