24 May 2006

Announcing: The "Sospel"!

Vegetarians have put an unbelievable amount of time, resources, and expertise into developing soy-based products to replace animal-based foods. If a person wants to switch to a vegetarian diet, now they can do so without giving up many--or any--of their favorite dishes.

Consider this partial list of soy-based stand-ins:

Milk . . . Silk
Hot Dog . . . Smartdog
Hamburger . . . Garden Burger
Turkey . . . Tofurkey
Mayonnaise . . . Nayonaise

With all this soy substitution, the vegetarians appear to be "bringing the mountain to Muhammad," leaving meat-eaters with fewer and fewer excuses to maintain their "carnivorous, cruel, and unhealthy lifestyles."

The problem is that this sales pitch isn't compelling. Vegetarians have a product that can sell itself: Sweet, juicy fruit; crisp green salads and vegetables; a variety of grains, each with a unique texture and flavor ranging from earthy to sweet to salty; beans and nuts to leave one feeling "full"; mushrooms to "get your umami going"; pasta, pasta, pasta! Oh, I could go on and on!

Instead of focusing on the delicious menu they have to offer, some vegetarians focus on making meat counterfeits. They choose not to market health and great taste, but opt for the "Ditch the meat but not the heartburn" propaganda.

But this blog isn't about dietary choices. Rather, I would like to use the above as an analogy for how the Gospel is sometimes presented. Following the lead of my soy-loving predecessors, I will call this version of the Gospel the "Sospel." Here are a few ways I have witnessed church members, including myself, embrace the Sospel:

Playing down the differences between Mormons and other Christians.
Minimizing the level of commitment that the Church really asks of its members.
Planning activities for the youth that mimic or are identical to ones they could find outside the Church.
Replacing plain and precious testimony with excellent and rigorous scholarship.

I will admit that the above are not obligatorily Sospel messages. Nevertheless, they often are, and I see the same problem with this approach that exists with meat-flavored soy: the focus is all wrong. Friends, coworkers, converts, and children are ultimately left unimpressed by the Sospel. The fruits of the Sospel, following the same order as above, are:

"There's nothing special about the Mormon Church."
"Becoming a Mormon will not create any big changes in my routine."
"I go to church because it's fun."
"I would like to bear my testimony: I know that the Church is not demonstrably untrue."

The Sospel attempts godliness, but withholds commitment and conviction. The result is an a la carte menu of half-truths that leave the recipient spiritually unimpressed and unchanged. The ease of living the Sospel parallels the ease of leaving the Sospel.

Can you think of other examples of the Sospel?
How do you avoid the Sospel?
How do you know if you are preaching or living the Sospel?
How many converts who leave the Church were actually converted to the Sospel and not the Gospel?


10 May 2006

Preparing to Teach Gospel Principles

The following post is a transcript of a talk I gave at Stake Conference....

I will be reading several scriptures tonight and I will not be allowing you time to look them up, but you will have time to write the references.

The first comes from the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 7:6 “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

It may seem odd to begin with this scripture, but I will come back to this scripture later. President W asked me to speak about Preparing to Teach Gospel Principles. And he wanted me to speak about teaching to a general audience, so when I use the word “student” tonight, I could mean someone in your Sunday School class, a fellow High Priest, a neighbor, an investigator, a friend at work, or your child.

I enjoy taking apart phrases in order to understand their meaning. What happens if we deconstruct the request that President W made of me:

• Preparing
• to Teach
• Gospel
• Principles

What did President W mean by “Preparing”? The Lord tells Hyrum Smith, in:
D&C 11:21, “Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed.” Hyrum’s preparation includes “obtaining the word.”

But, how do we “obtain the word”? We can look at an example given by the sons of Mosiah before they left to teach (Alma 17:2-3): “Now these sons of Mosiah…were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God….And when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.”

What does it mean to “search diligently”? I looked up this word—diligently—in an edition of Webster’s Dictionary that was published in 1828, roughly the same time period in which Joseph Smith would have been translating the Book of Mormon. The definition was: “With steady application and care; not carelessly; not negligently.”

We often talk of wanting a “deeper understanding,” and what is deeper than a building’s foundation or a plant’s roots? But let us, like a botanist with a plant or an archeologist with ancient ruins, carefully and diligently expose the roots or foundation of the Gospel.

As I use this approach to understand President W’s request, I start with a question. By way of reminder, he asked me to talk about “preparing to teach gospel principles.” So my first question is:

What is the Gospel? The word itself means “good news”, so when we read Proverbs 25:25, “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country,” we get an idea of what the Gospel can mean to our students. And when Christ, in Mark 13:10, foretells of the signs of his second coming, we see how the “good news” will be heard: “And the gospel must first be published among all nations.” Or, read with our definition in mind, “The good news must be published among all nations.”

So…what is the Good News? The scriptures answer this question in many places. We will look at only one: John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This is one of the simplest yet most complete declarations of the Gospel, or the “Good News.” It reads like a summary of all of our scriptures, and like any good reporting, it tells us what has happened (God gave his son), who has done it, and why (because he loved the world).

And why would we want to publish that news? I think we have to look at our loyalties—what motivates us. In this case, we can ask:

• Are we loyal to our students?
• Are we loyal to ourselves?
• Are we loyal to the Gospel?

Clearly, the answers to those questions show something about our ability to teach and how we will go about it.

Loyalty to the Student
A mistaken sense of loyalty toward the people we teach might influence us to avoid some doctrines that could make our students uncomfortable. I think this is the Lord’s warning in D&C 60:2, “But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent…because of the fear of man. Wo unto such, for mine danger is kindled against them.”

That loyalty that comes from genuine love for the students, however, is what a teacher should cultivate. Consider how the sons of Mosiah felt about their students (Mosiah 28:3), “[For] they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.”

Unfortunately, it is not within the scope of this talk to discuss how to develop that kind love. But we can see how that love for our students helps us to teach them. Consider how Ammon was able to teach King Lamoni, or how Alma and Amulek were able to teach Zeezrom. Alma 12:7 shows Zeezrom's response to the teaching: “…he was convinced more and more of the power of God; and he was also convinced that Alma and Amulek had a knowledge of him, for he was convinced that they knew the thoughts and intents of his heart; for power was given unto them that they might know of these things according to the spirit of prophecy.” The teacher’s ability and willingness to see the student’s point of view will often be the difference between confusion and understanding.

Loyalty to Ourselves
If we are loyal to ourselves when we teach, we may be reluctant to address topics that make us uncomfortable, or even worse—and completely the opposite—we may focus only on what interests us, what Elder Oaks refers to when he warns to “…avoid hobby topics [and] personal speculations” (Ensign, Nov. 1999, 78). Elder Packer also speaks about this, comparing all of the parts of the Gospel to the keys on a piano, and warning of “…members of the Church who…pick out a hobby key or two and tap them incessantly, to the irritation of those around them. They may reject the fullness in preference to a favorite note. This becomes exaggerated and distorted, leading them away into apostasy” (Ensign, Dec. 1971, 40). As teachers, we are given a precious Gospel to discuss, but when we replace that with our own Doctrine, are we like dogs rejecting that which is holy, or like swine trampling pearls?

Still another consequence of being loyal to ourselves when teaching would be that we focus more on convincing than explaining; more on compelling and less on true conversion.

For a summary of the problems of loyalty to ourselves, we can turn to 2 Timothy 3: “For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers…. Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof…. Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Loyalty to the Gospel
But what if we are loyal to the Gospel? As we have already read, the Gospel wants to be published. If we are loyal to the Gospel as teachers, then we will, first and foremost, submit to its wisdom. This is in contrast to trying to force the Gospel to conform to our ideas. Consider the warning from Alma to the people in Ammonihah (Alma 13:20): “Behold, the scriptures are before you; if ye will wrest them it shall be to your own destruction.”

Throughout this talk, I have asked questions, much like our students will ask questions of us. And in each case, rather than trying to answer the question through my own reasoning, I have taken the question to the scriptures to see what they have to say. In order to teach, we must search the scriptures for what they say, not for what we want to them to say.

A second consequence of being loyal to the Gospel is that we are willing to admit when we don’t know an answer. Consider Alma’s excellent example when he is teaching his son Helaman (Alma 37:11): “Now these mysteries are not yet fully made known unto me; therefore I shall forbear.” Teachers must remember that it is not easy for students to distinguish speculation from explanation. Even when we state up front that we are speculating, our words still sound in our listeners’ ears with the same voice and authority as when we speak Gospel truths. We show loyalty to the Gospel by letting it be the showpiece of the discussion and refraining from putting our own ideas on the same stage. There are other times, when we are not the teacher, when it is appropriate to discuss our own ideas.

When we are loyal to the Gospel, we will try to measure up. This is what President Benson meant when he said, “We need missionaries to match our message” (Tambuli, Feb. 1990, 2). But how can we reconcile our attempts to measure up with what King Benjamin taught in Mosiah 4:9? He taught that “…man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.” So, How can we measure up when we can’t possibly measure up?

We are told how, in D&C 42:14-17 “And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith; and if ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach. And as ye shall lift up your voices by the Comforter, ye shall speak and prophesy as seemeth me good; For, behold, the Comforter knoweth all things.” Just as a junior professor would step down from the lectern if a Nobel laureate entered the room, we show loyalty to the Gospel by deferring to the teacher with more experience, ability, and understanding—even the Holy Ghost.

Returning to President W’s request, he asked me to discuss teaching Gospel Principles. But I have yet to mention “principles.”

What are principles? Elder Packer (Ensign, Mar. 1985, 6) and Elder Oaks (SLC training meeting, unpublished) have made the distinction between Gospel doctrine and principles versus the policies and practices of the Church. While the two Apostles use slightly different terminology in their explanations, both make it clear that what we do as a Church—the rules, practices, rituals, and so on—are not the Gospel. Rather, those things are based upon principles or doctrines of the Gospel. Surely this is what Christ meant in his rebuke in Matthew 23:23: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.”

At the beginning of this talk, I promised that we would return to the Sermon on the Mount, when Christ commands ”Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine.” What does this have to do with Preparing to Teach Gospel Principles? Answer: Nothing—if we take only that verse alone. In fact, it would seem that the verse is telling us to hide the Gospel from others. But continue reading with me, and see what Christ has to say about responding to sincere questions with true doctrine instead of some substitute: “Ask, and it shall be given you: For every one that asketh receiveth…. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?”

Many of the questions we get from our neighbors and friends are about the outer layer of our faith. They want to know:
• Why we don’t drink coffee
• Who runs our Church
• What is this I hear about polygamy
• How we structure our prayers
• What is done in temples
Notice that these are all questions based on things that we do. But in order to understand why we do those things, we have to be able to explain the doctrines and/or principles upon which they are based.

Let’s go to the scriptures again to see how this is done:

1) In Alma 18, King Lamoni wants to know how Ammon was able to defeat the robbers. Rather than answer his question directly, Ammon teaches about God.

2) In Alma 39-42, Alma answers his son’s concerns about repentance, not by listing the steps of repentance, but by expounding on the doctrines of the atonement, judgment, and eternity.

3) In 1842, the editor of the Chicago Democrat asked Joseph Smith some questions about LDS belief and history. The Prophet’s response was so appropriate and universally applicable that it has become scripture; it is our 13 Articles of Faith. We will not analyze those tonight, but I wish to consider what the Prophet did. He did not record what we do as a Church. Instead, he listed the doctrines that make us a Church.

4) When I taught the Gospel Principles class during Sunday School, I made it a point to read any Article of Faith that related to the lesson. I did this for two reasons: First, it familiarized my class of new members with these statements of our belief. Second, it kept me, in my lesson preparation, from straying from the real point of each lesson.

My suggestion is that we follow these examples when we are asked questions and when we plan lessons: focus on the underlying doctrine and rely on the scriptures to expound that doctrine.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


07 May 2006

Blindly Following the Prophet

“You shouldn’t just do what the prophet says without studying it out in your mind and searching for a confirmation that it is right. To do otherwise is blind obedience.”

What is wrong with this statement?

Consider two examples:

Example 1
In 2 Kings 5, Naaman comes to the prophet to be cured of leprosy. He is given unimpressive instructions which, after some hesitation, he nevertheless follows. Upon complying, Naaman is healed.

Example 2
Adam, in Moses 5, is commanded by the Lord to offer sacrifices. He doesn’t understand the commandment, but observes it anyway. When questioned by an angel, Adam confesses his ignorance and the angel (and the Holy Ghost, see vs. 9) explains the commandment to him.

The first example is relevant to our question and the second is not. In both cases, the central character is naive until after obeying. The difference is that Naaman is being asked to follow the prophet, whereas Adam is following the Lord directly. The statement in dispute is admonishing people to follow Adam’s example: get your commandments directly from the Lord. Naaman’s story, however, is opposed to such a view.

What does Naaman’s story teach about blind obedience?
Robert C. Oaks suggests an alternative to the term “blind obedience.”

“The philosophical standard of the world holds that unquestioning obedience equals blind obedience, and blind obedience is mindless obedience. This is simply not true. Unquestioning obedience to the Lord indicates that a person has developed faith and trust in Him to the point where he or she considers all inspired instruction—whether it be recorded scripture, the words of modern prophets, or direct inspiration through the Holy Ghost—to be worthy of obedience” (“Believe All Things,” Ensign, July 2005, 30).

Remember that Naaman sought the prophet’s help, and then wanted to reject it. He must have had some reasons to seek the prophet, but those were forgotten in the face of undesired counsel. Naaman acquiesced once the absurdity of his decision was pointed out to him (vs. 13).

Consider the plea by N Eldon Tanner, “Let us listen to the prophet’s voice and follow him, not blindly but by faith” (“The Priesthood and Its Presidency,” Ensign, Jan. 1973, 100). Naaman’s obedience was not blind or—to translate the metaphor—uninformed. Rather, we could make the argument that his initial defiance was irrational, but his subsequent obedience showed careful thought and consideration.

I suggest a slightly different phrase than that proposed above by Oaks. I call this “faithful obedience,” where faith here describes a loyalty to a prior witness. The source has been tested before and found trustworthy, so it is unnecessary to test the source again.

“Those who talk of blind obedience may appear to know many things, but they do not understand the doctrines of the gospel. There is an obedience that comes from a knowledge of the truth that transcends any external form of control. We are not obedient because we are blind, we are obedient because we can see” (Boyd K. Packer, “Agency and Control,” Ensign, May 1983, 66).

I would correct the statement at the beginning of this post, in this way:

“You should do what the prophet says because you have already searched for and received a confirmation that he is a prophet. To do otherwise is blind to your own faith.”

How often does a prophet fully foresee the outcome of the commandments he is giving? Is this “blind prophesying”?