And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? (Moses 7:28)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What Is Love?

At church today we were discussing what love is, and I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts on the matter. So what is love? What an ambiguous word. It can mean so many disparate things, that often have little to do with one another. Granted, the English language severely limits our expression in this regard. It's not the only language that forces such a general vocabulary for endearment, but there are certainly languages that provide a richer lexicon on the subject.

So many things are called love that are, in fact, far from it. But then, how do we define love? I'll use divine love as the defining standard here, which should provide some clarity. Some call it “unconditional love,” but it is never described this way in the holy scriptures. I've never liked this term because of the baggage that it tends to carry with it. It's too often distorted to accommodate personal and institutional agendas.

Instead, the scriptures refer to God's love as “perfect love.” As John tells us “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear.” Mormon - the Book of Mormon prophet for whom the book is named – is even more explicit: “I fear not what man can do; for perfect love casteth out all fear.” This implies that whatever fear we have in us, is a reflection of the imperfection in our love. Of course, Jesus is the only person who ever truly possessed perfect love, but here Mormon gives us a glimpse of love's power.

Love is far more than simply caring about another person, or just being nice. C.S. Lewis described this paradox eloquently, when he pointed out that, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; that the mere kindness which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.” Of course, this is something that greatly differentiates us from Christ, in that we are so readily inclined to shield those we care about from suffering, not always seeing the big picture.

This human sentiment has become increasingly prevalent in our contemporary society. In fact, it has gone far beyond the point of being a mere foible of mortal imperfection, but its effects have accelerated with destructive force. In history, we are not alone in our shortsightedness, though that is not to say that we are in good company. We are like the ancient society to whom the prophet Enoch was sent, of whom it was said, “ their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes cannot see afar off.”

Whatever your religious outlook, it is difficult to argue that civilizations, or individuals, grow strong by indulgence. In fact, the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary. Our reliance on polls and statistical studies to prove this to ourselves only underscores how dull our senses have become. We are a society ever more willing to indulge those, who are ever so willing to be indulged. Many of them might have lived more disciplined lives, if they'd had any idea what discipline is. And so in our selfish need to be kind, we have deprived them of the love that might have saved them. Much like a parent whose only concern is giving their child food that tastes good. What does it matter, as long as they are happy?

This leads back to the idea of God's unconditional love, which has arguably become the new religion. A sort of “pop Christianity.” Again, Professor Lewis puts it so profoundly, with these words:

“By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness - the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, 'What does it matter so long as they are contented?' We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven - a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves', and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, 'a good time was had by all'.”

I believe I gained my first glimpse of what love really is the day my daughter was born. When I looked at her, so small and helpless, and felt that nothing in the world mattered to me besides her happiness and well-being. Our life had completely shifted from what was, in a sense, a selfish focus. Our thoughts and actions were now dominated by the love we felt for someone we barely knew, and who could do nothing for us, or for herself. She couldn't work or play, or barely move at all. She certainly wasn't much good for conversation. All she could do was eat and provide us with a seemingly endless supply of dirty diapers. She also helped us to forget what sleep was for awhile. And yet we'd give anything for her.

All I could think about was how to keep her safe, and help her reach her fullest potential. Whether it was learning how to roll herself over for the first time, or getting a college education, I wanted her to have everything.

Of course, there was always the temptation to want to spare her of any kind of pain. We experienced that when we took her in for vaccinations, or to get her blood drawn. It was hard to watch the nurse put that big needle into that tiny little body. We knew she completely trusted us, and relied on us to protect her, and couldn't understand why we allowed these things. Later I had to learn to stand back when she started to walk, and let her fall down a few times. Well, more than a few. My wife can attest to how hard this was for me. Especially, when she was so certain it was daddy's fault when she skinned her nose on the sidewalk. To her we were still all-powerful, and anything bad that happened in the world must certainly be our fault.

Through all this I gained a glimpse of the love God has for us, and understood him better than I ever had before. “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all.” He certainly understands pain. As a father, I know that nothing I suffer is more painful for me than it is for him to allow. Nothing is more agonizing than watching your child suffer. And also his Son, who loves us as his children. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” I am able to better appreciate the fact that, when Jesus bore the burden of our sins, his Father truly bore it with him.

I remember when we found out that our daughter had Down Syndrome. After the doctor called, I went and looked at her in her crib, lying on top of a jaundice light. I so wanted her to have everything we had and more. I wanted her to reach her fullest potential as a woman. I felt the weight of this sudden realization pressing down on me. The realization that there would be things she would want to do, but wouldn't be able to, and might not understand why. I imagined her asking me, “Why am I different?” I thought of the cruelty of others, and the things they might say to her. Of the loneliness she would feel at times.

My wife and I felt very heavy for a day or two. But as we knelt together, and prayed for comfort, and to understand the Lord's will for us, we were filled with a peace that passes all understanding. We were able to see the tremendous potential our daughter still had, and knew that she would yet be a force for good in this world.

I said before that I gained my first glimpse of what love really is the day my daughter was born. But that's not entirely true. Even before that day, was the day that I was born; or reborn, anyways. Because it was that day that I came to know the love of God. Not because he loved me too much to let me suffer, but because he loved me too much not to. Because he allowed me to know the remorse of guilt, and the joy of redemption. It was on that day that I first came to sing, what the prophet Alma called, “the song of redeeming love.”

That's when I first came to know that love gains its greatest manifestation through pain. I believe nothing makes that point better than these words of the prophet Abinadi, from the Book of Mormon:

“Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father. And thus God breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death; giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mormons, Ritual Worship, and Other Mysterious Things

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly among those of other Christian faiths, is our emphasis on ritual. This certainly contributes to the sense of mistrust felt by some protestants toward Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons). Of course, the Catholic faith and the various Orthodox churches contain a great deal of ritual. However, the Latter-day Saints are probably unique in the amount of direct participation by ordinary church members in ritual worship.

Before I go further, I'll clarify some terminology, as I have done previously. The name of our church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The short form of this is the Church of Jesus Christ or, less formally, the LDS Church. Members of our church are called Latter-day Saints, or sometimes “the LDS people.” Terms such as Mormons, Mormonism, or “the Mormon Church,” are incorrect. These are nicknames given to us by others because of our belief in The Book of Mormon. While these names are not offensive, I will only use the correct ones here.

Now continuing with the main topic: there is a natural aversion toward ritual among protestants, due to the fact that the protestant movement occurred in part as a revolt against excessive ritualism. Much of the ritual and imagery in the Catholic and Orthodox churches was viewed by the reformers as idolatry. They opted for a simpler religion, centered around personal faith and reading of the Bible. However, such rituals as the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper and baptism were retained by most protestant congregations, as these were strongly supported by the New Testament.

Ironically, a similar sentiment has led to the Latter-day Saints avoiding outward symbols of their faith, such as crosses. Likewise, our rituals – which we call “Gospel ordinances,” or just “ordinances” - are very simple in nature, and ornate or dramatic presentation are eschewed. So, in a sense, we have taken this Protestant aversion a step further. We are often asked about the fact that we don't wear crosses, or display them on our meeting houses. Another reason for this is to signify that we worship the “living” Christ. While the suffering and death of Jesus are at the very core our faith, we choose to emphasize the fact that “He is not here, for he is risen.”

One of the most noticeable aspects of our faith is the fact that we build temples, largely because the temples themselves are quite noticeable. The architecture of these buildings again reflects the Latter-day Saint sentiment toward ritual: they are beautiful, but not ornate. Much is made of the fact that we don't speak much about what goes on in our temples, even amongst ourselves. In fact, those who have participated in these ordinances only discuss them with each other in a general way, when they are not inside a temple.

Latter-day Saint Temple Near Washington D.C.

This secretiveness, of course, appears very strange to those who don't have any analogous practices in their own religions. Beyond that, in our culture we have an intrinsic mistrust toward any group of people that is secretive or private.

For instance, it's become common practice for secret government agencies to be blamed for just about everything that goes on in the world. Such ideas have certainly been helped along by media sensationalism. At times, elected officials have even exploited this mistrust in order to divert blame, and our intelligence agencies have thus become a popular scape goat.

Throughout history, various groups have been singled out as being the cause of the world's problems. Groups that were secretive, or just private, were the common targets. For centuries the Jews were the favorite pick. Then Hitler extended that a little, declaring that the Jews and the Free Masons were the cause of every evil in the world. The Gypsies were also a popular choice. Every propagandist needs a boogie man, and suspicion is easily raised wherever there's a hint of secrecy.

Of course, in regards to temple worship in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, these are not really secrets in the traditional sense. After all, we don't even discuss them in private with others who already know these “secrets.” As rumor has it, this attitude of discretion has made the LDS people attractive for recruitment by employers who deal with classified information. Whether there's any validity to this rumor, I don't know, but it's wonderful fodder for all sorts of conspiracy theories. Moreover, the fact we don't discuss our temple ordinances publicly has left the door open to others, usually former members of our church, to present a distorted view of what goes on there.

So why on earth would we be afraid to discuss a secret with someone who already knows it? Are we afraid we're being spied on? Or maybe that the room has been wiretapped? Well, it's nothing quite so shadowy. Actually, this is why we typically refer to such things as “sacred” rather than “secret.” The concept of sacredness is an ancient one, but has lost much of it's meaning in contemporary society. The common expression, “Is nothing sacred?” is a reflection of this.

Historically, it's very common for participants in temple worship to be given a “hush order.” Descriptions of this can be found in manuscripts and the like from numerous civilizations. While some biblical scholars have suggested that the Old Testament temple rites were adopted by the Hebrews from their Pagan neighbors, I take profound exception to this notion. The idea that God is simply so short on ideas that he would borrow them from men doesn't sit well with me. Nor would it, I imagine, with most Christians. Rather, I would suggest, that it is in fact the other way around: That God is the originator of temple worship, and it was adopted, and altered, by men. The actual rituals have varied wildly from one culture to another, but there are many common threads. And it's the common threads that likely trace back to the source.

Interestingly, there are ancient texts that suggest that the biblical description of Israelite temple worship is not the whole story. But, before you let your mind run wild, it should be noted that we're not talking about anything very bazaar here. In fact, it would be difficult for an observer to understand why any of it was kept secret. Again, it's sacred, not secret. Or rather, it was kept secret because it was sacred, and it was sacred because God declared it to be so.

Such things can be difficult to grasp the reasons for, and may naturally engender suspicion. It exposes a paradox in our natures: I may have difficulty trusting someone who keeps a secret from me, but I have no difficulty trusting someone who keeps a secret for me. Thus, whether or not we trust someone may have nothing to do with whether they are actually trustworthy.

Understandably, there are aspects of the Church of Jesus Christ that may seem very strange to outsiders, both in our history and in our current practices. However, rather than attempting to explain them all, I would point out that there are many strange things in the Old Testament, and even the New Testament. It might seem very strange to a non-Christian to learn that Christians participate in a ritual where they drink wine and eat bread, signifying that they are drinking the blood and eating the flesh of their deity. This was a common thread of anti-Christian literature in the Roman world. So much depends on presentation and perspective, and very benign concepts can seem quite sinister when deprived of context.

The Old Testament presents us with many troubling passages, that as Christians we often accept either by faith or by ignorance. We may seek an explanation, or we may set them aside for later. But that doesn't mean we set our faith aside until we have answers for every question. Whether we speak of Christianity generally, or our particular sect, we all accept the controversial history of our faith. The only difference is time and space.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we sometimes experience attacks on our faith. A common accusation is that we are a cult, and that we are not really Christians. It's funny how people like to throw around inflammatory terms without really knowing what they mean. So then, are we true Christians, or are we a cult? Well, first of all, what is a cult? A quick Google search for “define cult” returns the following: “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” Then the next question is, how do you define “Christianity?” Do you define it as Pastor Jeffress does: As the the collective of Churches that embrace the Nicaean Creed?

If, however, you define Christianity as, “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward Jesus Christ, 'the author and finisher of our faith,'” then the answer as to whether Latter-day Saints are Christians or a cult is simply, “Yes.”