Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Letter to Dr. Ehrman

Dr. Ehrman has written several best-sellers and given numerous talks on the Bible and Early Christianity.  Dr. Ehrman himself at one point was a “born-again” Evangelical Christian but says that he is currently both an atheist and agnostic.  Atheism is a declaration of belief, while agnosticism is a declaration of experiencial evidence. . 

Dear Dr. Ehrman, 

I am a theist and a gnostic.  I am also Christian.  I believe in God but I have also had personal and collective experience with Him. Thank you for the excellent explaination on this. I remember you saying that you had a “born again” experience at one time.   I am a published scientist and a physician and in addition to numerous personal experiences (practical and miraculous) with God, I have spoken with several very reliable people who have experienced near-death experiences. I respect science but I am well aware of its limitations.

Practically, I think Christianity is so very useful. I think having a hope of resurrection, anticipation of judgement, the anticipation of heavenly reward, and ultimately a love toward God helps people keep their commitments even when life gives them excuses not to. The “eternal perspective” is more powerful a motivator through love than by a fear of harm, scarcity, and death. Love builds long-term social capital, cooperation and community.

Also, Christianity does better at adressing the problem of “blood atonement” better than any other belief system. Many religions and cultures throughout history teach that somehow by killing certain people or animals, a person or community or nation might receive God’s favor, blessing, forgiveness, peace, safety and prosperity. The US war on terror policy of “kill them over there so they don’t kill us over here” is a form of blood atonement. The practice of abortion is also blood atonement. True Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that only through the blood of Christ can a person, or nation can we receive God’s blessing. This doesn’t apply to self-defense but preemptive/offensive actions.

You commented that your conversion to atheism and agnosticism was based on the “problem of pain”, and the overall violence, seeming injustice, and suffering in the universe.  Yes, the universe is violent, but it is not unjust. 

One important Christian doctrine that addresses the “problem of suffering” is the reality of a pre-mortal existence. Our spirits existed before our Earth life and just like a physician is expected to obtain and provide a patient with informed consent, the Bible is clear enough that God provided every soul the same informed consent before we were to undergo the painful proceedure of mortality. 

Job 38: 4-7 Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. ... When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

But not everyone shouted for joy.  A considerable number did not agree to the terms of mortality and rebelled and fell on likely similar issues. 

Yes, the Bible has translation and interpretation issues, and the universe is a violent and painful place. But Christ's blood covers those children who die without law and accountability. “Where there is no law, there is no sin”. Children who have died will be resurrected during the Millennium of peace.  God is just and merciful. The victory of Christ over death has swollowed up death in victory. The future glory will eclipse any past suffering and Christ will wipe away every tear. 

Best Regards,

Sunday, May 06, 2018

House of the Lord

I just recently returned from 1 week in Italy and Switzerland.  My sister planned a trip to Europe and twisted my arm to go.  Ok, it didn’t take a lot of arm twisting.  My trip began in Rome. They say when your in Rome, to do as the Romans.  Well it turned out that there was a big football/soccer game between intracity rivals Roma and Lazio. The game was held at the great Olympic Stadium.  The staium is ringed by giant statues of ancient Roman athletes. The game was quite the spectacle with it ruckus fans, with their flags, banners, song, cheers. smoke and even fire. 

Next I visted other historical, cultural and architectural wonders such as the Pantheon with its domed ceiling and oculus and the and the ancient Colosseum.  I also saw great sacred Christian sights at the Vatican including St. Peter’s Basillica and the Sistine Chapel.  

After several days in Rome, we moved onto Florence and the great Uffizi Museum which houses works from the great Renaissance masters Rafael, DaVinci, and Michelangelo.  Florence also houses the magnificent David at the Galleria dell’ Accademia.  

My trip moved from Italy to Switzerland.  In Italy you visit churches and museums.  In Switzerland, you visit their mountaintops. In Lucerne, there is the beautiful Lake Lucerne, surrounded by lush green hills, dotted by bell-wearing cows, and flanked by the majestic white-capped Alps. Lucerne is neighbor to a majestic Alp named Pilatus. Not do the Swiss build high-speed train tunnels under and through the Alps, they have a system of cog railway, gondolas, and trams to the very top.  And at the peak, they have 2 hotels, cafe and restaurant. 

Finally, I ended my trip in Bern, or Zollikofen to be exact. One of my nephews just received his mission call to Santiago, Chile. He went through the temple in Switzerland for the first time which served as the climax of our trip. Of all the amazing, spectacular, opulent, and majestic sights I had seen; I only truly experienced God’s presence accompanied by a quiet reverence in His Holy House. I am reminded of the story of Elijah who witnessed the fire, earthquake, and wind on the mountain top, but testified that God was not in the fire, earthquake nor the wind, but only a later still small voice (1 Kings 19:11-12). 

It’s tragic how the good and honorable of the Earth disagree and dispute with each other based only how to solve the problems of poverty, social justice, and war. But according to Isaiah 2/Micah 2, we learn that in the Last Days before Christ’s Second Coming, God will establish His temple (Mountain of the Lords House). And that it is by this house that nations will finally beat their swords into plowshares and learn war no more. In the Last Days, instead of building temples only to one kingdom, nation, tongue, and people; the everlasting gospel will be available to all kingdoms , nations, tongues, and peoples. 

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

LDS Ministering

Here is a report from the front lines: 

Writing is just an exercise of thinking about something. It doesn't necessarily represent final conclusions for me.  Nothing is really set in stone as far as what the end product will look like.  Ultimately, I just follow the direction of our stake president, bishop and EQ president (keys).  I try to be a good influence but ultimately— I’m flexible.  I am also brainstorming as I’m writing this. This letter is part of pondering process. Hopefully it leads to a good place.  

Some of what I was trying to verbalize was my hope that 1. we are not under condemnation for failing at HT/VT, 2. I think our social situations really have changed which has made the old HT/VT program more difficult to comply with 100%  3. I see ministering as an improvement and adaptation and not a “lesser law” 4.  I hope that God is not frustrated with us and that we are not under comdemnation because of our past failures. 

Ministering Overlap
We have been talking about the “ministering overlap” and we’re thinking the new ministering guidelines allowed us some greater flexibility. The Augusta Ward needs our best minsters to be focused on the higest priority members. But at the same time, there still needs to be a backbone of assigned priesthood. (see Ministering Q/A).  According to the Ministering Q/A, LDS leadership is requesting a system of ministering coverage overlap for purposes of access to priestood and emergency response. 

Ministering Zones/Districts
The Augusta Ward has had a system of priesthood Zones and Zone leaders used for emergency response. We have many transient members (eg military, students). So, we split the ward into Zones and assigned geographical call lists to brethren who are “permanent party”. Using this framework, we have successfully been able to  contact all contactable members within 2 hours during emergency situations. 

MLS did away with “GeoCodes” and has made printing out a ward “Head of Household” list via “GeoCode” no longer possible via “Custom Reports”. I am hopeful the online MLS LDS tools will again allow “GoeCodes”.  We may have to use something like “HT districts” or assign “Zones” or “Ministering Districts”.  I think we had also put the Geo Code designation in the “Secondary Address”. I would be great if there was an online tool kinda like the missionaries are just now using, where we can draw a “box” on a map and we can create a list and see a graphical representation of all members/Heads of Household within that “Ministering District”. However, I think it still is necessary to have a “GeoCode” designation and the ability to print a custom ward list/Head of Household according to “GeoCode” or “Ministering District” or “Zone” or whatever. Alphabetical lists don’t always work.   We need our technology to support our ministering efforts. 

Ministering Spider-Web
We intend to weave a complex ministering “spider-web” and hope we get adequate coverage. But hope to back it up with a simplified prieshood backbone of ministering district leaders (Captains of 50/10). The fact is, it is easier to minister when your assignments 1. live close to you, 2. live close to or on the way to work 3. all live close to each other.  This isn’t Utah where your entire ward consists of 2-3 streets.

Assigning Experiences Not People
Ruth expressed the opinion that after covering the ward with ministering prieshood district leaders, the real work of ministering should be more focused on the situation (eg pregnancy, reactivation, new-member discussions, illness).  She was seeing This is how the ward council operates.  The Ward Council operates sometimes by “putting out fires” or adressing needs as they arise. But I think its okay to assign people because its people that matter more than whatever they are going 
through. However, Ruth says people appreciate help but don’t want to feel like a “project”. But ultimately, I’ve had self-assigned and assigned long-term relationships with people and seen results on both after short-term and after long-term involvement. Also, ministering district leaders will help with the needed interviewing. 

I am glad you brought up ministering interviews.  This is where we started. I was thinking to report on this, but we already have our plan set up and moving forward. We actually realized, that we are going to need to conduct 2 interviews. Interview #1 is to assess ministering needs and ministering capability. Interview #2 would cover assignments. 

We are going to have the entire EQ and RS leadership together with Ministering Coordinators divide up ward list alphabetically and conduct interviews.  We are formulating a standardized information sheet to be filled in as part of interview #1 so we have necessary data to make assignments which will be given during interview #2.  Attached is a preliminary draft of Interview #1 data sheet.

Not A Program? 
I am not sure I am really getting some of the rhetoric about ministering that it is “not a program” and that members should not “complicate” things as we tend to do.  I see this rhetoric as a shade condescending.  I am not sure how the “not a program” reasoning is supposed to help.  In my mind, ‘A system of assignments to achieve a goal = program’.   So, why insist that it is not?   I do get the “simplification” part, which is encouraging.  But we are still maybe dealing with a complicated ministering “spider-web” with overlapping ministering districts.  On our side, we just need our leaders to 1. understand logistically what they are requesting, 2. clearly explain what they want us to do and 3. have reasonable expectations.  

The truth is, this still sounds like a program, and its still somewhat complicated but has been adapted and refocused on ministering due to shifts in technology, social and family dynamics. (ie people are more open to divulging all their problems publicly on Facebook). 

Remember that our lives are different that our parents.  Many of our wives now work outside the home, and we are expected to watch our kids much closer while carting them around to their various extracurricular activities. Visiting 10 families every month and sitting down to review the “First Presidency Message” and then asking “Are you remebering to do your ....?” and “Is there anything we can do for you” just wasn’t working. Especially when the Church Handbook of Instruction says Church Programs are meant to support families. 

So how can Ministering involve and unify our families? I  think, we would do best to involve our kids and the entire family in our ministering opportunities. I think the while family should minister together.  Assigning the family to give new member discussions or to visit the hospital or to make a meal which might make monistering something that unifies a family and not “Dad’s gone home teaching” or “Mom’s out doing her visiting teaching”. And now both Devin and Faith can potentially be independently scheduled.

Overall Points
1. Condemnation vs Social Adaptation
2. Ministering Overlap
3. Prieshood Backbone vs. Spider-Web
4. Assigning People vs. Assigning Experiences (people projects vs. putting out fires)
5. Interview #1 vs. Interview #2
6. Not a program? 
7. Family Ministering Dynamics 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Ministering Supervisor

The LDS Church has just recently made some very significant  improvements to its mission by refocusing on ministering. During the last General Conference, President Nelson did away with the old Home Teaching (HT) and Visiting Teaching (VT) programs to focus more on ministering.   This transition had been in the works for several years beginning with training that instructed HT/VT to prioritize the people and families we were assigned to minister to.  And then just before General  Conference (GC), it was announced that the Ensign/Liahona would no longer feature the usual monthy “First Presidency Message”. The internet was abuzz with anticipation of changes just prior to GC. 

As a newly called Ministering Coordinator, I am excited to be on the front lines during this transition and excited to be a part of the calculus involved in its implementation.  Having been involved in numerous discussions with other ward and stake leaders on this new “non-program”, I do have some observations about the old HT/VT vs. the new simplified and inspired focus on ministering.

First, the LDS Church does not have a professional clergy.  Our local bishops/pastors and other leaders are not paid, and must balance church responsibilities and callings with career and family. Our bishops simply cannot do all the required  ministering themselves. The LDS Church has always delegated ministering responsibilities out to individual members and families. The LDS members have always had a wonderful Christian tradition and culture of ministering to each other. 

The old HT/VT program assigned 2 male and 2 female members a list of between 5-10 other individuals or families to minister to. HT, for example, was counted when the assigned companionship sat down with their assigned families in their home and taught the “First Presidency Message”.   As society has evolved, these proscribed visits have become increasingly difficult and compliance has been poor. I know my home ward/congregation sometimes reported monthly HT compliance in the 15-20% range.

15% compliance is just awful.  I  continually carried a nagging burden of guilt and frustration at not being able to consistently 100% comply with the proscribed monthly visit and message. But while HT/VT numbers were poor, the real work of ministering was happening all along. The HT/VT program just wasn’t measuring it.  Blessings were being given, hospitals visited, meals were prepared and delivered, fallen trees were cleared, firewood was cut, and families were moved in and out.   The HT/VT lesson was proscribed as a way for members to get into the homes and as a means to get to know one another so as to create opportunities to be involved in each others lives and to minister.  The ministering was happening, even though the monthly sit-down lessons were not.

I think our social culture has changed considerably in the last 20 years. With the advent of the internet and social media, people are much more open with what’s going on in their lives, even if they may not always physically visit each other’s homes.  LDS Church leadership recognized this culture shift and simplified  and refocused the HT/VT programs onto pure ministering.

As part of this simplification and refocusing, LDS congregations have combined their men’s organizations. In the past, the men were divided up into generally younger Elders and older High Priests. HT responsibilities were divided between these quorums. However, this division sometimes made it difficult to efficiently carry out the HT program.  High Priests are generally very enthusiastic, and experienced ministers.  Instead of pairing 2 seasoned High Priests together, it’s much more efficient to pair someone strong with someone weaker.  In this way, the most consistent ministers are maximally spread out among the membership.  Also, strong High Priests are more likely to mentor weaker Elders into becoming excellent future ministers.

The new LDS focus on ministering  (not a program) will greatly increase the efficiency and effectively of LDS ministering efforts. With the old HT/VT program consider that the most active LDS families were much more than just double-covered. 

1. Assigned HT Companionship (2)
2. Assigned VT Companionship (2)
3. Husband’s HT Companion (1)
4. Wife’s VT Companion (1)
5. Husband’s HT Assigned Families (#)
6. Wife’s VT Assigned Families (#)
7. Bishop and Church Leadership (#)
8. Church Calling Associates (#)
9. Church Friends (#)

Strong active LDS Families have a huge extensive ministering network. For these active families, ministering support can  come from any of these 9 sources.  While less-active or new members often have a much smaller network and pool of potential assistance and ministering support. A new or returning member may not have many friends, they are less likely to have a calling or be assigned as a HT/VT. New members may join the Church only knowing the missionaries.  However, these missionaries are routinely transferred out of the area after only a couple of months.  New and returning member are lucky to be assigned  good HT/VT’s who consistently visit.  However, Ward Councils usually do a good job of making these assignments. With this new focus on ministering, I am hopeful the highest priority members will be set up with the larger and better ministering networks. 

For maximal efficiency, in addition to being covered by priesthood ministering district leader (Captain of 10), the strongest members could simply be assigned to mutually minister to their ministering companions, friends or close associations via their callings.  This strategy would better prevent the unnecessary duplication of effort for those who least need it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

True Christianity and Inward Obedience

Romans 2:23 Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God?

I just now realized that Paul’s issue with the Gentiles and Jews in Rome is similar to what Abinadi was dealing with with the wicked King Noah and his corrupt priests in the Book of Mormon.  

Mosiah 12:29 If ye teach the law of Moses why do ye not keep it? Why do ye set your hearts upon riches? Why do ye commit whoredoms.

Paul was writing to Christians in Rome discussing some of the attitudes and behavior of the Gentiles and Jews.  Many Jews in Rome as well as those in the ancient City of Nephi believed that if they observed the Law of Moses that God would justify them in breaking other commandments involving honesty, fidelity, and sobriety.

2 Nephi 28:8 he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this;

Paul is teaching that that it dishonors God to observe the outward commandments of the Law of Moses, and teach there is no longer need to keep the inner commandments of honesty, integrity, sobriety, fidelity, and love of God and our neighbor.  When Paul says: 

Rom 3:28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law (ie circumcision).

Eph. 2:8-9  For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

The “works” Paul is referring to are the outward observances of the Law of Moses like circumcision, new moon, and sabbath day observances.  Paul taught that Christ’s sacrifice abolished the ourward ordinances of the Law of Moses, but not the inward commandments.  Remember that Paul makes many long lists in his letters as he encourages the Saints in their inward obedience and repentance.

Rom. 2:15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances;

Christ’s sacrifice didn't abolish the requirement to be “honest, true, chaste, benevolent, and in doing good to all men” (Phil 4:8). 

Rom 2: 28-28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.

The inward circumcision of the heart is manifest by our acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and desire to love one another and keep God’s 10 commandments.  Our inward and outward obedience is empowered by Christ’s love and His Spirit within us. 

Christ has given His believers a new system of outward ordinances and observances such as baptism and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  However, if we believe that going through these motions alone, absolves us from needing to keep the inward commandments, then we are just as misguided as the ancient Jews. Evangelical Christians, like the ancient Jews, may likewise dishonor God by teaching that we are saved by our confession of Christ alone without also encouraging repentance, and obedience to the inward commandments.   True Christians should always encourage each other in being sober, honest, true, and chaste. 

False doctrine carries grave consequences. Glenn Beck recently discussed the 4 Pillars of American Exceptionalism. There is much about American history that is not at all exceptional and downright deplorable.  But apart from our terrible mistakes, the 4 things that made America special came from our:  1. Families/Marriages, 2. Religiosity, 3. Industry/Innovation, 4. Honesty.  As family, faith, and virtue erode away, so will this nation.  A return to virtue is the only thing that will make America great again.   

The failure of America comes down to the failure of America’s religions.  Pure religion according to James is about welfare and virtue (James 1:27).  Today, religion has turned more into Sunday Morning entertainment. Government has ursurped the Church’s business/duty of providing individual welfare and many religion’s grace-focused doctrine doesn’t speak enough about repentance, or obedience. But Paul had no problem preaching repentance and obedience. 

1 Cor 5:11-13  if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.

2 Tim 2:21 If a man therefore purge himself from these (iniquity), he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.