Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Verse that Changed My Life -- Mark 11.25

This evening in small group we're looking at forgiveness.

Preparing the study put me in mind of one of the happiest days of my life. It was some years back now, and it was the day when I came across Mk 11.25 (or at least the day Jesus' teaching in this verse hit home).

In instructing his disciples about prayer, Jesus added this:

"And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions."

There's lots of interesting stuff to consider in the second part of the verse (and, of course, the bit about standing while you pray is pretty interesting as well), but I want to focus on the first half of the verse, and how emphatic Jesus is.

Jesus uses compelling words: "Whenever," "anything," "anyone."

"Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything againstanyone ."

To be sure, we pray regularly in the "Our Father" to "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." But that line usually comes and goes too quickly, at least for me, to implement it fully. So I slowed down, and in my prayer began to recall anyone whom I might have something against. Then I forgave them.

I know. It sounds stupidly simple. But while I had forgiven some people some sins before God, it wasn't an regular feature of my prayers. ("Whenever.")

Now the thing is, it's not as though I was standing around brooding about all the wrongs that people had done me during my life. I had a relatively normal middle-class life with a relatively normal childhood (enlivened a bit by a parent's manic depression, but not at all ruined by it). In fact, I was surprised by what surfaced as I began to think about what "anythings" I had against "anyones." Things I hadn't thought about for years came to mind as I prayed. Matters in which I had been wronged, or had thought myself wronged. Stuff from big things, to absurdly trivial (and largely unintended) slights. I was sort of surprised at myself, that I had been carrying all of this stuff with me, a lot of it being really trivial childhood stuff. But there it was.

So as all this stuff came up, I forgave. And I was happy to forgive because Jesus had forgiven me. (I also repented to God for having not forgiven all these folk a lot earlier.)

The weird thing was, though, that as I began (and continued) to forgive, I felt my own heart changing, growing lighter and unburdened. This, again, struck me as a bit odd, because I hadn’t really felt particularly burdened by most of the sins of others against me, and so hadn't felt particularly burdened by my not forgiving these folks. Not that the feeling is the point, nonetheless, when I finished my prayers and got up, I felt remarkably free and light. The irony is that, in unburdening others of the debt they owed me, by God's grace I unburdened myself.

That struck me as pretty wild. And it still does. It is something for which I am profoundly thankful to God for allowing me to experience.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am, that God always gives a lot more back to me than I give to him.

In any event, it took several weeks before the stream of recollected hurts, snubs, and insults tapered off. I felt like a changed person. I felt a lot less angrier. (Not that I thought of myself as a particularly angry person before doing what Jesus said to do. This, too, surprised me; that I was angrier than I recognized beforehand.)

Ever since then, for years now, forgiveness has been a regular part of my prayers. It’s been a great source of blessing in my life.

That being said, I still sometimes catch myself preferring to nurse a grudge against someone rather than to forgive them. I still shock myself at how I’m able to deceive myself. Days, sometimes weeks might go by. I’m not consciously aware of being unforgiving, and then I’ll catch myself. After I forgive them in prayer, I realize how I was clinging to my unforgiveness, nursing it by telling myself that the person didn’t deserve my forgiveness. I never directly told myself, of course, that would be too overt. But that was my attitude nonetheless. (My capacity for self-deception rarely fails to shock me.)

Then I repent to God: What right do I have to begrudge the trivial sins of others against me, when God does not begrudge the great sins which I sinned (and sin) against him? This disappoints me, and still shocks me a bit as well. That even after all this time there remains a part of me that prefers to nurse grudges and prefers the comfort of a squalid self-pity, rather than to forgive those who sin against me and enjoy the light and life that God gives me. But, thanks be to God, I usually catch my self-deception sooner or later, and forgive.

The bigger point, however, is, as I mentioned above, that for years now, forgiving others has been a regular part of my prayers. Doing so has been one of the greatest sources of on-going blessing that I recognize. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. But I am profoundly thankful to my Lord for teaching me the lesson.

"Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything againstanyone ."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

When two or three gather, the Shekinah is in their midst

I thought this is pretty interesting on a couple of levels, particularly in light of what Jesus says in Mt 18.20. ("For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.")

From the Mishnah Tractate Avot 3.3 & 7:

"3. Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion said . . 'when two sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them' . . .

"7. Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa of Kefar Chanania used to say: 'If ten men sit together and occupy themselves with the Torah, the Divine Presence rests among them as it is written (Psalm 82:1) "God has taken his place in the divine council." And from where do we learn that this applies even to five? Because it is written (Amos 9:6) "And founds his vault upon the earth." And how do we learn that this applies even to three? Because it is written (Psalm 82:1) "In the midst of the gods he holds judgment." And from where can it be shown that the same applies even to two? Because it is written (Malachi 3:16)"Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord took note and listened." And from where even of one? Because it is written (Exodus 20:24) "In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you."'"

If I understand the translators correctly, the word translated as "divine presence" is "Shekinah." Jesus is the Shekinah (cf., Jn 1.14).

Also of interest along this line are Talmud Berachot 6, "when three sit as judges, the Shekinah is with them," and Talmud Sanhedrin 39, "Whenever ten are gathered for prayer, there the Shekinah rests."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Few Thoughts about Romney's College-Station Speech

At the Bush Presidential conference center today, Mitt Romney said, “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.”

Romney also said, “I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs.”

The question is the consistency of his two claims, and the consistency of those claims with others that Romney advanced in his speech relative to the teachings of his Mormon faith.

What follows are a few observations from my reading of Romney’s speech. I’m no expert on Mormonism. My only entry into the tension between what Romney claimed in his speech and what Mormonism teaches is that, at the invitation of two Mormon missionaries this last summer, I read through the Book of Mormon. Given what I read in the book, there seem to be some inconsistencies between Romney’s claim to believe the Mormon faith, on the one hand, and his claim that no authorities of his church – including, presumably, the Book of Mormon – “will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.” That is, if Romney is a faithful Mormon, then there would seem to me to be some obvious points at which his faith must influence some executive decisions.

So here are a few observations, in no particular order.

1. On separation of church and state.

Romney said in his speech that, “We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion.”

In chapter 25 of Mosiah, in the Book of Mormon, the chapter heading states that King Mosiah “authorizes Alma to Organize the Church of God.” Verse 19 of the same chapter provides, “And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted unto Alma that he might establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemia; and gave him power to ordain priests and teachers over every church.”

In this passage, the king is the official who “grants” authority to establish churches, and “gives” Alma the “power” to ordain church leadership.

The teaching in this passage provides an example in which the government quite literally establishes a church. Given the close relationship between church and state a little more than a century ago in a U.S. state filled with “the faith of [his] fathers,” I don’t think it unreasonable to ask how Romney squares the commended example of his faith in Mosiah 25 with his affirmation of the separation of church and state.

2. The divine role of America in Mormonism – who defines right, wrong, and liberty?

The Book of Mormon is largely a book claiming to be a history of Israelites who left Israel around 600 B.C., and migrated to North America. A number of passages in the Book of Mormon directly speak to America and to “liberty” in America. I’d assume that Romney does not want to distance himself from passages in the Book of Mormon that endorse liberty in the U.S. Those same passages, however, seem to me to raise policy-relevant questions.

For example, Mosiah 29 provides:

“[I] desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike, so long as the Lord sees fit that we may live and inherit the land . . .”

In this text, which is Scripture for Mormons, we have a teleology spelled out for the U.S., that this land be a land in which individuals may “enjoy rights and privileges.” That’s entirely fine with me as a general commitment. But who defines these rights and privileges? If the U.S. Supreme Court disagrees with the Mormon god about the content of those divine rights and privileges, which commitment trumps the other?

Just a few verses earlier, the Book of Mosiah endorses specific mechanism to correct wrong judgments of the land’s high court:

“If your higher judges do not judge righteous judgments, ye shall cause that a small number of your lower judges should be gathered together, and they shall judge your higher judges, according to the voice of the people” (Mosiah 29.29).

Given that Romney affirms his desire to be faithful to Mormon beliefs, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that he be questioned about the status of a specific policy implication like this that is endorsed by the scriptures he believes in.

So if a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court contradicts a teaching of his church, how would Romney square the circle of being true to his faith and yet not allowing his faith to influence presidential decisions?

Which is the higher commitment? It seems to me that that was the critical question that Romney needed to answer today in his speech, and yet ultimately left it unanswered.

3. Similarly, “democracy” seems to be a matter required by the Book of Mormon. This raises questions of such things like the religious standing of a Supreme Court decision like Bush v. Gore, or the need of Mormons to prefer the “political” branches of government (elected executives and legislatures) over unelected judges:

“Now this Amlici had, by his cunning, drawn away much people after him . . . and they began to endeavor to establish Amlici to be a king over the people. Now this was alarming to the people of the church . . . for they knew that according to their law that such things must be established by the voice of the people” (Alma 2.2-3).

And so:

“Therefore, it came to pass that they assembled themselves together in bodies throughout the land, to cast in their voices concerning who should be their judges, to judge them according to the law which had been given them; and they were exceedingly rejoiced because of the liberty which had been granted them” (Mosiah 29.39).

What happens if the courts seek to protect rights that the “voice of the people” oppose? Which law is determinative for a Mormon president? “Their” law, positive law, or something else?

4. These issues take on an even more pressing importance because the Book of Mormon reports an instance in which those who disagreed with “the cause of freedom” were, somewhat oxymoronically, put to death by Moroni:

“Now, Moroni being a man who was appointed by the chief judges and the voice of the people, therefore he had power according to his will with the armies of the Nephites, to establish and to exercise authority over them. And it came to pass that whomsoever of the Amalickiahites that would not enter into a covenant to support the cause of freedom, that they might maintain a free government, he caused to be put to death; and there were but few who denied the covenant of freedom” (Alma 46.34-35).

Would it be unreasonable to ask a presidential candidate who affirms the Book of Mormon as God’s revelation to humanity, what he makes of this example of executive action?

5. This takes on added significance because Romney’s church believes in the continuing revelation of the word of God. This means that he, and we, do not know that what his church teaches today is what his church will necessarily teach tomorrow. The book of 2 Nephi reports this woe:

“Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!” (2 Nehpi 28.26-28).

It seems as though there are high-profile examples of policy-relevant doctrines of Mormonism changing. For example, the Book of Mormon pretty clearly condemns polygamy (Jacob 2.24) – yet Mormon leaders claimed to have a revelation that endorsed polygamy for decades in the 19th century. Mormon leaders (as I understand it) then later had another revelation that instructed them to reject polygamy. Who’s to guarantee that in a system of continuing, binding revelation, Mormon leaders won’t again announce that polygamy is a commendable state of marriage?

So, too, the Book of Mormon teaches that a sign that a certain people was cursed was that their skin was turned black (2 Nephi 5.20-23). As I understand it, black skin is no longer a barrier to enrollment in the Mormon priesthood. But in a system of continuing, direct, and binding revelation, where’s the guarantee that Mormon leadership won’t again communicate their belief that God once again has an issue with dark-skinned people?

6. I thought there were other unresolved tensions between Romney’s affirmations and those taught by the distinctive scripture he claims to believe in. For example, Romney said, “I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own.”

This seems to me to be an odd affirmation from a member of a church whose missionaries introduce themselves on your doorstep with the claim that every church except their own church is apostate. As the Book of Mormon states:

“Behold there are save two churches only: the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth” (1 Nephi 14.9-10).

7. Romney stated in his speech: “As governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution . . .”

Is Romney really suggesting that what his church teaches has nothing to do with what he understands to be “right”? That what he understands as doing “right” has nothing to do with the teachings of his faith seems to fit uncomfortably with his claim to “believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it.”

8. Romney claimed that “There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.”

This is wrong on two levels. On the first basic, level, and as Romney and every presidential candidate ought to know, the Constitution only prohibits the government from legally imposing a religious test. The Constitution is entirely silent about whether voters should or should not inquire into a candidate’s religious beliefs as a condition of their support. Romney’s argument on this point was disingenuous.

On a second level, Romney's argument is obviously wrong. To be sure, there are many religious doctrines that have little to do with running a government. I do not think that candidates need answer those sorts of questions. But it is equally obvious that some distinctive church doctrines can have policy implications. Asking about those doctrines should be entirely permissible. Huffing and puffing about “religious tests” should not deter voters, reporters, or other candidates from candidly asking about policy implications of a candidate’s religious views. And if that candidate belongs to a religious organization that few people understand, it seems entirely appropriate to ask the candidate about the possible policy implications of his religious views.

Romney made the point himself when he (appropriately) decried “radical Islamists.” This is just an obvious example of religious opinions that, to say the least, have policy implications. Radical Islam, however, does not exhaust the set of policy-relevant religious beliefs.

So, overall, I thought it was a speech without real substance. Romney wants his cake and eat it, too.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Jack's Weekend Gymnastics Meet

Jack took first "overall" in his level. Here are some pictures.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

CPA Endorses McCain

See CPA's post here.

In this context, I meant to mention a week or so ago that you could see CPA, a specialist on Mongolia, on the History Channel's miniseries, "Barbarians."

I remember watching the series when it came on originally a year ago or so. Jack (who was five- or six-years old at the time) and I were watching the programs, when the episode on Ghengis Khan came on, and there was Chris Atwood, teaching us about Khan. I said, "Jack, I know that guy. We're both Lutheran bloggers." And Jack thought that was so cool, that I knew Atwood, a guy on the T.V. show about the violent barbarians. So my currency as a father went up as a result of CPA.