Sunday, April 19, 2015

To Be Pure Before God

[This was a talk I gave in Sacrament Meeting on Sunday, April 19, 2015.]

On Friday I had the opportunity to attend the temple. While I was there I reflected on the preparation we need to go through before we can attend the temple. Unlike our church buildings temples are holy places where only those who are prepared can enter in. For those who were baptized as children they must wait until they are adults before attending the temple. For recent converts they must wait at least a year before entering the temple. This is done so that there may be a space between baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit; and entering into the temple.

The purpose of this preparatory space is to give us adequate time to feel and experience the gift of God’s Spirit which was given to us after baptism, so that when we enter the temple we are sufficiently pure in spirit that we can understand and enjoy the words of eternal life.

In ancient Israel before anyone could enter into the tabernacle in the early days or temple after it was built, they had abide by a stringent list of requirements before they could be declared ritually pure. In the book of Leviticus we can read about the rules governing all types of impurities. In there the people of God are commanded to separate themselves from all things that are impure. This includes different types of food, dead bodies, diseased bodies, and bodily fluids usually associated with sin, death and illness.

If anyone, especially the priests, were to come into contact with these things then they were ritually impure and they were not allowed into the temple, which is to say, they were not allowed into the presence of the Lord. They were unclean, impure and unfit to enter into the presence of God.

So here we see that the people of God were separated from the presence of the Lord due to their impurities, that is, because they had been made impure by things associated with death they could not abide the presence of the Lord. Because they had broken the commandment they were forever separated from the presence of the God of Life. As the prophet Alma taught,
“For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; we shall not be found spotless; and our thoughts will also condemn us; and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence.” (Alma 12:14)
“But behold, an awful death cometh upon the wicked; for they die as to things pertaining to things of righteousness; for they are unclean, and no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of God; but they are cast out.” (Alma 40:26)

The great sin of this world is Death. Because all men must die we are consigned to this awful state. We not only die with respect to our bodies but also with respect to things pertaining to things of righteousness. The righteous and just must also suffer this death. President Joseph F. Smith saw in vision an assembly of saints who waited for the advent of their Savior. He said,
“I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great. And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just.... For the dead had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage.” (D&C 138:11-12,50)
They knew that they could not escape from that prison called death, nor could they cleanse themselves from sin. And that is the awful state that we all find ourselves in.

If death were the last and final state of man, and the end of our story then there would be no hope. But in His infinite wisdom, God has prepared a way for us to escape. Because we have yielded to temptation, the Lord has provided for us a savior that we may be brought forth by the power of the redemption and resurrection, and brought back into the presence of God.

In a vision, the prophet Isaiah found himself before the throne of God. Upon realizing where he was he proclaimed,
“Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5)
Isaiah was overcome because he knew he was impure and covered with the blood and sins of his generation. But Isaiah continued his story,
“Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 6:6-7)
In that moment Isaiah was cleansed from his sins and he was made pure. The holiness and purity of God cleansed and purified Isaiah. He was given the Spirit of the Lord, as a gift, and it purified him and made it possible for him to enter into the presence of the Lord. Because of this Isaiah was able to say,
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;” (Isaiah 61:1)
Herein is the essential thought. Before we can receive the good tidings of great joy we must first be washed and anointed and cleansed from the blood and sins of our generation. Only then can the Lord bind up our contrite spirits and broken hearts. Only then can those who are in bondage, either through physical or spiritual death, be set free. And herein lies our faith and our hope.

As President Smith saw in vision,
“And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality; And who had offered sacrifice in the similitude of the great sacrifice of the Son of God.… They were assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world, to declare their redemption from the bands of death…. [when the] Son of God appeared, declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful; And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance.” (D&C 138:12-19)
Although we may be unclean and impure, we can become clean through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. During Jesus’s life time he went about touching and healing people who were sick. He did not shy away from those with leprosy. A woman who had an issue of blood came and touched him and was healed. When he went into the room where Jairus’s daughter’s dead body lay, he took her by the hand. When Lazarus had been dead three days Jesus went to the tomb where he lay. In all these cases according to the Law of Moses, Jesus would have been ritually impure, and therefore ineligible to enter into the presence of God.

The only problem was that Jesus was God, and the one who gave the Law. According to the Law of Moses a man was made unclean by coming in contact with death, but if by that contact the dead return to life, is that man still impure? It was the ultimate Jewish legal paradox. In all these cases Jesus was not made impure by the illnesses and death, but rather His purity overcame their afflictions and they were healed. His power and holiness overcame the things of death that separated these people from the presence of God.

By showing us that he could overcome physical ills and death Jesus showed us that He can also overcome spiritual death. There was a man who was paralyzed and his friends brought him to Jesus to be healed.
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately [the man] stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God.” (Luke 5:20-25)
So as we prepare ourselves to enter into the temple, we must remember that we must first become clean. And we are “cleansed by blood, even the blood of [God’s] Only Begotten; that [we] might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory” (Moses 6:59)

Each of us must first be baptized by water, and then receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. Then the blood of the Lamb of God, which was offered as a sacrifice for our sins, will cleanse us from the impurity of death, both physical and spiritual. “For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified”. (Moses 6:60)

May we all apply the atoning blood of Jesus Christ and prepare to enter into God’s presence. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Lord Will Justify His Servants

Recently I was watching the annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I noted how President Monson's health seemed to be deteriorating. He was only able to speak during two sessions and he did not have his usual energy about him as was typical of past conferences. This is a fact of life and it had to happen sometime, but I considered for the first time that this might be the last conference with President Monson.

During the Saturday morning session I was also struck by how old President Packer looked. He has been in poor health for a while and has delivered his last few conference talks seated in a chair instead of standing at the podium.

Considering the relative health of Presidents Monson and Packer, up until this past conference I would have assumed that President Packer would pass away before President Monson. But while I listened to President Packer the thought entered my mind that he may out live President Monson. This would be important since President Packer is currently the senior apostle which means that if President Monson were to die then President Packer would be the next prophet.

I was intrigued by this possibility because I remember a few years ago some people got upset with something President Packer had said in a conference talk and took their complaint to the megaphone of the internet. Within just a few hours there were YouTube videos with the "offending" statement and a slew of comments wishing a quick death on President Packer. There were others calling on the Church to "officially distance itself" from his comments. Still others threatened to leave the Church over his "hate filled" and "sickening" comments.

Like so many things they were making the proverbial mountain out of a mole hill (more like an ant hill). They seemed surprised that an apostle would actually teach official Church doctrine as, well, official. There really was nothing surprising about what President Packer said, unless you assumed that he, and the Church, would simply go along with the "popular" morality of our day. So those who simply assumed that the Church would blithely follow whatever wind of doctrine was currently blowing in popular culture were shocked to find that President Packer would say, "No. We still keep our same morals."

So a week ago when I was watching conference I considered the real possibility that President Packer might be the next president of the Church. This was odd because I had for several years fully expected him to pass away before President Monson. I thought, "It may just be that the Lord is allowing President Packer to live just long enough to justify His servant."

I do not claim any special knowledge of what the Lord has planned, but from my experience I do know that the Lord respects and will justify His servants. As Nephi said shortly before he died:
"And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good. And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye—for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness."
And as Moroni said:
"And now I bid unto all, farewell. I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleading bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead."
Also as Jesus told Moroni in comfort:
"Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness; And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness, and I will show unto them that faith, hope and charity bringeth unto me—the fountain of all righteousness.... If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore, thy garments shall be made clean. And because thou hast seen thy weakness thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father."
I know that the Lord will justify His servants in His own way, but last week I thought that the Lord might let President Packer live just long enough to become the president of the Church. This would give members the chance to sustain President Packer as the prophet. In this way He would justify His servant. I do not know if this is what will happen, but however the Lord chooses to do it, in this life or the next, He will justify all his servants.

Here is a link to one of my favorite talks by President Packer.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

His own work in His own way

Dear Anonymous,

In the 1998 animated film Prince of Egypt there is a scene where Moses lifts his staff over the Red Sea and then dramatically slams it down into the water. The sea parts, accompanied by the masterful music of Hans Zimmer, and makes a path for the children of Israel to escape the armies of pharaoh. It makes for an impressive, albeit physics defying, visual image. As a point of story telling it is used as a wonderful reconciliation scene for many major and minor characters (such as, Moses and Aaron, Aaron and a camel, an old lady and a young child, etc.).

As a part of story craft it is one of the better scenes ever put into a movie because it says so much with so few words. It is a moving and touching scene that has moisened many eyes. I'm sure that there are many out there who would testify that while watching that scene the Spirit witnessed to them of the truthfulness of what happened.

Here's the thing. I could point out the physical impossibility of that scene as it is depicted, but I don't think anyone who has been significantly moved by it would be interested in a dry exposition on why the physics just doesn't work. Some would simply respond, "But it's a miracle and God can do whatever He wants!"

I'm sure that others would encourage me to not be "quick to dilute it so, nor dismiss it" and would further encourage me to "Pray and try again" to know that it is true.

The problem is that the portrayal of the parting of the Red Sea in the Prince of Egypt not only defies physics but also is not in agreement with what is found in scripture. Furthermore if we hold to the parting of the sea as depicted in the Prince of Egypt then we actually miss an important insight into how God performs His work with and through His children.

In D&C 8:3 God states, "Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground."

Note, He did not say, "this is the spirit of suspending the laws of nature" or "this is the spirit of I can do whatever I want because I'm God!" He said what brought the children of Israel through the sea was revelation to Moses, not a suspension of the laws of physics. In my younger years I remember many discussions in Seminary where LDS youth would read that passage in D&C and then try to reconcile it with their perception of how Moses parted the Red Sea. I remember some people wondering how an obvious display of magic (à la Prince of Egypt or Cecil B. DeMille) is an example of the spirit of revelation. In my time I heard many attempts to reconcile the two.

It was not until years later that I realized what the problem was. LDS youth were influenced by artistic portrayals of the Exodus story and were mistaking the art for the reality. With an incorrect concept of what happened it made it difficult to reconcile an important insight into the nature of prophets, revelation and miracles with what we thought had happened. The reconciliation and simple understanding of what Moses and God did in reality is limited by our perception of what happened. If we start with an incorrect assumption it makes it difficult to come to a previously unknown, but true and important, conclusion.

The difficulty for me is that I will be misunderstood. Some may view my critique of the various portrayals of the Exodus story as casting doubt on the veracity of the Exodus or on the power and grandeur of God. The danger is that some of us have a particular view of what it means for God to be powerful, but rather than question our assumptions we question anyone who says otherwise. God can still be powerful without suspending the laws of physics.

So did the Exodus happen? Yes. Did it happen in the way portrayed in the movies? No. But that does not challenge the glory of God. It only demonstrates the limited understanding of man. If we allow ourselves to be led by God He will show us how He does His own work in His own way.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Using the Proper Method of Proof

A while ago someone left a comment on my blog challenging me to use Baye's Theorem to find the probability that the Book of Mormon is a historical document. At the time it struck me as odd that some one would insist on using Baye's Theorem to prove a historical fact. But it prompted me to do some reading on Baye's Theorem and I found that there are a whole group of people who try to use Baye's Theorem to prove all sorts of things (there are also a great number of people who say they are wrong in doing so).

The reason why he insisted on using Baye's Theorem stems from the fact that all things pertaining to numbers and math are incontrovertible, at least to rational minds. The thinking goes that no rational person can deny that 1+1=2, and by extension, if something can be proved using math then no one can say otherwise (we'll just ignore the incompleteness theorem for now).

So there is a general feeling that if something can be proved or disproved, or found probable or improbable using math, then no one can say otherwise and every rational person must accept the same conclusion. Thus the thinking goes, "If person X is a rational person then they will apply math to problem A. X applies math to A and reaches conclusion Q. If X accepts Q then they are rational. If X rejects Q then they are irrational."

So when the commenter left his comment challenging me to use Baye's Theorem to find the probability that the Book of Mormon is a historical document his thinking probably went something like this, "I am a rational person and I know the Book of Mormon is not historical. Therefore if someone else uses math on the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and they are rational, then they will come to the same conclusion that I did." (I would be surprised if he actually thought that.)

The tendency is to consider something we know to be true, and because we think we are thinking rationally, we conclude that if someone else uses a rational thought process they will always come to the same conclusion. If they come to a different conclusion then we tend to conclude that they are irrational, especially when there is *math* backing us up.

So I was challenged to use Baye's Theorem in the hope that I would come to the exact same conclusion that he did. Fortunately that is not how proof works. As Aristotle put it:
“It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.”
Sometimes people try to describe this and say, "The truth is messy." or "Proof in history/religion/field-of-study-that-is-not-based-in-math is messy." I prefer not to think of it in that way. Understanding the different methods of proof requires a certain level of humility and maturity of thought. When humility, maturity and direct experience with the subject matter are achieved then any proof is easy and flows naturally. It is only pride, immaturity, and inexperience that make any proof hard.

When we have gone through similar mental processes and have had similar experiences then arriving at the same conclusion is easy and natural. If not then proof is hard, if not impossible. This is perhaps what Wittgenstein was thinking when he wrote:
"This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it—or similar thoughts.... Its object would be attained if it afforded pleasure to one who read it with understanding."
If we are to prove something to anyone else we must recognize that it is not so much about the method of proof, for no single method can be used for all truth. You can't throw math at everything and think it constitutes proof. I think there is something inherent in all intelligence that requires personal experience for any proof to be accepted.