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Good Debt

I had an interesting experience this afternoon in Portland.  I’ve been attending a library conference and afterwards, my friend, Michael, and I walked around the city center.  It was a wonderful walk!  He and I first met when we were serving our missions in Germany.  Afterwards, we were roommates at BYU.  We got married to our respective wives around the same time–in fact he met and started dating his wife while Julie and I were on our honeymoon and proposed to her very quickly after we returned to Provo.

Today, while walking around the Saturday Market, we were approached by a woman who was soliciting funds for a community kitchen.  Since I had no cash on me, I could not make a donation; my friend, however, did have some on him and put in $10.  The woman, who vaguely reminded me of Jane Goodall for some reason, thanked him and said, “That makes $5 for each of you.”  She then turned to me and said, “That means you owe him $5.”

In thinking back on that experience, I can see that I actually owe him far more than that.  I owe him for 25 years of friendship, for games of pool and listening to Billy Joel on the Jukebox.  I owe him for many times when I needed a dollar or two or three or five at the store.  I owe him for his reserved manner, judgment, and wisdom.  I owe him for planting the seed of becoming a librarian in my mind, a step that was so obvious to others that when I finally decided to go to library school many responded with a resounding “duh.”  I owe him for good advice while I was in library school and for good advice in helping me learn the profession now that I have a position.  I owe him for the Rush ticket for the concert coming up in July (I’lll get that paid for sure). 

Heaven knows what I’ve put into the relationship.

As I thought about it, for almost every person dear to me, I feel like I owe him or her something.  A kind of spiritual/psychological/emotional etc. debt.  It’s a good debt, though.  It’s the kind of debt that draws us to each other, that makes us loyal to each other.  To take it one step further, these good debts are analogous to the good debt we owe the Savior.  We, of course, can never repay that debt and he does not expect us to fully pay it off.  He asks that we make payments of “following” him and trying to be like him to whatever degree we can: “What manner of men ought ye to be?…even as I am” (3 Ne. 27:27).  We will always fall short, but the efforts will always raise us to some degree.

It does seem a bit odd to hear the emphasis on “self-reliance” in much of the communication from the Church, nowadays.  While I understand and accept that rhetoric to a degree, I think it also significant to recognize the good debt we owe to family members, friends, and fellow congregants.  These good debts are a significant part of our lives and communities.  And, the more we owe, the stronger our love for our “creditors.” 

Isn’t this one lesson of the story of Christ and the sinful woman?  If you will recall, when he entered the house of a Pharisee, she came in after him and cried, washing his feet with her tears and kisses, drying them with her hair, and then perfuming them; the Pharisee questioned his patience with the sinful woman, but the Savior responded with the parable of the forgiven debtors, the one owing 50 denars, the other owing 500.  Since neither debtor could pay, the creditor canceled both debts.  Christ then asked, “Which of them will love [the creditor] more?” (Luke 7: 42; NIV).  The Pharisee replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled”; and the Savior responded, “You have judged correctly” (v. 43).

This parable is rightly spoken of in terms of forgiving and having mercy, of offering grace to others as the Lord offers grace to us.  But, I think that its aspect of the debtor loving the kind creditor is just as salient.  We are indebted to those who offer us the grace of love and constructive attention and it is our privilege to offer the same grace to others.

Unlimited Fish and Grace

I just read the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and saw it in a subtler light than I have seen it in the past (Luke 9: 10-17; I am currently reading the NIV).  It occurred to me that Christ performed this miracle as much or more for the Apostles’ sake as for the crowds’.  When the Savior told his followers to feed the crowed, they answered, incredulously, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish” (v. 13).  They responded phenomenologically; the phenomenon, or the “experience” or “fact,” of such limited quantities shaped their reading of the situation.

But Christ needed to teach them to see “beyond the phenomena,” if I may put it that way.  He needed them to learn to take that Kierkegaardian step into the darkness, the leap of faith.  This story shows that “material” limits are not constraining to the Lord. 

What occurred to me tonight, however, was the fact that we sometimes respond like the Apostles when it comes to grace.  I remember being told as a child to not contribute to Christ’s pain through my own sins and transgressions (I’m still not clear on what the distinction there is all about).  But, the thing is, that statement seems to treat Christ’s grace as a kind of finite resource.  This is not true.  Christ’s grace is infinite.  His grace has already covered our sins and the sins of everyone, if we will turn ourselves to him.  This, of course, is a well-known concept.  What struck me tonight, though, is that this miracle may have been performed as a deliberate material manifestation of this concept.  God’s grace cannot be limited by our phenomenological experience of the world.

Today in Sunday school, we looked at the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 and a number of thoughts came to mind. 

1)  We talked about the concept of nurturing, noting that sometimes our soil isn’t always receptive just as others’ soil is not always receptive.  We often/always need to nurture soils–ours and others’.  As we talked about this, I made a linguistic connection: in German, the verbs for planting and nurturing have a common root.  One  verb form of to plant is pflanzen, while one verb form of to nurture is pflegen.  It seems to me that just as there is a linguistic connection between these two concepts, there is a strong connection between nurturing others with the Word and helping to plant the Word.  In fact, it seems that we are often doing both at the same time.

2)  It occurred to me that the concept of “wayside” is perhaps more crucial than we often times may recognize.  The wayside is the part of a path that is not part of our goal, it’s what at the side of the road, so to speak.  The sower in this parable manages to sow in the wayside, meaning he sowed where he did not “mean” to sow.  It struck me that one of the way to read this is as a reminder that our actions and words are the action of sowing, even when we don’t intend to do so.  Are our words and actions spreading the Word?  There’s a kind of philosophical distinction between “acting” and “being”that comes into play here.  Action is the surface, while being is much deeper.  One can act compassionately, without being compassionate; but, if one is compassionate, then they can only act compassionately.  If we are always sowing, through our actions and words, then we must ask ourselves whether we are merely acting like disciples of Christ or are we disciples of Christ in essence.  If we are essential disciples, then we will sow good seeds.  If we merely act the part, then the quality of our seeds may be wanting.

3)  I think sometimes we read the parable in a kind of “one-shot” fashion.  The Word was sown and “they” either accepted it or did not.  The action of sowing, however, is cyclical.  A farmer has to sow a number of times if he/she is going to remain a farmer.  Similarly, we, as sowers of the Word, must sow over and over again.  One implication of this is that we need to think of sowing, or sharing the Gospel, as a process, rather than an event. 

4)  Related to the preceding observation, the element of the soil is perhaps more complex than I had appreciated earlier.  Soils change over time.  Good soil can be made barren, while barren soil can improve.  In the parable, several different types of soils are named, but there is nothing to say that these kinds of soils could not change.  The discussion made me think of my grandfather who had been born in Salt Lake City and raised in the church, but had an “uneasy” relationship with it throughout his life.  However, over time, he became a rather solid member of the church who received a remarkable patriarchal blessing rather late in life in which he was basically told that he would be received of the Lord because he had never given up and would end his life faithfully.  His soil needed to be pflegt, or nurtured, for many years before the seed finally took root.

Struggles of Faith

Just read a rather thought-provoking post about the struggles many younger, astute Mormons go through in their struggles of faith:

The responses make for thought-provoking and sometimes rather disturbing reading. I sometimes wonder if an Athanasian/Arian conflict might erupt in the Church.

Here’s my response…for whatever it’s worth [please forgive the errors…I’m rather tired and did not put this response through multiple drafts]:

Thank you, Hannah, for this thoughtful consideration. There are indeed some vexing questions in today’s Church history/culture. Sometimes, I have similar concerns… and I’m from an older generation–I was at BYU in September 1993 and remember the anxiety and even anger felt and expressed by some of the English faculty.

I often times find some odd sense of comfort in the fact that Alma 5 and Jacob 2 & 3 were delivered to the members of the church and that the narrative arc of the Book of Mormon and the two Testaments is actually one of failure (structurally, they are very similar [a group is called from the world to be “separate” and “chosen” but ultimately cannot live up to the charge]) . Those societies ultimately failed to really embrace the Gospel and be transformed by it. Certain generations or groups seemed to “get it”–for example, the People of Ammon–but the majority did not. I think the odd comfort I find in these realizations is that despite the odds, transformation can, in fact, happen.

In my spiritual life, I find myself focusing on those times when the Spirit touched me and I am convinced it was something beyond me and I try to let those moments guide me. I feel that Joseph Smith was, indeed, a prophet…an imperfect man, by his own admission, and a prophet. I feel that the priesthood is real…though I don’t understand why women are denied it outside the temple and it disturbs me deeply that many worthy brothers were denied it for so long (I believe that had more to do with the imperfections and blindness of the members than with anything else). I believe that homosexuality is a far more complicated issue than we heterosexuals can really understand (and I’m grateful that a BYU professor, whom I shall not name, expressed this thought as well when I became concerned about the topic and brought it up in an office visit). I believe the Church can offer the world a lot of good in spite of the fact that we tell a rather uneven story to ourselves and the rest of the world–there are, thankfully, many Mormons who are willing to pitch in and try to help alleviate acute suffering…would that more would be as concerned about chronic suffering as well.

I have come to believe that we are operating in a “by the skin of our teeth” drama. I believe that the Gospel and Truth (yes, I’m using the capitals consciously) will win out eventually, but that the victory may be rather messy and we may not recognize it as such in the actual playing out. I always keep in mind a wise insight a fellow missionary once said. I was having a very, very difficult spell and was struggling with some deeply “existential” questions (I still have yet to find an apt adjective), and this elder said, “You know, God is infinite in love and mercy. We don’t even really know what that means since we are so imperfect in those two qualities. It will probably be worth hanging on to find out what that means.” In my life since then, I think I’ve had fleeting glimpses of what a perfection of those qualities may be like; just enough to keep me going. (Yes…God is also perfectly just, but the Atonement was wrought to give us the chance to escape perfect justice.) I also try to keep in mind that the Lord has instructed on many occasions that love and mercy are supposed to be the guiding principles in our existence and I clumsily try to follow the Savior’s injunction.

That’s part of the view through my glass darkly. I think that sticking with the Church requires and will continue to require an act of will. Those of us who do stick with it trust that this act of will shall eventually be born out by the eternities/universe.

Serving, Not Leading

Interesting set of thoughts here! A few years ago, my wife ran for city council and was often asled about her thoughts on leadership. We talked about it and decided that when it comes to communal action, the more important questions have to do with cooperation. Will we see cooperation seminars and workbooks? It would be nice…but probably not as profitable…so maybe we won’t. Darn!

My friend alerted me to this great column from Henry Rollins on the Stubenville convictions.  I can’t say I really respect a lot of famous rock musicians, but Rollins is one of them.  He thinks deeply about issues and he considers many angles.

I think what bothers me most about this case is the depth of failure on so many socio-cultural levels.  In thinking about the Book of Mormon, it feels like this is nudging towards the absolute depravity of both the Nephites and the Lamanites at the end of the chronicle.  True, the idiots who performed this rape did not kill her and feed her flesh to her family, but in taking pictures and making videos about it, they symbolically cannibalized her by making her an object of consumption.  The thought is father o the act.  Will we see the sickening depravity of the last days of the Nephites any time soon?  Crap!  I hope not.

I read about the results of the rape trial today and wanted to puke!  Thought I would just let you all know I have no sympathy whatsoever for what you are experiencing right now.  The convictions of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond are, frankly, not even close to justice for the crime.  The crime itself is bad enough, but the fact that your community tried to cover it up all for the sake of your petty civic pride and love of football are practically inexcusable!  This kind of utterly disgusting incident should have been dealt with harshly and quickly, but your institutions tried to sweep it under the rug.  According to the accounts I have read, even more young people should be on trial…I recall reading that one of the stops on this atrocity parade was an assistant coach’s house.  Really?  How is it he was also not convicted for contributing to the delinquency of minors?  Turning a blind eye towards this kind of abomination (and all that that word implies) is revolting to the highest degree! 

A Great Prayer!

This week I was on the website of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin doing some work for my German class.  Before World War II, this was one of the most spectacular and beautiful churches in Berlin and was, unfortunately, pummeled during the war.  The citizens of Berlin made an interesting decision about the building, however.  Rather than tearing it down and rebuilding it, they decided to leave it standing as a memorial and reminder of the horrors and Hell of war.

Gedächtniskirche1                           me-kaiserwilhelmGK

In fulfillment of a long-standing desire, I was able to finally visit the church in 2010 when I traveled in Germany with students.  (Yes. I know it’s a bad picture of me on the right…but, there I was.)  It struck me again, that we Americans know so little about the total costs of war primarily because we have not had a standing war on our own soil in more than a hundred and fifty years.

Anyway, while on the site, I found this wonderful prayer.  It is titled Versöhnungsgebet von Coventry and is a translation of The Coventry Litany of Reconciliation.  As a simple exercise, though, I translated it from German back into English…and it came out slightly different, but beautiful nonetheless:

Father, forgive the hate that separates race from race, nation from nation, and class from class.

Father, forgive the striving of people and nations to possess what they do not own.

Father, forgive the possessiveness that wastes the labor of people and ravages the Earth.

Father, forgive our jealousy over the success and happiness of others.

Father, forgive our complicity in the suffering of the imprisoned, homeless, and refugees.

Father, forgive the degradation of women, men, and children through sexual abuse.

Father, forgive the haughtiness that leads us to trust in ourselves and not in Thee.

Father, forgive!

Thoughts on Infallibility…

A post I read earlier today got me thinking.  The post was from Joanna Brooks. a very bright and quirky Mormon…Gott sei Dank! [German for “Thank God.”]  The post has to do with how we teachers in the Church should handle “sticky” historical situations.  What an important topic!  We don’t live in a perfect world.  We don’t have perfect leaders…and we never have.  Unlike Medieval popes, LDS general authorities have never made claims to infallibility…and the smart ass in me wants to add that even if they did, their wives and children would make sure the truth got out.

If we are to have a well-grounded faith in the Gospel, we have to recognize that the Church has made some rather significant mistakes in the past and we need to be aware of those mistakes before we can learn from them.  For example, the Church made a huge mistake in withdrawing the priesthood from African-American members (for a timeline, see  This bungled policy not only violated one of the most beautiful teachings of the Book of Mormon (see 2 Ne. 26:33) but was clearly an extension of conventional 19th and 20th-century American racial/racist consciousness.  Thankfully, we’ve been growing away from that.

An important concept here is that just as we don’t expect perfection of individuals we shouldn’t expect it of the institution as well.  In Doctrine and Covenants 1, the Lord states that He’s “well pleased” with the church as a whole (v. 30), but that does not imply that there was no room for development in the church.  As a father, I am well pleased with my five-year-old son, but I recognize he has a long way to go in his development.  An analogous situation exists with the Church.  We will always have room to grow, develop, improve, and someone who cannot accept that is operating with very unrealistic and unhealthy expectations.  (I can well imagine that a marriage with an intractable spouse must be an absolute Hell.)

Now, all of this is not to say that we should parade the Church’s mistakes in Sunday school lessons or conversations, nor should they become the focus of our study.  But, as questions come up, we ought to be open to learning and always asking ourselves questions like, “What can this teach me about being a better follower of Christ?” or “Is there something I can do in my family or in my ward to keep us from going down this path or one like it?”  Ultimately, historical mistakes can be embarrassing, painful, and even detrimental, but they can and should also be educational as well.  They should also teach us humility.

On a musical note, Brooks’s post made me think back on the lyrics for one of my favorite songs by Rush, “Entre Nous”:

We are secrets to each other
Each one’s life a novel
No one else has read
Even joined in bonds of love
We’re linked to one another
By such slender threads

We are planets to each other
Drifting in our orbits
To a brief eclipse
Each of us a world apart
Alone and yet together
Like two passing ships

Just between us
I think it’s time for us to recognize
The differences we sometimes fear to show
Just between us
I think it’s time for us to realize
The spaces in between
Leave room for you and I to grow

We are strangers to each other
Full of sliding panels
An illusion show
Acting well rehearsed routines
Or playing from the heart?
It’s hard for one to know


We are islands to each other
Building hopeful bridges
On a troubled sea
Some are burned or swept away
Some we would not choose
But we’re not always free



Well, as a species, we seem a bit stupid.

This year I am reading from the Old Testament, which I have actually never read cover-to-cover, despite seminary, institute, BYU religion class, and teaching the book in Sunday school.  And, last night I read something that really bothered me from the book of Genesis, a detail from the account of Noah and the Deluge: “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11, my emphasis).  Having just finished the Book of Mormon again in December, I could not help but think about the bloody ends of two of the major civilizations in the book: the Jaredites and the Nephites—the Lamanites, of course, were also no strangers to violence.  What bothered me is that the quality of violence was a condition for the Lord to cause the Flood and the demise of two civilizations (and actually, one could make the case that the demise of the biblical civilization had a lot to do with violence, as well) coupled the violence we’re witnessing at this moment on the Earth.  The blood of Sandy Hook is still fresh on my mind and a Facebook friend of mine recently commented on the upsurge of gun buying—especially assault weapons—in Utah in response to anticipated changes in gun control laws.  I have had conversations with other Mormons about these attendant issues and what deeply disturbs me is the quickness with which it seems many in the Mormon community seem to accept violence not only as a necessary course of action, but a desirable one as well.  It seems we are swayed more by NRA jingoism than the scriptures.

To illustrate the absurdity of the “more guns=less violence” argument (an argument of causality not correlation) thrown around by gun-rights advocates, let me offer an analogous situation, one that will be distressing to our Australian brothers and sisters at this moment.  If a community were to have problems with forest fires, how illogical would it be to offer as a solution an increase in match and lighter ownership?  I think most clear-thinking individuals would argue that it would be an unacceptable solution because it actually increases the likelihood of the problem’s occurrence.  We could formulate the problem in this way: the more the means become available, the more likely an outcome will be achieved.

To return then to the original concern of gun violence, gun-rights advocates are making the same argument: the answer to gun violence is more guns.  Again, the more the means become available, the more likely an outcome will be achieved.  The more guns are available, the more likely they will be used.  Is there evidence that this is the case?  As a matter of fact, there is a great amount of evidence.  In a commentary on the Sandy Hook shootings, staff writers at The Economist recently pointed out:

America’s murder rate is four times higher than Britain’s and six times higher than Germany’s.  Only an idiot, or an anti-American bigot prepared to maintain that Americans are four times more murderous than Britons, could possibly pretend that no connection exists between those figures and the fact the 300m guns are “out there” in the United States, more than one for every adult.[i]

But, there’s something else at play here besides mere numbers.  Many gun-tottin’ Mormons simply parrot the NRA line that we have a higher murder rate because we have more people.  This argument rests on the assumption that if other countries like Germany, Canada, etc. would have similar numbers of murders if they had as many people.  Unfortunately, this claim has very little support.  As a matter of fact, if we look at per capita murder rates, we find that this claim falls flat on its butt.  Max Fisher in a recent Washington Post article points out that per 100,000 people, the US murder rate is 20 times higher than the average murder rate for other developed countries.[ii]  Per capita comparisons, of course, are calculated to mitigate discrepancies in population differences.  Thus, according to this research, if the population of Germany or another developed country were the size of the United States, we would still be twenty times more likely to be killed by a gun in America.

With the population factor accounted for, we cannot avoid the possibility that what makes our gun-related death rate so high is the presence of guns.  So, how do we rank on gun ownership?  The Economist article points out that in the United States we have more guns than adults.  More detailed information comes from the 2007 Small Arms Survey, an independent research project sponsored by the Graduate Institute of International and Developmental Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, which reports that American gun ownership is 43,560 per 100,000 people[iii] and our firearm murder rate is more than three per 100,000 people (referring to the piece in the Washington Post).  How does this compare to other developed countries?  Sweden’s ownership rate is 40,910, yet their firearm homicide rate is less than 0.5 per 100,000 people.  Germany’s ownership rate is 34,870 and their firearm homicide rate is even less than Sweden’s.  Canada’s ownership rate is 32,590 and their firearm homicide rate is right at 0.5 per 100,000 people.  Switzerland actually has a higher per capita ownership rate at 55,320 and yet has less than one firearm murder per 100,000 people.   Thus, there are other developed nations with comparable gun ownership rates that experience far fewer firearm homicides.

Thus, when we account for differences in population and in rates of gun ownership, we find that raw numbers don’t tell the whole story.  Trying to figure out what the other pieces of the puzzle are is an important task and is crucial to addressing the situation.  Let me just quickly suggest that one vital factor is America’s embrace of violent media.  We love shoot ‘em ups, whether they be TV shows, movies, songs, or video games.  What happens, though, as we consume all this violent media is that violence becomes normalized, a sociological term that refers to the fact that our norms are set by social practice and interaction.  If we perceive that violence is normal and acceptable, then it is so because we have chosen that to be the case or we have not chosen to resist it.  There are other choices available and we are not making those choices.  Per 100,000 people, almost 12,000 more Swiss own guns, but they choose to use them on each other far less than we do.  The fault for our violence lies with us and with our perceptions of the world, which is both reflected in and strengthened by our media culture.

The number of Mormons supporting the increase of guns in America is troubling on at least two levels.  Number one, this support seems to support a pattern (violence) that the Lord, through the scriptures, has tried to teach us is a bad thing.  If we are His followers, why would we rush to embrace something He has actively punished mankind for, in the case of Noah, and passively punished the Jaredites and the Nephites for? Why would we embrace the means of violence?  Number two, this support evinces a willingness to embrace the ways of the world that should cause us to pause.  Gun-tottin’ Mormons assert the right to defend their homes at the point of a gun—a problematic assertion.  One particular aspect of this defense bothers me as a follower of Christ: how many times does the Lord promise of “fight our battles” if we will rely on Him?  In this hypothetical scenario, these Mormons would rather rely on a weapon, an extension of the “arm of flesh.”

My concern here is that many Mormons, as evidenced by their behaviors and pervasively expressed attitudes, seem a bit too willing to resort to or rely on violence as a means of addressing cultural violence.  Again, this is similar to saying we will address forest fires by buying more matches and lighters.  The more I engage with the scriptures, the more convinced I am that we should expressly reject violence as a problem-solving strategy.  Human nature, or the “natural man” if you will, shows that it will resort to violence often times with little or “cheap” provocation.

When all else fails, WWJD, right?  I cannot quite picture Christ showing up with an AR-15 in hand (a tool, by the way, created solely for taking human life) to an NRA rally. Given His words in the scriptures, I think it is far more likely He would show up unarmed to a pro-peace or a human rights rally.  Until we learn this lesson that Noah’s dispensation, the Jaredites, and the Nephites all failed to learn, to resist violence, we are doomed to realize their failures.


[i] The Economist. 2012. “New Town’s Horror.” 22 Dec. Print., p. 12.

[ii] Fisher, Max. 2012.  “Chart: The US Has far more Gun-Related Killings than any Other Developed Country.”  14 Dec.  Web. Accessed 9 January 2013.

[iii], see specifically Chapter 2, Annexe 1: Seventy-nine countries with comprehensive civilian ownership data


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