Category Archives: LDS Philosophy

Golden Rule

As a Christian, I was raised on the concept of the golden rule–that you should treat others as you would like to be treated. And as a Mormon, I believe in the reality that all of humankind are brothers and sisters, children of the same Heavenly Parents, and that we lived together before this mortal life.

As such, I also believe that all of us will someday stand before our Maker with our memories of our pre-mortal life restored, and we’ll see again that all of these people who’ve been around us our whole lives really were our brothers and sisters and friends, regardless of where they were born, what color their skin is, whether or not they lived in accordance with our understanding of the gospel, whether they agreed with us politically, etc. And in addition to remembering them and our past friendships, we’ll also have a perfect knowledge of how we treated or mistreated them.

I think a non-trivial part of hell will be the shame of realizing that the people who we were mistreating, demonizing, bullying, despising, hurting, and rejecting were people we knew and loved before this world, and yet we had been monsters to them. On the flip side, I think a non-trivial part of heaven will be the joy of realizing that those people we helped, and comforted, and strengthened, and forgave, even if  we thought they were total strangers that we would never meet again, were in reality really dear friends long forgotten.

I’m far from perfect at consistently applying this belief. I still get angry at other people, I’m not always kind or forgiving. I’m often quick to impute negative or dishonest motives to people I agree with. But I still believe with all my heart in the reality of the brotherhood/sisterhood of humankind.

You’ve never met a true stranger. Only family.

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20 Years Ago

About 20 years ago, possibly on this very Sunday, I had one of the most important turning points in my life. This story is a hard one for me to share, but I felt I had to write it down. I didn’t start writing my journal till a few months after this event, and I didn’t want it to be lost.

I was just starting as a freshman at Brigham Young University in Provo, and had also just barely turned 16. In case you’re wondering, I had skipped a grade in elementary school, and ended up finishing my last two years of high school in one year via an independent study program. I had moved out of my parents’ home to live with my grandma, who lived about 2 miles from BYU, in large part because I didn’t get along well with most the guys in my youth group at church. My family doesn’t specialize in “black sheep”, so this was about as close as any of us got to “running away from home”.

Not wanting to repeat the experience I had had with my home ward, I didn’t want to be part of my grandma’s congregation. I didn’t want to be a college student hanging out with high school kids, even if we happened to be the same age. So I went to the student ward whose boundaries I lived within. The problem is that being an off-campus student ward that didn’t at the time have any apartment complexes in its boundaries meant that almost everyone in that congregation was of returned missionary age or older (21+), meaning I was the youngest person in the ward by over half a decade. I didn’t fit in at all, or have anything in common with anybody. Nobody was mean at all, but nobody at the time was really any more than “check the box” friendly either. I really didn’t feel like anybody understood me or really cared about me.

Being a teenager and a college freshman, and being away from family the first time is a challenging enough time for most people, but combine that with not really having any close friends, being 2 years younger than almost everyone I knew, and thus not really feeling like I had a connection to anyone made for an extremely depressing and lonely time. I personally hope that most of you reading this have no idea what I’m talking about.

Anyhow, this wasn’t working for me, so I went to talk with the bishop of the student congregation, and he told me that while LDS policy is pretty clear that you’re supposed to attend one of the wards in whose geographical boundaries you reside (we’re not like other faiths where you’re encouraged to shop around for a congregation you like, you’re supposed to worship and serve with those around you, from all walks of life), that in his opinion I might be better served if I found an on-campus freshman student ward to attend. I’d have to eventually move into that ward’s geographical boundaries if I wanted to stay, but at least at the time it was the best option he could suggest.

The only challenge was I had no idea how to find a freshman student ward to attend.

I remembered that a few of the students who had been in my freshman orientation “Y Group” had lived somewhere down in an on-campus housing complex known as Heritage Halls. But I wasn’t really sure where, or when on Sunday they went to church. I was getting ready to give up on the LDS church and organized religion at this point, but wanted to give it one last chance. I decided I’d head down to Heritage Halls, and find a place to wait to see if anybody I recognized happened to stop by. If they invited me to go to church with them that Sunday I’d go. Otherwise, I was ready to be done. It’s not that I thought the church was false, or that anything like that. I was just spiritually and emotionally done.

That was 20 years ago today.

As you can guess if you know anything about me, I did meet some friends there that day. When I told them that I was trying to find a ward to attend, they didn’t hesitate for a second, but cheerfully suggested that I should join them and their ward. As a brief aside, I have a Pandora station going in the background as I’m typing this, and right as I typed that last sentence a song started playing talking about how You’re Not Alone. I’m not sure there’s a more fitting way to put how I felt that moment.

They took me in.

I was young enough to be their annoying little brother, but they took me in. They introduced me to their other friends. After church, they asked if I sang, and when I said yes, they invited me to join them for choir. And when they found that my walk home was 2 miles, they invited me to stay around for dinner, and ward prayer that evening.

I was home. For the first time in many years, I felt like I was really and truly at home.

Did life stop being awkward for me, being 2yrs younger than all of my peers? No. Do I really feel like any of them understood me at all? Did I even understand me at all? No. Was my social life all roses from there? Not even remotely. But I was home. I knew that even though they didn’t understand me, they really honestly cared. In some ways that made it mean even more. Of all the places in the world I could run away to, and all the crowds I could’ve fallen in with, I’m not sure I could’ve found a classier group of 18 year old men and women on the planet.

Spiritually speaking, that year really was a turning point for me.

I wouldn’t be ordained as an Elder in our church for another two years, but when I sang “Ye Elders of Israel” with the brothers in that ward, I really felt that the song meant me as well. When the sisters sang “As Sisters In Zion”, I truly came to appreciate that the errand of angels was quite often given to women. After all, it had been a group of those sisters who had cheerfully invited me to join them that day 20 years ago.

Being surrounded by such good examples gave me strength, and made me want to be a better person–someone who worthy of having friends like that. It gave me a desire to know for myself if the restored gospel was true. In the end, I had to know, and finally got my answer. And when I did, the answer was that “You know it is true. You’ve always known it’s true? Wherefore can you doubt?” I truly gained my own testimony that year, a desire to get my life in order so I could serve as a missionary, a testimony of the prophet at the time, Gordon B Hinkley, and a love for sacred music. Most of what I’ve become as an adult was a direct result of events that year, all of which were triggered by a simply offered invitation when I needed it most.

I’m pretty sure none of those sisters or brothers in that ward had any idea of what they did for me. They were just 18 year olds, doing what came naturally to them–reaching out in friendship to someone who needed it badly. But they made all the difference in the world to me.

I’ve since lost track of almost all of them. But I hope and pray wherever they are, that if they’re ever found in the lonely and depressing circumstances that I was in that day, that they too can have someone be there for them with the gentle hand of human kindness. I don’t know if any of them remember me anymore, but I hope I’ll never forget.

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Thoughts on Answers to Prayers

I’ve had two recent events that got me thinking about prayers and answers to them. One of them was a conversation over lunch on my last day at Space Access. I can’t remember all at the table, but at one point someone brought up the concept of prayers and that he felt he had had some of his answered over the years. One of the other gentlemen at the table mentioned that as humans subject to confirmation bias, we tend to remember events which reinforce our beliefs, and forget those that don’t, and that if you pray for help in various situations that you’re more likely to remember the times when the thing you asked for happened, and forget the times when the thing you asked for didn’t happen. More recently, a recent twitter friend of mine, who is a fervent atheist made the claim that 90% of surveyed scientists do not believe that prayers get answered, as though that was an indication that faith was somehow unscientific. He also claimed that faith is belief in something without proof or evidence.

As for me, I have no doubt that I’ve received answers to my prayers–not just when I asked for something I wanted and got it, but literal answers sometimes. Some of the answered prayers were semi-miraculous, where I can’t think of a legitimate scientific explanation for what happened.

Like when we had our garden in Loveland protected from a hailstorm as a child after my mother had us pray for help. The prophet had told us we ought to plant gardens if we could. We had done so, and now a massive hail storm was coming, so my mom gathered us children around, and we said a prayer telling God that we had done what he had asked and that we needed his help to protect those crops. The hailstorm came, and while there was so much hail that it had looked like it snowed in our backyard, and while most of the trees in the neighborhood took severe damage, almost no hailstones fell on our garden plants. The walkways between the raised berms in the garden were deep with pebble-sized hailstones, but the plants weren’t harmed, and in fact we had the best harvest from that year’s garden that we ever had in my childhood memory. I don’t know of a realistic scientific explanation for how hail would fall inch deep in the paths and in the yard, but wouldn’t touch the four raised beds of the garden.

Or on my mission in the Philippines, I had several experiences (at least one in Bolinao and at least one in Binmaley) where we needed to find someone in a part of town I had never been to, and didn’t have a map for. We had prayed for help, and I saw a map in my mind, clearly marked showing where the person was. We’d go to that place, find roads exactly where I had seen them, and find the person there exactly where I had thought. In some cases, when I later found a map of the area, some of these roads weren’t even shown on the maps. How do you scientifically explain seeing a vision in your mind of a map of an area you’ve never been in, that accurately predicts exactly where the person was?

The weird thing though was that of these more tangible answers to prayer, where I can’t think of a legitimate scientific way to explain away the answer, most of these events weren’t actually that spiritually consequential. The 2-3 times I saw the map in my mind’s eye never led to teaching someone who accepted the gospel, in fact in both instances we met with the person and they weren’t interested and we never came back. The only one of these tangible answers to prayer that seemed to have any spiritual significance to me at all was the incident described above with the hailstorm in Loveland, and that’s probably because we were asking God in faith to protect something we felt he had asked us to do through the prophet.

On the other hand, many of the most meaningful answers to prayers that I’ve received have been ones that a scoffer or skeptic could easily brush off as some sort of delusion or wishful thinking–times when I felt that God had literally answered my question I had been trying to get an answer for. I remember my freshman year at BYU praying to know if the Book of Mormon was true. I had been raised in the Church, but had plenty of doubts, and many of my internet friends I had made that year were also agnostic or atheistic. It would’ve been rather convenient at the time had I not received an answer. But if you’re ever with me on BYU campus, I can show you where I got my answer. It wasn’t some glorious vision or tangible miracle–I just felt a voice tell me “You know it’s true. You’ve always known it’s true. Wherefore can you doubt?” This happened in a busy hallway in the Eyring Science Center in between classes. There was no audible voice that anyone else heard, but I knew my prayers had been answered, and I had no excuse for further doubt. And really there’s never been any going back for me. But a skeptic could easily claim that I had dreamed this up or imagined it.

Why is it that my experiences that a skeptic who had experienced them would have the hardest time brushing off weren’t usually that meaningful to me, while the ones that could be easily brushed-off were the most life-changing ones? I don’t know. But I know my prayers have on many occasions been answered. I know it, and I’d be dishonest to myself and the evidences I’ve seen to claim otherwise.

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Service and the Atonement

If you ask an LDS church member to name a scripture related to serving others, one of the ones you’ll likely here the most is from the Book of Mormon, specifically Mosiah 2:17, which states:

And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.

In some ways this parallels the Savior’s teaching in the New Testament, in Matthew 25:31-46 (specifically verse 40), which in the KJV states:

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I think it’s easy for us to take these verses metaphorically. That serving our fellow beings is furthering God’s goals. Or that doing something (good or ill) unto “the least of these our brethren” is like we’re doing it unto Christ. But what if these verses are less metaphorical than we think?

Isaiah, when he testified of the Messiah in Isaiah 53:4 (repeated by the prophet Abinadi in the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 14:4) stated:

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.

And the Book of Mormon prophet, Alma, testified about Christ (in Alma 7:11-12), saying:

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people…and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

Basically, a lot of times we forget that in addition to the paying “for our sins”, and the “dieing and being resurrected so that we can live again” parts of the Atonement, Christ also somehow willingly experienced all of our pains, sorrows, frustrations, loneliness, guilt, shame, feelings of inadequacy, rejection, and in short all of the injustices and challenges we face in life. Not just those brought upon ourselves by our own poor decisions, but those that come as a result of living in mortality with imperfect bodies, and those caused by the carelessness or willful malice of others. Christ is able to understand us and empathize with us, not because he also had a rough life and bore griefs that were somewhat analogous to our own, but because he experienced the whole of human suffering as part of his Atoning sacrifice.

On the flip side, did he also experience all the small acts of kindness, and service, where people went out of their way to “lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees”? Did he experience the joy that the lonely feel when one reaches out to them to let them know they matter and are cared about? Did he feel the hope restored when we visit someone who is sick or in prison and cheered their hearts? Did he feel the relief of the overwhelmed when someone paused to share their burden with them? Did he feel the relief we feel when someone forgives us of our screwups and mistakes, or when someone shows us undeserved mercy?

I’m not sure how profound this really is, but it was an insight I had this morning that I felt was worth sharing. It definitely put the concept of service in a new light for me.

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One of my Favorite Joseph Smith Quotes

From “The Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” (p. 246-47):

But while one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feeling that influence the children of men, causes “His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” He holds the reins of judgment in His hands; He is a wise Lawgiver, and will judge all men, not according to the narrow, contracted notions of men, but, “according to the deeds done in the body whether they be good or evil,” or whether these deeds were done in England, America, Spain, Turkey, or India. He will judge them, “not according to what they have not, but according to what they have,” those who have lived without law, will be judged without law, and those who have a law, will be judged by that law. We need not doubt the wisdom and intelligence of the Great Jehovah; He will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several deserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family; and when the designs of God shall be made manifest, and the curtain of futurity be withdrawn, we shall all of us eventually have to confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right.

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