Positively Biased for Conference

If you are hitching your happiness to things being a certain way, it’s a setup for suffering.

-Tara Brach

As General Conference approaches, Latter-Day Saints are going to be hearing conflicting messages on social media, and they can generally be grouped into two themes:

  • General Conference is coming, and we get to hear teachings from prophets. Hooray!
  • General Conference is coming, so brace yourself. There will probably be things said that are harmful or insensitive. You need to steel yourself against the possibility of being hurt.

The first theme is one that views Conference as a time of rejoicing. It affirms that Conference speakers are good people and that their messages are inspired. Whatever they say, it will be for our good.

The second theme views Conference as threatening. It is neutral or negative about the motivations and/or divinely-ordained callings of the speakers, and it doubts the capacity of the hearer to process conference messages in a healthy way.

Both themes reflect bias, and bias is not a bad thing. Everyone brings their biases and worldviews to every part of life — including faith — and people who claim to be unbiased are just demonstrating another form of cognitive bias called the Bias Blind Spot. For a lengthy list of cognitive, emotional and other forms of bias, see here.

There is no such thing as an unbiased viewing of General Conference, but it is possible for us to be mindful of what we bring to the Conference experience and respond to our biases (and conference) in ways that lead to our growth.

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3 Nephi and The Revealed Christ

I finished the Book of Mormon again a few weeks ago. This year, I didn’t have a specific theme to focus on, but I knew I wanted to do a writeup of impressions, and I had a thought to focus on 3 Nephi. It’s maybe the spiritual summit of the Book of Mormon text, but to be honest in all my readings of the BoM, I’ve never really applied myself to understand that book like I have others.

Here at the outset, I want to make a claim about the Book of Mormon in general, and 3 Nephi in particular. If you have never heard of Marcion and his heresy, he was a theologian in the early Christian community who developed a strong position that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God who had come in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. In Marcion’s thinking, The Jewish/Hebrew Jehovah was mean-spirited, ruthless, and cruel, while Christian Jesus of Nazareth was completely different: kind, loving, merciful, and so forth. Therefore, they could not be the same entity.

Parts of the Marcion heresy are still alive and well today, even among wonderful Christians around the world. But Latter-day Saints bring to our understanding a Book of Mormon witness that Jehovah and Jesus are one and the same. And 3 Nephi is the book where this reality is shown with the most clarity. 3 Nephi thoroughly destroys the Marcion heresy.

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We Love Best by Telling the WHOLE Truth

My friend and co-blogger Dan Ellsworth’s article in Public Square Magazine was prescient, given that just a few hours later Elder Holland’s address to BYU faculty and staff was published. Dan’s description of our tendency to hear what we want to hear as a form of idolatry is bracing but needed. “Ironically, one of our most persistent idolatries is the refashioning of the divinely revealed Christ into a sentimentally-appealing false Christ named ‘Jesus,’ who exists to make us all feel loved and happy,” he writes. I thought I would provide three examples of this trend I have noticed that buttress his point.

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Come, Listen to a Prophet’s Voice

This week, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement regarding facemasks and vaccines, that reads as follows:

 Dear Brothers and Sisters:

We find ourselves fighting a war against the ravages of COVID-19 and its variants, an unrelenting pandemic. We want to do all we can to limit the spread of these viruses. We know that protection from the diseases they cause can only be achieved by immunizing a very high percentage of the population.

To limit exposure to these viruses, we urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective.

We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders. Please know of our sincere love and great concern for all of God’s children.

The First Presidency

Russell M. Nelson

Dallin H. Oaks

Henry B. Eyring

I’m writing for two reasons today.

The first is to congratulate the number of my friends who have strong reasons for opposing the vaccine, and have changed their tack in view of the prophet’s call. This letter is making a difference for folks, and I appreciate them for it. It takes faith and humility, and they will be better for it.

When I went to church today, I saw a great number wearing masks. The bishop addressed the issue directly, and kindly. He said “the overriding two concerns of the ward council are to follow the prophet, and to ensure that every member of this ward is treated like a member of our family.” There was kindness, there was following the prophet, and there was a special sort of camaraderie. I’m grateful to all who listen when the time comes to listen.

But that’s not the only reason I write.

Spiritual Experiences, Motivated Reasoning, and Objectivity

A sometimes-perplexing issue in Latter-Day Saint epistemology is the question of how we value what we call “spiritual experiences.” We believe that God can communicate to us through powerful feelings, which critics sometimes dismiss as the elevation emotion, as if they have somehow determined that God cannot or would not use the medium of emotion to communicate with us. I have a little more in-depth discussion of what we call “spiritual experiences” here in my post on epistemology, and I also recommend Blake Ostler’s FAIR presentation on that topic.

But for the sake of this discussion, I want to focus on the question of our feelings. Are they valuable in helping us to know what is true? And to what extent? Are they more or less valuable than reason?

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A Love Note to the Universalists

For believing Latter-day Saints, universalism speaks to a legitimate problem and a legitimate yearning.

The problem universalism speaks to is as follows: exaltation is the product of choices in the direction of eternal life (God’s life) that are made by souls who see their options with clarity.  In mortality, many of us — to some extent all of us — have trouble seeing our choices with clarity.  Some of the reasons for this (sin, rebellion) are within our control, but other reasons for our inability to see clearly (culture, trauma, neurological wiring, lack of opportunity) are to some extent not within our control.  So after this life, there will be periods of time where people come to see reality with the clarity that has not been possible in mortality.  Universalists are confident that everyone who sees with this clarity will choose eternal life, or that God will somehow unilaterally impose eternal life on everyone, regardless of their choices.

The legitimate yearning that universalism answers is the desire to be with loved ones for eternity.  Latter-day Saint universalists see in the statement “families can be together forever” not a statement of possibility, but a statement of divine intention.  They view any possibility of eternal separation from loved ones as being contrary to God’s plan, and view the eternal gathering of our Heavenly Parents’ children as being an ideal that is fully within our Heavenly Parents’ power to achieve.

There is a degree of legitimate truth in these universalist ideas, and we would do well to honestly acknowledge that.

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Tithing is a Covenant Responsibility Even When we Disagree With How the Church Uses it

I have seen quite a lot of discussion recently about tithing and heard a few people say that they do not feel that they can pay a tithe to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There appear to be three broad areas of concern. 1. The argument that the Church is not using it’s sacred funds wisely by investing and saving rather than using for immediate charitable works, 2. That the lack of transparency is troubling, and 3. That tithing funds may go to support causes that the individual strongly disagrees with. I’ve seen this criticism from liberal friends who see Church donations as homophobic and also from more conservative friends who disagree with partnerships with groups like the NAACP that they see as racist or pro-aborrion.

Others have written very articulately about the first two points and so I am not going to write about them at length. I would however briefly note that it is legitimate to question how tithing is used and to seek more information or transparency. But I don’t think that desire for greater transparency can justify withholding from God when he has instructed us to bring our tithes to his Church.

I want to mostly address the third concern head on because it goes to a point I feel strongly about.

In our Church we are led by individuals that we sustain as Prophets, Seers, and Revelators. These men have never hesitated to use the pulpit to speak out on matters of policy that they felt were of vital moral importance.

As members we are allowed to disagree with the Church on these matters. We are not required to give up own own political opinions or blindly agree with the Church on any matter.

And as President Oaks talked about powerfully in the most recent General Conference, when it comes to my vote or how I donate politically or otherwise participate in politics, I am free to exercise my agency, to weigh competing issue, and to make my own prayerful choices. The Church does not compel my free choices in this regard with narrow exceptions such as a prohibition on direct financial support for abortions.

But when it comes to tithing, I see it as a matter of offering a sacred sustaining vote for the work of the Lord. Tithing is an act of covenental trust and this trust is particularly vital when I may not see exactly eye to eye with Church leaders on matters of public policy.

Being willing to tithe in such circumstances is an act of humility which is vital for warding off the tendency to think we know better than the Lord and his servants. If we are so disaffected from their decisions that we are not willing to provide the tithing that the Lord has asked, then we are on very shaky ground when it comes to our sustaining vote and our temple covenants regarding consecration.

We get to use our God given agency to vote how we wish and support the parties and platforms that we wish to support. As President Oaks explained, we must do that prayerfully and other members should abstain from harsh judgments on these matters of personal conscience.

But can we put our political convictions and our moral certainty aside to offer or tithing to the Lord and his servants even when the donation may be at cross purposes with our political activity? I feel strongly that being willing to do so is an important and sacred part of the covenant I have made in the temple and each time I raise my hand to sustain the Prophet and the Apostles.

I believe this is at least part of what the Lord is referring to in D&C 64 when he speaks of tithing:

“I, the Lord, require the hearts of the children of men.

Behold, now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.”

Paying tithing willingly even when we do not perfectly see eye to eye with the leadership of the Church protects us from apostasy and in that sense is a crucial form of fire insurance. It is a way that we can give the Lord our heart even when that can be difficult.

Sunday Thought: The Natural State

We live in an age where we question our heroes and our legends and our myths, and I think that’s lame, so I have deliberately cultivated a list of heroes. Among them is Adam Smith.

When Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, he was already thinking about the framing. It wasn’t Poverty of Nations, because after all, poverty is the natural state. Wealth is what is interesting. How do we create it? How do we help people? What are the conditions under which it flourishes?

Another hero is Renee Descartes. He was willing to start over on everything he’d ever known in order to start from first principles. What could he say he knew by logical proof alone? He was willing to abandon it all unless he could say that he knew it. I so admire his courage. Had he not been willing to put it all on the line, he never would have arrived at “I think, therefore I am.”

Recently, I read a talk given by a church member in another congregation saying that we should “be as willing to proclaim earnest doubt as earnest testimony.” He lauded the importance of “normalizing doubt” and “giving space for legitimate questions.”

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Having a five star church experience

I love reading reviews. Whether it’s movies or music or food or places, I have always loved reading the opinions of others. I have enjoyed writing reviews from time to time

One thing that fascinates me about the review writing process is that two people can go to the same place or eat the same dish and have such widely divergent reactions.

Even with some of the most famous and 5-star worthy places in the world, there are always those who go and have a 1-star experience

Here are a few of these bad reviews of famous places. Can you guess what each review is describing?

1) “The place was in ruins. Stadium seemed like it hadn’t been used in years. So old none of the seats even remained, had to stand.”

2)“Far too expensive to look at some rocks.”

3) “It’s a bridge. It’s covered in fog. It’s pointless. Buy a postcard you will see more.“

4) If bricks are your thing you may or may not enjoy this (I didn’t), if bricks and walls are not your thing best to avoid, if you can, too big.”

And here are the answers in case you are curious

1) Colosseum
2) Stonehenge
3) Golden Gate Bridge
4) Great Wall of Chjna

I recently wrote about the divergent reviews that members left after a dedicatory service in Missouri. Reynolds Cahoon left a five star review, exclaiming that his “mortal eyes beheld grate and marv[e]lous things, such as my eyes once never even contemplated of seeing in this world.” Ezra Booth on the other hand left a one star review calling the events “a curiosity,” but said that it was “not worth going to Missouri to see.”

What leads one person to have a disappointing one star experience and another to have a glorious five star experience?

And how would we rate our most recent Church experience? How about our last experience in the temple? How about our last scripture study period?

Let’s focus on our Church meeting experience for the remainder of.rhis post.

Of course, there are variables that are outside of our control. We are part of a church led by volunteer teachers and speakers. That means that the instruction quality really can vary. Some talks or lessons simply may not resonate with us. We may come to Church with emotional baggage that is sometimes outside of our control. Our kids may be crazy and make it difficult for us to pay attention and to learn.

But I think that whether we have a 1 star or a 5 star experience is based to a large degree on us, our preparation, and our effort.

One of the talks that has influenced my thinking on this topic is by President Henry B. Eyring entitled Listen Together. This whole devotional is a gem and I would highly recommend it. But I was especially moved by an experience from his youth observing his father (a brilliant renowned scientist):

“Years ago I was sitting in a sacrament meeting with my father, whose name is the same as my own, Henry Eyring. He seemed to be enjoying what I thought was a terrible talk. I watched my father, and to my amazement, his face was beaming as the speaker droned on. I kept stealing looks back at him, and sure enough, through the whole thing he had this beatific smile.

Our home was near enough to the ward that we walked home. I remember walking with my father on the shoulder of the road that wasn’t paved. I kicked a stone ahead of me as I plotted what I would do next. I finally got up enough courage to ask him what he thought of the meeting. He said it was wonderful.

Now I really had a problem. My father had a wonderful sense of humor, but you didn’t want to push it too far. I was puzzled. I was trying to summon up enough courage to ask him how I could have such a different opinion of that meeting and that speaker.

Like all good fathers, he must have read my mind because he started to laugh. He said ‘Hal, let me tell you something. Since I was a very young man, I have taught myself to do something in a church meeting. When the speaker begins, I listen carefully and ask myself what it is he is trying to say. Then once I think I know what he is trying to accomplish, I give myself a sermon on that subject.’ He let that sink in for a moment as we walked along. Then, with that special self-deprecating chuckle of his, he said, ‘Hal, since then I have never been to a bad meeting.’

I don’t suppose he used all of the steps I have described to you. He may very well have prayed for that speaker. Over a lifetime he had studied. When he knew what the speaker was trying to say, he had a deep well to go to so he could give himself that sermon.

My father was the kind of man who would have listened to that high council visitor. If he had felt a little pricking in his heart to do something, Dad would have done it. He could listen to anybody. He used to embarrass me when we stopped to get gas because he would seek advice from the gas station attendant. Dad would always treat him as an equal. Dad would say: ‘Look, I can learn something from anybody. They have had experiences I haven’t had.’

I think you can have faith and confidence that you will never need to hear an unprofitable sermon or live in a ward where you are not fed spiritually.”

Another similar story that really touched me came from Elder Richard G. Scott who spoke of two experiences he had in Sunday School classes. In one the teacher was humble and taught powerfully with the spirit. In the second, the teacher was more arrogant and tried to show off his intelligence to the class. But in both classes Elder Scott got personal revelation because he had prayerfully sought revelation by the spirit.

I’m not nearly as good at this as Henry Eyring or Richard G. Scott. But I have found that when I come to Church with the correct expectations that I have four or five star experiences more often than one or two star experiences. And that is true even though I have three small girls who can be extremely distracting. (I spent a chunk of sacrament meeting today doing laps around the Church building with my 2 year old and 5 year old who was also barefoot, so I mean it).

Here are a few simple things I’ve found make a big difference for me.

*Bring a notebook and take notes in paper. I find that it is much easier to get distracted on my.phone and that taking hard copy notes really invites revelation. That may not be true for you, but it definitely is for me.

*As I listen to talks I try to quickly figure out the message that the speaker is trying to convey. I then pray for revelation and insights on that particular topic.

*I try to come to Church having done scripture study before hand with particular topics on my mind. It is even better when I come with particular questions or seeking direction

• Lately I’ve been making an effort to either talk to the speakers or teachers afterwards and share something I liked about the talk or to send them a text expressing gratitude for the talk. I always appreciate when people do this for me, and I find that doing this helps to crystalize for me something I liked about the talk

• When I attend a lesson, I try to listen carefully for an opportunity to make a comment. My goal is always to comment in a way that improves the conversation or positively contributes spiritually.

• I try to look for small opportunities to serve either by holding the door for someone or simply by saying hello. I think shifting or perspective frok mere consumers of Church to contributors is a very important paradigm shift.

This is not a comprehensive list, but these are things that have worked for me.

What things have worked for you to try to help you improve your Church experience? When have you had a 5 star church experience? What contributed to that experience?

A Change of Perspective

It’s fascinating how two people are able to look at the exact same thing and yet see something completely different.

Take this famous optical illusion, for instance. Some viewers may see a young woman and others an old woman. And once you see one image, it is not always easy to get your mind to switch back to the other image.

Something similar happened to certain members of the Church in the summer and fall of 1831. At a Church conference, the Prophet Joseph Smith called pairs of missionaries to go to Independence Missouri. The Lord declared that this was “the land which I will consecrate unto my People.”

These missionaries imagined that when they arrived they would find a thriving Church and that they would be able to help prepare for the second coming of the Savior.

But when they got there, they suddenly faced disappointment and uncertainty. Their Zion was a desolate place without any refinements. The Church was tiny and undeveloped. And the settlers were suspicious of them.

Even before they arrived some missionaries like Ezra Booth had become disenchanted. He began to see negative things all around him. He was upset that Joseph Smith rode to Missouri quickly in a wagon while he had to walk. He was disappointed that the meetings didn’t provide the spiritual manifestations he expected.

The Church members in Missouri attended a dedicatory service to set the northeast cornerstone of the temple that Joseph prophesied would be built. Some members experienced a spiritual feast at the event. Reynolds Cahoon exclaimed that his “mortal eyes beheld grate and marv[e]lous things, such as my eyes once never even contemplated of seeing in this world.” But others such as Ezra Booth were disappointed. He called the events “a curiosity,” but said that it was “not worth going to Missouri to see.”

Booth returned to Ohio and soon after left the Church and became a staunch critic. Cahoon remained faithful and made the trek to Utah.

What caused Booth’s disaffection and what allowed members such as Cahoon to stay faithful through the same disappointments and trials?

I think a lot has to do with perspective. At some point, Ezra Booth’s perspective changed and he began to see the old lady with all of her faults and imperfections rather than the young lady with all of her beauty and potential. And once that switch was flipped in his mind, it became easier and easier to see new experiences in the more negative light. He became doubtful that the Lord’s hand was in the Church. The Lord described the thought process of those like Ezra Booth in this way, “They say in their hearts this is not the work of the Lord for his promises are not fulfilled.”

This is a common problem in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today. Critics love to draw attention to all kinds of flaws and imperfections. Any one of these issue by themselves would not be enough to topple faith. But the goal is to push for a shift in perspective. In particular, critics love to undermine faith that God speaks to his Prophet or to us individually. If they can get us to say in our hearts that this is not the work of the Lord, then our faith is vulnerable and can be easily overcome.

Over the past few years, we have had many experiences where we can either see the young lady or the old woman; where we can either experience marvelous things or a mere curiosity.

One example was during the April 2000 General Conference when the members of the Church participated in the Hosanna Shout. For those who were spiritually attuned and prepared, this was a marvelous experience. For others this was a source of derision. Another example was when President Nelson called for worldwide fasts for the Coronavirus pandemic. It would be easy to mock and say that the virus did not go away and that in fact it intensified. But it is also possible to look at the same events with an eye of faith and to be grateful for the inspired vaccines that scientists were able to develop in record time.

But how can we continue to see the proverbial young lady even after we have brushed up against disappointment or discouragement?

In D&C 59 which was received at this time, the Lord offers a pattern that will help us.

First, we approach with an eye single to God’s glory.

Second, we see commandments and direction from God as blessings from above rather than burdens

Third, we strive to love God with our heart, might, mind, and strength, and we serve him

Fourth, we thank God in all things and for all things

Fifth, we offer a broken heart and a contrite spirit

Sixth, we gather together with our fellow believers to keep ourselves unspotted from the world.

Seventh, we keep the sabbath day holy

Eighth, we act with thanksgiving and cheerful hearts

Ninth, we see God’s hand in all things

Tenth, we strive to do the works of righteousness.

As we do these things, we will experience “peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.” We will see the glory of God and recognize his hand in all things. We will avoid disappointment and discouragement when we face setbacks and trials. And we will keep the proper perspective throughout it all.