That there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth

Sometimes a person’s influence lasts long after he’s gone. And sometimes, that influence is so strong and causes so much sorrow that thousands of people are affected by it, thus altering the course of a people’s history forever.

Such is the case with a guy named Nehor in the Book of Mormon. This guy, we learn, was “large” and “noted for his much strength,” and had crafted a particularly compelling message that many people bought into.

Alma 1 - Nehor

Here’s what Nehor taught:

  • Every priest and teacher ought to become popular; they should not labor with their own hands but be supported by the people.
  • All mankind should be saved at the last day.
  • Therefore, people need not fear nor tremble, but should rejoice, because in the end, all men would be given eternal life.

Here’s what initially happened, as a result of his teaching:

  • Many believed on his words and began to support him and give him money.
  • Nehor was lifted up in the pride of his heart.
  • He began to wear costly apparel.
  • He also established a church after the manner of his preaching.

Alma 1 - Nehor(2)

And here’s the beginning of the end for Nehor, the man:

  • Nehor contends with a man of God named Gideon.
  • Gideon admonishes Nehor.
  • Nehor becomes angry with Gideon and attacks him.
  • Gideon is old, can’t withstand Nehor’s attack, and dies.
  • Nehor is arrested, brought before the chief judge.
  • Chief judge sentences Nehor to death for his crimes, according to the law of the land.
  • Nehor acknowledges that what he had taught was contrary to the word of God.
  • Suffers an ignominious death. (Link to this entire account in Alma chapter 1 is here.)

…But the beginning of Nehor, the message:

So Nehor dies, but we learn it doesn’t put an end to his particular flavor of religion, for there were apparently many who “loved the vain things of the world,” so they carried Nehor’s banner and taught all kinds of false doctrines for the sake of “riches and honor.”

Subsequent antagonists in the Book of Alma embody some form of Nehor’s message.  And each one displays the same hot-headedness, anger, and murderous heart against anyone who disagrees with their brand of belief. In fact, nearly each battle Alma and his people fought – and there were many of them during this decades-long account – was against a group of people whose leaders embraced the order of Nehor. Thus, the spread and adoption of Nehor’s message led to spiritual and physical destruction.

Nehor’s Relevance for Today

In 2009, evangelical sociologist Christian Smith published his findings of several years worth of research on the religious beliefs & practices of American teenagers and young adults. He found that teenagers these days generally view God as someone who certainly exists, but whose main job is to help people feel good about themselves. According to Smith:

God is not demanding. He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.¹

“Make people feel good” sounds a lot like Nehor’s message to “lift up your heads and rejoice,” but don’t fear or tremble (i.e., repent), because God has saved everyone, and will make everything better in the end. Thus, Nehor acknowledged the existence and even redemption of God, but preached that God demanded little from his people. His message, along with the hate-filled resentment of God-fearing believers that often associated it, proved to be terribly destructive.

That there might not be more sorrow…

It’s little wonder then that Alma, as high priest and one who had testified earlier of the liberating power of repentance, which I wrote about here, spent so much time and energy declaring the word of God to his people. His whole work was an effort to convince people of the need to repent, of a loving Christ who atoned for the sins of each individual, and of the pure joy of being forgiven and embraced by a personal, knowable God. Alma only wished a more effective voice and wider audience:

Alma 29

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¹Christian Smith. Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. With Patricia Snell. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2009) p.165. [As quoted in John Gee. On Corrupting Youth. FARMS Review: Volume – 22, Issue – 2, (2010) pp. 195-28. Link: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=22&num=2&id=811#_edn155]

Reflections on a Child’s 1st Birthday

Her due date coincided with a midterm exam in my most difficult class of the semester. The professor had been somewhat reluctant to let me possibly take the exam at a different time in the event our daughter decided to come on that day, September 20.  “Do you really need to be there for that?” she had asked incredulously. I paused for a moment to formulate a reasonable response. “Well probably,” I think I said. “So far I’ve really liked being married and I’d kind of like to stay married.”

Despite my anxiety over Professor Maleficent, and despite my wife’s growing discomfort, we were both looking forward to our little girl’s arrival. Mixed in with the excitement was a little nervousness about adding a second child when our first was just a month shy of his two-year birthday – especially as I had just begun the most challenging year of my graduate program. To complicate matters, my church service responsibilities required getting up early to teach a group of 20 teenagers about the New Testament, which took place Monday through Friday, each week and each month, throughout the school year.  

Thankfully, our baby came a week after the due date, thus averting a showdown with Professor Loki, although whether my wife was as thankful for the delay as I was is a different story. The rest of the year was admittedly challenging. But now that the pace of life has slowed a bit and there are a fewer responsibilities on our plate, we’ve increasingly gotten into the rhythm being a family of four. 

But with the perspective that comes with time, I reflected back on the last year the other night as I put our little girl to bed. After she fell asleep in my arms, I sat there making some assessments about the different aspects of my life since she was born:

  • In the last year, has the amount of love and affection in my heart increased, or decreased? Increased, I realized, definitely increased.
  • In the last year, have I slept more or less than the year before? Easy. Much less.
  • In the last year, has my capacity to efficiently handle different priorities and responsibilities increased or decreased? I think probably increased – still working on it, of course and imagine I always will be.
  • In the last year, have I exercised more or less than the year before? Less, unfortunately. Probably should be the one thing I don’t let slip during busy or challenging times.
  • In the last year, has my family grown closer together or farther apart? Closer. In fact, I thought of the joy I feel as I watch our two kids play and interact with one another. And their relationship has grown over time. Soon after we brought our daughter home from the hospital, I was slightly worried about our son’s reaction to this new baby in our family and how he would handle the change. But one night when the house was quiet and the kids were in bed I had a deep sense that despite his young age, he has a great, latent love for his sister and that his love and affection for her is older than either of them. It was a flash of truth that gave me, as their father, the perspective necessary to help encourage and rekindle that affection. Now we’re seeing that love and relationship expand as they both grow up.

Overall, despite the lack of sleep and the slowdown in my exercise routine, and even despite the overall craziness during the last year, I’m very thankful for this little girl in our lives. She has won me over each day since she was born. The father-daughter relationship, I have found, is unique from the father-son relationship. Both are wonderful in their own way and for their own reasons and I love them both. Nothing quite compares with being a parent.

All of this has made me realize that the decision to have kids has been among the best decisions I’ve made in my life – only preceded, perhaps, by the decision to be physically present at their births, which as it turns out, helped me stay happily married…despite the best efforts of Professor Palpatine.

Guest Post: Becoming Minnesota Nice

minnesota nice

Image from Fifth Element

When I first moved to Minnesota, I not only fell in love with the cheese curds, UFFDAH! and food trucks, but with the people as well. Why are Minnesotans so nice? It only took a short while to find out that Minnesotans are serious about making you feel like you just ate a bag of warm mini-doughnuts. Whether it is connecting with neighbors at “Neighborhood Night Out”, co-workers at dinner after work, friends from yoga class, or even a store clerk at the Hockey Giant, I find that Minnesotans really radiate niceness. And if you don’t pick up on that radiation, some even wear tee shirts that say “MINNESOTA NICE” on the front to help remind you what being a Minnesotan means.

What makes most Minnesotans want to become nice, and treat everyone with civility and kindness? I have been thinking on civility lately – you know, how polite you are in your behavior and speech – and how civility basically comes down to the kind of person you are trying to become. Read the comment sections in any major news outlet, and you will see why I am so thrilled to live around people who are just genuinely kind. It seems to be more acceptable these days to treat anyone you want with contempt if your views do not blend well with theirs. After all, what is it that makes us want to be inwardly implosive by finding the small chinks in everyone’s armor? What makes us want to be outwardly dynamic by radiating warm and positive intentions? I believe that the root of the matter is grounded in what we are individually trying to become.

When I think of my journey with God to become something better than I am, I sometimes wish I could just get a report card from God’s office to let me know how I was doing; was I getting a ‘B+’ in prayers, but an ‘F’ in pride? I have come to believe that our ultimate evaluation is not merely a tally of good and evil acts kept by a distant, intimidating teacher. Rather, in the tension of everyday relationships with family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers, we learn how to gradually perceive our own shortcomings and rely on the grace of God to improve. It is a beautiful transformation of becoming something God desires us to become. He sees in each of us a divine man, woman, or child that can reach out to Him through prayer, and can assess what action needs to unfold in our daily lives to help mold our wills to His, if we will let Him.

I have found that by living the standards and teachings of Jesus Christ, I have a clear awareness of who I am, where I am going and how I can be happy. This gives me confidence and a deep desire to work toward being the disciple of Christ that I know my Heavenly Father wants me to become, not just whatever I want to be. This knowledge gives me a greater purpose. As we work on this process we will radiate—literally sending forth and releasing—to others what we are becoming. A prophet once stated:

Every man, every person radiates what he or she is. Every person is a recipient of radiation. The Savior was conscious of this fact. Whenever he came in to the presence of an individual, he sensed that radiation, whether it was the woman of Samaria with her past life, whether it was the woman who was to be stoned, or the men who were to stone her; whether it was the statesman, Nicodemus, or one of the lepers.  Christ was ever conscious of the radiation from the individual, and, to a degree, so are you, and so am I. It is what we are and what we radiate that affects the people around us.

Think about the last really nice thing someone did for you. How did you feel?  Compare that with how you felt when someone yelled at you (or you yelled at them). I have felt my inner light dim when I am unkind or disrespectful. It alters the tilt of my soul and the spirit that I radiate.

Today when I was running on the Stone Arch Bridge, with the crisp September air and earthy leaf smell by the Mississippi, I began to wonder what spirit I was radiating to others around me. Could the commuters on their bikes, and the couples walking their dogs possibly feel, that I am trying to live as Jesus taught?

There is something divine in each of us that yearns for the living God and to connect with Him. Try today to bring your awareness of what you are radiating to those with whom you interact—your co-workers, your children, people on the bus or train. What acts are you actually doing that bring greater light into the world? The best men and women I know live their life so close to God that they bathe those around them with the love of Christ. Many of them are the Minnesotan Nice.  

There is a power in the book…

I know there are some people who have an immediately negative or skeptical reaction to the Book of Mormon (the book, not the musical, just to be clear), and if you’re one of those people, I ask you to hear me out on this, and, if you can find it in you to temporarily suspend your less-than-enthusiastic feelings for a moment and simply consider the following, I encourage you to do so. 

In 1986, an LDS leader – the president of the church, whom Latter-day Saints believe to be “a prophet, seer, and revelator” (think modern-day Moses or Isaiah) – made a curious statement regarding this unique text:

It is not just that the Book of Mormon teaches us truth, though it indeed does that. It is not just that the Book of Mormon bears testimony of Christ, though it indeed does that, too. But there is something more. There is a power in the book which will begin to flow into your lives the moment you begin a serious study of the book. You will find greater power to resist temptation. You will find the power to avoid deception. You will find the power to stay on the strait and narrow path…When you begin to hunger and thirst after those words, you will find life in greater and greater abundance (emphasis mine).

I’ve sequentially read through the 531 pages of the Book of Mormon several times. I’ve also studied it in a somewhat similar way to how I study some textbooks for school: reviewing certain topics, themes, narrative structures, subsections, literary devices, and whole sub-books. I’ve counted and marked the number of times Christ is mentioned (6,758, by my last count). I’ve counted and marked the instances where a divine voice – either Christ’s or the Father’s – is quoted or speaks directly (949, by my last count), which is a distinct break from the very human, largely first-person, though multi-speaker narrative that makes up most of the Book of Mormon.

The gathering of interesting facts and trivia like these, is all well and good, and can certainly serve a purpose. But each of these personal explorations of the text have yielded an interesting side-effect for me. The side-effect has been the feeling of something deep within me stirring my soul and drawing me back to the Book of Mormon for more. Not more of book-knowledge in and of itself, necessarily. Just more of this really wonderful feeling of being close to God and seeing all of life more clearly – a kind of quiet happiness and joy. In other words, my experiences have led me to conclude that the statement by Ezra Taft Benson is true. There is a power in the book. I do feel a strength within me to resist temptation. I do feel a new kind of eyesight and discernment to avoid deception. And I find an internal resolve to stay true to my commitments. Life is more abundant, more clear, and more enjoyable.

The heart and soul of the LDS Church is not that individual members simply give intellectual assent to some authority figure. My belief is that the heart and soul of our church lies in the hearts of individual Latter-day Saints who have felt this same stirring, this same power, which we believe to be the still, small voice of the Spirit of the Lord – the same spirit that confirms the truths of the Bible, which Latter-day Saints also read, study, and love.

Of course, while I hope – based on my experiences – that more people will want to read the Book of Mormon to test promises like these, I also know that many will remain indifferent, maybe because it’s a religious text, maybe because it is rather dense, maybe because they’d just rather see the musical than read the book. Even so, I hope that eventually the Book of Mormon will be viewed more favorably by the outside world, because there’s a lot to value in this book. As historian Daniel Walker Howe described

True or not, the Book of Mormon is a powerful epic written on a grand scale with a host of characters, a narrative of human struggle and conflict, of divine intervention, heroic good and atrocious evil, of prophecy, morality and law. Its narrative structure is complex. The idiom is that of the King James Version, which most Americans assumed to be appropriate for divine revelation. Although it contains elements that suggest the environment of New York in the 1820s (for example, episodes paralleling the Masonic/Antimasonic controversy), the dominant themes are biblical, prophetic, and patriarchal, not democratic or optimistic. It tells a tragic story, of a people who, though possessed of the true faith, fail in the end. Yet it does not convey a message of despair; God’s will cannot ultimately be frustrated. The Book of Mormon should rank among the great achievements of American literature, but it has never been accorded the status it deserves, since Mormons deny Joseph Smith’s authorship, and non-Mormons, dismissing the book as a fraud, have been more likely to ridicule than to read it (Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford History of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 314 [as cited in Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon – A Reader’s Guide, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 11]).

Even if you never pick up a Book of Mormon and start reading, I hope you’ll at least glance at the posts here categorized as A Mormon’s Book of Mormon (link also above on the menu), which will highlight phrases, verses, or teachings that you’d find marked or starred in a Mormon’s personal copy of the Book of Mormon – mere remembrances, really, of times in their lives when, while reading their Book of Mormon, they too felt a special power.

What was church like yesterday?

Dear Friend,

Since you couldn’t make it to church yesterday, I thought I’d give you a little update on what it was like. You may remember that our church service is made up of three different meetings or classes – each approximately one hour.

  • The main worship service is called Sacrament Meeting (70 minutes).
  • The second hour is Sunday School (50 minutes).
  • The final hour is additional small group instruction time for women (Relief Society); men and boys (Priesthood meeting); and young women (teenage girls). (50 minutes)
  • Kids between 18 months – 11 years old participate in Nursery and Primary during the 2nd & 3rd hours.

Let me tell you about Sacrament Meeting in our ward today.

The opening hymn sung by the congregation was hymn #277 As I Search the Holy Scriptures. Click on the link to hear the tune and follow along with the words. For me, the song captures some of the longing and the fulfillment I have felt in my life as I try to regularly study and learn from the scriptures, so it’s a personal favorite of mine.

The sacramental hymn, also sung by the congregation, was hymn #181 Jesus of Nazareth, Savior and King.

The prayer over the sacramental bread was then offered, and some young men walked the trays of broken bread from row to row. The prayer over the sacramental water was offered next, followed by the young men passing the trays which hold little individual cups of water.

With this contemplative period coming to a close, the young men sat down and the sacrament program began. As usual, some preassigned members of the congregation stood to give some prepared remarks:

  • Speaker #1: A twenty-something year old woman from Orange County. Not a lifelong church member – not even a lifelong believer in God. Three years ago she said she had a wonderful life – she had a job, was going to school, and lived with a dog who loved her. One day she walked passed two women wearing black name tags. She politely smiled and said hello as she walked on, but said she felt immediate regret for not stopping to speak with them. Through several more serendipitous encounters with these women, she began meeting with them and eventually, after several months, she was baptized a member of the LDS Church. She compared her life before baptism to someone who’s color-blind but doesn’t know it – they can still have a good life, even if they don’t recognize or appreciate the richness of different colors in the world. But internalizing the principles of the gospel cured her color blindness and now she appreciates and values the things in life that she did not know were there.
  • Speaker #2: A mother of two young kids, also a registered dietitian, originally from Finland. Spoke about the importance of education – not just formal academic achievement, but of maintaining a love of learning throughout one’s life. She shared from her own experiences in college and graduate school that she felt more productive in her studies and learning when she first spent some time reading from and studying the scriptures. She retold a story from the Book of Mormon about two brothers who complain to their younger brother that they just don’t understand what their father recently taught them. The younger brother asks them, “Have ye inquired of the Lord?” She used this to teach that God can help us understand and learn what we need to learn, whether that has to do with the gospel of Christ, or our physics lesson.
  • Speaker #3: the husband of speaker #2 – an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor). Time was running out, so he gave a very condensed version of his prepared message. But he continued along the same message of the importance of seeking to learn from the best books. He shared his testimony that learning and experiencing is one of the main reasons God put us on earth.  

The closing congregational hymn was hymn #304 Teach Me to Walk in the Light – a simple yet pleasant song whose message provided an additional reminder to seek learning and “loving guidance to show us the way.”

In another letter on another week, I’ll talk about the 2nd and 3rd hours. But hopefully this gives you at least a taste of what happened at church yesterday.

A Concluding Thought

The experience of being a Latter-day Saint is, of course, grounded in participatory learning and serving. The end goal is not just to assimilate knowledge and information – even scriptural knowledge, as helpful as it is. The ultimate objective is to internalize the principles of love, service, and Christlike compassion so that they actually change our natures, desires, and behaviors.

Dallin Oaks, an LDS leader, once saidIn contrast to the institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something.

The regular activity of church involvement – teaching, learning from, and working alongside others across the socioeconomic and ethnicity spectrums – help us internalize these truths and become something more than what we currently are. Our choices to exercise faith in the Savior and participate in such ordinances and service enable the grace of Christ to bring about this gradual transformation in our desires and character.

I hope next week you’ll “come and see” for yourself. Meetinghouse locator here, for wherever you are in the world.