Some Easter Reflections on Receiving Gifts

One of the movies produced by the church that I actually rather enjoy is Nora’s Christmas Gift, partly because even though it has its cheesy moments, I like Nora, who  is funny and real. But I also appreciate its message, which is one that resonates with me. Nora has to cope with life circumstances that I think most of us would find quite challenging, as age and declining health put her in a position where she finds herself more dependent on others. She has to cope with the unsettling shift from being the person who organized things and offered help to others to being the person in need of help. She quite understandably resents the situation and resists the help. But at the end of the movie, it occurs to her that learning to accept what others offer her—and ultimately what God offers her—is what Christmas is ultimately about: “let earth receive her King,” she says, with a dawning recognition that is it up to her to allow grace to affect her life. Read More

“The Hardest Thing There Is”: Turning to Christ in the Midst of Sin

In his writings, the great reformer Martin Luther, who turned the theological world of the sixteenth century upside down, returned again and again to a very basic problem: how do you believe in the atonement, or grace, or the saving work of Christ, on a personal level? How do you really take in that those things apply to not just humanity in general, and more to the point, not to some category of “good people,” but to a sinner like yourself? “I have often experienced,” he wrote, “and still do every day, how difficult it is to believe, especially amid struggles of conscience, that Christ was given, not for the holy, righteous, and deserving, or for those who were His friends, but for the godless, sinful, and undeserving, for those who were His enemies, who deserved the wrath of God and eternal death.”1 Luther noted that when he found himself consumed by the forces of sin, it was nearly impossible to turn to Christ for rescue and forgiveness. He attributed this at least partly to the work of the devil, whose voice constantly whispered in his ear, reminded him of his unworthiness, and informed him that Christ would surely damn him. He described his experience of being frightened of Christ: “even at the mention of the name of Christ,” he recounted, “I would be terrified and grow pale, because I was persuaded that He was a judge.”2 Luther also observed the inexorable and unforgiving logic of the conscience: “You have sinned; therefore God is angry with you. If He is angry, He will kill you and damn you eternally.” He went on to even suggest that as a result, “many who cannot endure the wrath and judgment of God commit suicide by hanging or drowning.”3

The only way to quiet these condemning voices is, of course, to throw yourself utterly on the mercy of the Savior. But Luther was well aware that this is much easier said than done. To turn to Christ, to look for grace, while being assailed by the forces of judgment and condemnation, he observed, was enormously challenging: “to do this in the midst of struggle is the hardest thing there is. I am speaking from experience, for I am acquainted with the devil’s craftiness  . . .”4

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  1. Luther’s Works Volume 26: Lectures on Galatians, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 36. []
  2. Ibid., 178. []
  3. Ibid., 150. []
  4. Ibid., 38. []

Worthiness

My favorite Richard Dutcher movie, one perhaps lesser known than God’s Army or States of Grace, is a thought-provoking film titled Brigham City. It’s a highly suspenseful murder mystery set in a small Mormon community, and it deals head-on with some hard religious questions. The final scene is deeply moving. I won’t spoil it by giving too many details, but I will say that a crucial element of that scene is the question of what it means to be worthy to take the sacrament.

About eight years ago, when I was still a PhD student, I got to design and teach a Master’s-level class on Mormonism at my school. One week, I showed them Brigham City. The group of mostly Protestant students quite liked the movie, but they said something that has really stayed with me. They said that their take on that scene was different than mine had been, because they came from traditions in which there isn’t a worthiness requirement to take communion (or the sacrament, in Mormon lingo); in fact, one of them said that when you feel unworthy, that’s actually the time when you need it the most. I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. Read More

On Love

When asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded:

… Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  (Matthew 22:37-40, KJV)

“Law” and “prophets” are specific references in this context: the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is called the Tanakh in Jewish tradition, an acronym for Torah (roughly “teaching” or “law”), Nevi’im (“prophets”), and K’tuvim (“writings”). The Torah is the first five books of Moses or Pentateuch; the Nevi’im the books that were eventually named after the prophets who (according to tradition) wrote them (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Haggai); and the K’tuvim are the Chronicles and poetic works like the Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Although the Old Testament as we know it today wasn’t compiled until after the time of Christ – many scholars date the redaction and final closure of the OT canon to the first or second century after Jesus – the Torah and the Nevi’im, the law and the prophets, were pretty well established by Jesus’ time. He was saying, then, that the entirety of the Old Testament as he knew it – the sum of religion – lies in these two simple dicta: love God, and love each other.

And he was citing scripture as he said it. The injunction to love God is in the text of the ten commandments, and the requirement to love each other is repeated in various iterations in Leviticus: Read More

A Few Days Before Christmas: Notes from an MTC talk by Cheiko Okazaki

Nearly a decade ago I was a missionary, serving for three weeks in the Provo MTC before moving on to a smaller MTC in Latin America for the remainder of my Spanish language training. While I was in Provo, Sister Cheiko Okazaki (1926-2011), the former first counselor of the Relief Society General Presidency, came and spoke to the Sister missionaries. (I was sad, after hearing her, that the Elders had not been invited as well.)

I have always loved Sister Okazaki’s thoughts. In her books and public speaking, she quotes often from the Bible. Her advice that day in the MTC was both practical and inspiring, a discussion of dealing with feelings of inadequacy and hypocrisy, of “putting on Christ,” and of navigating the need to forgive ourselves and others on our journey. It was filled with metaphors from scripture about clothing and Christian discipleship. Read More

How do we offer pastoral care?

One of the overarching themes that I see reiterated throughout the bloggernacle – or perhaps, one of the pervasive subtexts – is that LDS people are in need of pastoral care. They seek a space to voice their doubts, to bring their honest concerns and deepest hurts; to ultimately come and find the succor and peace of God. And, because we are a church run by laymen, we struggle to find that space. We are not always, despite our best intentions, able to serve one another. We cannot always see each other’s hearts. We cannot always offer love as we should, or compassion as we should. Most often, I believe, people seek mercy and understanding. They want to know – they need to know – that despite their stupidity, their arrogance, their mistakes, despite being petulant and petty, despite sometimes being mean and cruel, they are and can be good enough. They can change. They can grow. They can purge themselves of the ugly parts. It’s worth trying again. They are worth it.

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Gratitude and Grace

A couple of years ago, I wrote a Thanksgiving post about my ambivalence about gratitude, and why, while I see the value of it, I think it’s a problem to dictate it, or to use injunctions like “be grateful” as a weapon against those who dare to express unhappiness about anything. I’ve been thinking about the subject again this year, but perhaps from a somewhat less psychological and more theological angle. I’ve been wondering—why, religiously speaking, is gratitude important?

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Augustine, Pelagius, and Questions of Grace

One of the theological conundrums in Christianity concerns the relationship between God’s grace and human freedom. What role does God play in the process of salvation, and what do humans contribute? Views ranges from one extreme in which everything is done by God, with humans only playing a passive role, and another extreme in which salvation is entirely merit-based, a reward for our works. Read More

Finding Spiritual Sustenance

The neoscholastics saw grace as something entirely outside the realm of human consciousness. One participated in the sacraments of the church to receive grace, but this grace was essentially alien and separate from human awareness. This view was sharply critiqued by 20th century theologians who noted that under this framework, it was difficult to see why grace would really matter to anyone. Such an extrinsic understanding of grace, they noted, left people with the view that religious practice was something basically foreign and unconnected to the rest of their lives. Why, if it’s not making any discernable difference in your experience of life, would anyone have any sustained interest in religion? Read More

The Universal Salvific Will of God

In 1 Timothy 2:4, God is described as one “who will have men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” The assertion that God has a universal salvific will, that he desires the salvation of every person, poses problems for any theological claim that only a certain group of people (e.g. Christians) are eligible for salvation. Augustine, who saw the majority of humanity as a “lump of sin” headed for perdition, resolved the dilemma by re-interpreting the scripture to mean that God wants salvation not for all people, but for all whom he has predestined. In the 20th century, by contrast, many have taken this verse quite seriously and re-thought the exclusive claims of Christianity in its light. Read More

Thoughts from Julian

In the year 1373, at the age of 30, Julian of Norwich had a series of visions, published as the Revelations of Divine Love. I’ve read the work a couple of times, and I find it good medicine for the overly neurotic soul. While I might not accept all the details of Julian’s theology, I love her picture of a God who is approachable, who is infinitely kind, who isn’t nearly as troubled by our constant failings and mistakes as we are. Read More

Glimmers of Grace

From the beginning of my studies in theology, I’ve been fascinated by the doctrine of grace. As with many questions in this field, I’m particularly interested in what it actually means for lived experience. If grace is something real, I keep asking, what concrete difference does that make in how I live? What does it mean to wake up in the morning to a world of grace? Read More