Thursday, March 26, 2015 0 comments

Romans 11 on the Lord's plan to save the Gentiles through the unbelief of the Jews

Romans 11 has some important concepts for us to understand, as it lays out for the Gentiles how Israel fits into the plan of God in the future even though much of Israel rejected the gospel of Christ in the meridian of time.

This chapter is very hard for most Christians to understand.  Some choke on the idea that Israel might be converted again.  Others are okay with that, but choke on the idea that all Israel will be saved.  I think it is worth it to go through the chapter and discuss how the Book of Mormon and the doctrine of scattering and gathering Israel helps us make sense of this chapter.

1 I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.
2 God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew…

Paul knows God has not entirely cast away His people because some of Israel (including Paul) were converted to Christ.  Paul’s case is a brilliant example because as we know, Paul was previously a rabid opponent of the Christians.  God could have allowed Paul to go on in his unbelieving condition, but instead He appeared to him to stop his persecutions.  God foreknew Paul would be a great instrument in bringing people to Christ.

…Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? how he maketh intercession to God against Israel, saying,
3 Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life.
4 But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal.
5 Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.

Then Paul uses the example of Elijah who, after the deity duel with the priests of Baal, complained about Israel killing the prophets and destroying the true places of worship.  Elijah was concerned that there was no one left of Israel to follow the Lord, but the Lord reassured Elijah that there was still a remnant of faithful people. 

Similarly, there was still a remnant of faithful people among the Israelites in Paul’s day who would be saved.  This remnant would be those who were able to lay hold on the atoning and enabling power (grace) of Christ.  Paul calls this group “a remnant according to the election of grace.” 

6 And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.
7 What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded
8 (According as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear;) unto this day.
9 And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumblingblock, and a recompence unto them:
10 Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back alway.
11 I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.

For verse 6, we have to keep in mind that Paul was previously talking about the election by grace in v5. So in v6 he is talking about election by grace versus election by works. 

We can understand this verse by asking ourselves, “Does conversion to Christ happen because of how we respond to miracles or our own good works, or does it happen because of how we respond to the power of God (grace) through the Holy Ghost?”  I think we can answer that question ourselves.  Miracles awe us, but the effect is not lasting.  And our own works tend to blind us to the need for more of God.  But power felt through the power of the Holy Ghost through testimony is lasting.  “mine elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts.” (D&C 29:7)

Israel certainly hasn’t obtained what it was seeking for.  What was Israel seeking for in Paul’s time?  It was looking for a Messiah that would lead them to victory against the Romans and restore Israel to power and prosperity.  They certainly didn’t get that military leader in Christ at that time.   Israel was also seeking to be justified by the Law of Moses.  They didn’t get that Christ was Jehovah who gave the law and that the Law was meant to point them to Him.  They didn’t get that they had to believe in Christ and repent to be justified of their sins.

The elect, on the other hand, because they were able to see Christ as the fulfillment, obtained both Messiah and salvation. 

Paul also notes it was the mistake of Israel in rejecting Christ that brought salvation to the gentiles.  Jewish persecution pushed many Christians out of Israel into surrounding areas, which led to the Gentiles hearing and accepting the gospel.  Paul hoped that when the Jews saw the blessings coming to the Gentiles through Christ they might be jealous enough to seek the same blessings themselves.

12 Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?

Here Paul points out that if the mistakes of the Jews and Israelites can bring such spiritual riches and blessings to the rest of the world, then we can expect the positive effect for the rest of the world to be compounded when the Jews and Israelites finally come to a fullness of belief in Christ.

Most Christians read this verse as merely speculative.  However, since we know the gospel will eventually be accepted by the Jews and Israelites, we see this as Paul matter-of-factly speaking of what is to come.

13 For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office:
14 If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.
15 For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?

Paul hoped that his example as an apostle to the gentiles would show his people what they needed to be for the world and that his example would save some of them.  We see that he anticipates that the unbelief of Israel would lead to the rest of the world accepting the gospel and even speculates that when Israel accepts the gospel it would be a time of general resurrection.

16 For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.

The lump Paul talks about here is the main part of the harvest that comes after the first fruits.  

He essentially says that it doesn’t matter what order peoples accept the gospel in or the ethnicity of the missionaries, as long as people get it, period, because it all depends on faith in Christ anyway (not faith in ancestry or faith in who is the first to accept the gospel).

17 And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;
18 Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.
19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in.
20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear:
21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.
22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.

Here Paul makes use of olive tree imagery as an allegory for the situation of the Jews and Gentiles in the church.  Because we have Jacob’s quotation of Zenos’s extended allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5 we are in a very good position to understand what Paul is saying.

Having been grafted into the church, the Gentiles might be tempted to boast that they were better than the Jews.  However, Paul warned them that pride would get them in trouble because during all the time that they might think they were bearing the root (Jews), the real root (Christ) was bearing them.  The same unbelief that afflicted the Jews could easily begin to afflict the Gentiles as well, and they could be cut off as the Jews had been.

As it happened, the severity of God upon the Jews had resulted in good coming to the Gentiles, but that blessing continuing was contingent upon their continued faith.

23 And they [the Jews] also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again.
24 For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?

Paul seems to want to prevent the Gentiles from looking down on the Jews.  He predicts that when the Jews’ time comes to accept the gospel, it will be seem so much more natural to them than it was for the Gentiles.

25 For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.
26 And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:
27 For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.

The time when the Jews will accept the gospel is rightly referred to as a mystery, but Paul wants the Gentiles to know it will happen sometime when “the fullness of the Gentiles be come in” so that they don’t make the mistake of scorning the Jews in pride.

28 As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.
29 For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.

Paul notes that even though the Jews were fighting against the gospel, the Lord still loved them for the sake of their righteous fathers, particularly Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The proof of this love is the gift and calling they were given by God to be born into the house of Israel.  They were given the scriptures and the teachings and even if they never repented, those gifts would forever prove the love of God toward them.  (Of course, repenting and believing in Christ opens the door to additional great blessings, as we know.)

30 For as ye in times past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through their unbelief:
31 Even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy.
32 For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.
33 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
34 For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?
35 Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
36 For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.

You start to get the sense that Paul himself got became astonished the more he thought about how the Lord used an unbelieving people to accomplish His purposes in bringing the gospel to others.   

And when you stop to think about it, it seems downright incredible and amazing that the Lord can use, not just His servants, but also His enemies to push His plan along.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015 3 comments

What is the role of a scripture commentary?

Historically, scripture commentaries are like the red-headed stepchildren among texts in the church.  Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written that on a scale of one to ten, (with ten being “most useful”), scripture commentaries rate about a one or two. (1)

Still, it is worth noting that he included the use of commentaries and dictionaries as part of a list of twelve keys for understanding the Bible.  This shows that even though he rated their value low, he did use them.

Let me quote the part of his talk that relates to commentaries:

Anything to be said under this heading [of commentaries and dictionaries] is more of a warning than an endorsement. On historical and geographical matters, these uninspired writings rate as one or two; on doctrinal matters they drop off the scale to a minus ten, a minus one hundred, a minus one thousand, depending on the doctrine.

The wise and the learned know so infinitesimally little about doctrine that it is almost a waste of time to read them. All their creeds are an abomination in the Lord’s sight. They teach for doctrines the commandments of men. They twist and pervert the scriptures to conform to their traditions; and if they get anything right, it is an accident.

One says Jesus did not walk on the water, for that is impossible; rather, he waded in the surf.

Another says He did not feed the five thousand by multiplying loaves and fishes, for that is contrary to all nature; rather, many in the congregation carried food in their knapsacks but were afraid to take it out lest they would have to share it with others. Jesus merely taught them to share.

Yet another says we need not look for the Second Coming in the literal sense, for surely Christ is no longer a man who can dwell again among men; rather the Second Coming takes place wherever Christ dwells in the heart of a man.

What can the commentaries of the world teach us about the personal nature of God; about the premortal existence, the war in heaven, and the eternal plan of salvation; abut the fall of man with its temporal and spiritual death; about the paradisiacal creation that is to be restored during the Millennium; about the Melchizedek Priesthood and its various offices; about the literal gathering of Israel and the restoration of the ten tribes upon the mountains of Israel; about the preaching to the spirits in prison and the doctrine of salvation for the dead; about temples and celestial marriage and the continuation of the family unit in eternity; about gifts and signs and miracles; about a universal apostasy, a glorious day of restoration, and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon; about the atonement of Christ, which makes salvation available on conditions of obedience; about the three degrees of glory; about exaltation in the highest heaven of the celestial world where men will be joint heirs with Christ; about almost every basic doctrine of salvation?

My fellow teachers, all these things, and ten thousand more, have come from God in heaven to us in this final dispensation of grace by direct revelation. They are the truths that make salvation available, and they are not to be found in the tomes of the scholars of the world. (ibid, pp127-128)

It may seem like McConkie completely discourages use of commentaries, but actually if we carefully parse what he says, it becomes clear that he gives a qualified endorsement.  If he discouraged them, he would not include them in the list of keys at all.  

What he is disgusted with is those sectarian commentaries that try to give naturalistic explanations of miracles and that deny the future Second Coming of Christ.   He gives those as the most blatant examples of what an uninspired commentary does, so that we can be warned not to swallow those views, or others that are dismissive of important principles, miracles, or prophecies.   McConkie called them "almost a waste time," which means that they weren't completely a waste of time, but they were close because their doctrine was off. 

While he asks, “What can the commentaries of the world teach us about [big list of LDS doctrines]?” this implies that good commentaries (which would necessarily have to be LDS or LDS-friendly) would be ones that throw additional light on those doctrines or reveal them in the Bible where they were not noticed before.

Also, it is worth noting that he appreciates the historical and geographical matters that are explained in commentaries, even if he rated them low.

Since scripture commentaries can be well-done or badly-done, the church understandably prefers to privilege study of the scriptures far over study of derivative works.   This is about going to the source, rather than going downstream for water.

However, we must also think about what resources exist for enabling people to learn more about the scriptures.  Everyone has access to the same spiritual resort of prayer and fasting to learn more.  (“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God”)  

There are more ways of learning than just this, though.  Let’s not forget the great potential for good teachers to influence and mold our perceptions of scripture texts, to draw out meaning for us to see and to help us find personal application.  (“Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you”) Books help us gain access to good teachers when we can’t be personally with them. ("Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom")

Sometimes we don’t understand a text because we don’t know how to understand it.  We need guidance.  In this situation, commentaries can become very helpful because they create a frame of reference from which to interpret the text.  Of course, they can’t be considered unbiased—all frames of reference have some sort of bias—but they can be considered at least a starting point for acquiring a better understanding.

There are some texts that are traditionally difficult for us as members to get our minds around.  (Cough.  Isaiah.  Cough.) Part of the difficulty is that our formal discussions of them are hurried because of time constraints in Sunday school classes.   When there isn’t much discussion, it is easy to think that there must not be anything important there if the topic isn’t given much time or space to be covered.

When I first started reading commentaries, I started with the seminary and institute manuals and I considered them to be authoritative and complete.  I thought everything that I might ever need to know would be in them.  I also thought that anything that disagreed with them had to be automatically wrong.

As I continued to study the scriptures and deepen my understanding, I began to have questions about parts of the texts, and when I went to the seminary and institute manuals I couldn’t find anything.  That’s when I discovered they were not as complete as I had initially thought.

Also, I began to see things in the scriptures that I hadn’t seen before and which I hadn’t seen any hints of in scripture commentaries.  I started to look in other commentaries to see if I could find anyone who had written something that noticed what I saw and came to the same conclusions.  (I was seeking validation, you see.) I couldn’t find one who had.  Sometimes I felt they got close, but not close enough.  This meant one of two things—either no one had written about the things I learned because they were wrong and I was totally off base, or no one had written them because they hadn’t thought of them.  (And now I know there was a third possibility too—that what I wrote perhaps was too speculative to be put in a commentary or had too narrow of an application.)  

Well, I chose to believe that the things I found hadn’t been written because no one had thought of them.  So I started writing them, hoping I could make a contribution to interpretive thought about the scriptures.  (I learned in time that people may have had the same thoughts, but they hadn’t written them down, or they hadn’t published them.)

Another thing I noticed was that outside of LDS thought, the sectarian Christian world had oodles and oodles of commentaries about the Bible and that they had quite a variety of thoughts on the same things.  (Not much has changed since Joseph Smith’s day that different religionists understand the same passages of scriptures very differently almost to the point of destroying confidence in settling question or debate with the Bible.)  There was contradiction.  There was sloppy interpretation.  There was denial of restored principles.  But there was also little flecks of gold.  At first this puzzled me, but it didn’t bother me.  Eventually I learned that even the wild variety could actually help me refine my thoughts, much like one is challenged to perform one’s best in order to make up for a bad job someone else has done.  The mind exposed to moral error tends to recoil, and often it recoils toward the truth. (This may have been how McConkie derived benefit as well.)

What is the LDS mind to do when it has questions about the scriptures? First, I believe we should pray to have our eyes opened.  Second, I think we should seek out the words of the prophets.  Then seek out trustworthy commentaries by LDS scholars.   And then.. maybe read other outside commentaries.

We are instructed to seek learning by study and also by faith.  If we are to seek learning by study, then there must be sources to study, and we are told to seek learning out of the best books words of wisdom.  For this to happen, words of wisdom must be made accessible for study.  And of course, it is hoped that members of the church will be able to write some of those best books.

Just keep in mind that in order for there to be books for us to study, there must be people willing to buy them, in order to make it worthwhile for LDS-market publishers to sell them.  (Books of scripture commentary are notoriously low-profit enterprises.)

When I first started reading commentaries I would dream about this ideal book that would be THE COMMENTARY TO END ALL COMMENTARIES, which would have everything in it that could ever possibly be said about a particular passage. 

Eventually I realized that simply isn’t possible because it would have to be endlessly large and incorporate every possible perspective in it.  That would be prohibitively expensive to print and to own.  Instead, a commentary takes a particular perspective or approach and uses that to interpret the scriptures.  And even though it might attempt to be exhaustive, it never will be.

There are also different types of commentaries, each of which have their function.
--Restatements or summaries the scriptures in modern language to make meaning more accessible.
--Presentations of historical background of cultural practices.  This helps us understand how people in those days would have made meaning out of the events as they happened.
--Translations of words and descriptions of their range of meanings.  This helps us get beyond the current connotations of the words themselves and what they mean today so that we can better see what meaning was intended by the writer.
--And of course there are a range of commentaries that use all or some of the above or incorporate the author’s personal experiences, or similar scriptural incidents to compare and contrast. 

The main value I find in commentaries right now is as a jump-start for new avenues of thought about passages I have read often.  A phrase I have passed over may be invested with new significance I never considered.  An alternate meaning might be suggested that opens new dimensions suggesting new applications. 

Do you use commentaries?  Do you have a particular favorite scripture commentary that you like to use?  What does it do that helps you?   In what ways have you found commentaries to be limiting or expanding to your thought about the scriptures?


(1) “The Bible, A Sealed Book”, address by Bruce R. McConkie, from A Symposium on the New Testament in 1984, as quoted by “Teaching Seminary: Preservice Readings”, Church Educational System, pp123-132.

Sunday, March 22, 2015 0 comments

Betrayal With a Kiss

48 Now he that betrayed him gave them a sign, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast.
49 And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him.
50 And Jesus said unto him, Friend, wherefore art thou come? Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus, and took him. (Matthew 26:48-51)
We know it was really skunky of Judas to use a kiss as an act of betrayal and elsewhere in the Gospels we see Jesus was disturbed by this too, but why did Judas decide to use a kiss?  Why not point and shout, “That’s him, boys, the one who is kneeling!” or something like that?

I think it was because Judas wanted to maintain the appearance of being friendly.  He hoped that Jesus and the other disciples not connect the kiss with Jesus’s capture.  (We don’t often catch this point because in video dramatizations time is compressed so that it seems like the Jews come practically on Judas’ heels.)  He wanted the arrest to come as a complete surprise and he didn’t want to be seen as the cause and facilitator of it.  In short, it was hypocrisy.

Clearly it didn’t work.  Jesus knew what was happening, and the apostles knew about it soon too, though we’re not sure at what point they heard or figured it out.

Are there those today who are trying to betray Christ under the guise of a kiss of fellowship?  Yes.  The message of this story is that their part in the betrayal will be made known.  They may bring trouble on the Saints, but with the Lord’s help, the Saints will rise above it.  No unhallowed hand can stop the work of the Lord.

Friday, March 20, 2015 1 comments

Jesus raises the son of the widow of Nain

11 ¶ And it came to pass the day after, that he went into a city called Nain; and many of his disciples went with him, and much people.
12 Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her.
13 And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not.
14 And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.
15 And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.
16 And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people.
17 And this rumour of him went forth throughout all Judaea, and throughout all the region round about. (Luke 7:11-17)

Significant points:
The woman was a widow and her only son was now dead.  When a husband dies, the source of a families livelihood is removed.  Often when a father died, the sons were expected to provide for the family in his stead.  This woman not only had lost her husband, but she only had one son to provide for her needs and now he was dead too.  She had a life of poverty ahead of her.   

So when Jesus had compassion on the woman, He saw her difficulty and poverty.  Jesus brought the woman’s son back to life so that he could continue to help his mother, among other purposes.

Another significant point:
Jesus touched the bier of the dead son.  The bier is a moveable frame on which a body is carried to the grave.  According to the Law of Moses, this would probably have made him ritually unclean.  There were rules that things and people who came in contact with the dead were to be considered unclean:

11 ¶ He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days.…
13 Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him.
14 This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days.
15 And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean.
16 And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. (Numbers 19:11,13-16)

This was meant to teach people that they would be defiled if they came into contact with the spiritually dead.  As said before, touching the bier of a dead person would probably be considered unclean, yet Jesus did this, then raised the dead man to life.

The message in His action was clearly to declare His divinity and purity as something more powerful than death or the ritual law.  Not only did He have power to overcome uncleanness, but He could overcome death.  Instead of being defiled by contact with the dead man, Jesus had the power to heal (and also sanctify) the dead man.   It is no wonder then that the people instantly recognized Jesus as “a great prophet” or as God visiting His people.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 0 comments

Blind leading the blind

I found myself drawn to this verse recently:

And he spake a parable unto them, Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch? (Luke 6:39)

It is a very simple saying, yet I found myself wondering about how it was called a parable.  It has no explanation; it is as if we are meant to understand it immediately.

I asked myself the question, “What am I to do because of this parable?”

In order to decide that, I could see I would have to locate myself in it.  Am I the blind person leading, or am I the blind person being led?

No one likes to think of themselves as blind, and I am no exception, but I can’t deny that I look to leaders when I don’t know what to do, so of course those are times when I am blind.  But there are also times when I have to lead, and some of those times I don’t know what to do, so I am like a blind person leading blind people. (Or maybe my followers see and they are just bearing with me..)

I think one thing we can see is that the parable implies that blindness is an undesirable characteristic.  It is undesirable in leaders who want people to stay safe and want to help people return to God.  (If they can’t see the way themselves, how on earth can they help their followers be any better?  It is impossible.)  It is undesirable also in followers because even if they don’t have the vision to see the way themselves, they at least have to be able to see enough to tell whether they are following a good leader or not.

That’s when I realized that the verses coming after contain very helpful principles for people to use as they consider choosing the mortal leaders they will follow (because even as we desire to follow Christ, we also need mortal exemplars as well).  So I’m going to go through them in this post.

The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master. (Luke 6:40)

If you substitute “fully trained” in place of “perfect,” we can better see how this applies in our choices of people we choose to emulate.  We see that we can only become as good as those we follow, so if we choose low quality examples, we’re certainly not going to rise very high.  But if we choose good examples, then we rise higher.  And of course, if we commit to follow Christ, we will rise to His level someday.   

Or we can look at it in another way.  People may choose you as an example.  Think about how high someone might rise if they choose you.  How might your example limit someone’s development?  (It certainly suggests areas of improvement.)

Moving on..

41 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
42 Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye. (Luke 6: 41-42)

Suddenly we can see this bit about the mote and the beam in the eyes as continuing Jesus’s discussion about the process of deciding who to follow.  Naturally, when we look for leaders to follow, we’ll see faults as well.  But they may also be flaws that we perceive in others’ perspective.   (Who hasn’t found themselves criticizing others for not seeing things the “right” way?)

In this case, the lesson may be that finding fault with a good leader’s perspective is a sign we have terrible faults of our own to deal with, ones that drastically distort our perspective, such that we can’t recognize that they are what we need.  I’ve seen it true in my life when my sins distort my perspective.   In the small areas I have doubts, those doubts make me see people who act in faith and plunge into the unknown as unrealistic fool-hardy risk-takers, but really the fault lies in me.  If I tried to fix them, I would make a worse mess.  In the areas where I am reluctant to take initiative, that makes me look at people who push on their own volition as workaholics enslaved by their own drive, when in actuality I need more of that quality in my life, if I only knew how to get it.  To help me, someone would have to have been where I am and then found how to overcome it.

Again, the message of the mote and the beam parable is that our faults may get in the way of us picking good leaders, so we almost have to use our perception of others as a key that actually points to our own faults.  (Just as an example, I ran into some teachers who seemed pretty overbearing and that annoyed the heck out of me until I realized that my irritation indicated I was overbearing myself.  I’m still trying to work on that, and I have no idea how I’m doing, but I do know that I’ve been more patient with others’ overbearing-ness since that realization.)

Jesus’s next words continue the theme of principles we can use to pick out good leaders to follow, and we’re familiar with them, but they are worth a review.

43 For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
44 For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. (Luke 6:43-44)

Simply, judge by the fruits.  Good leaders should do good things, which lead to good fruits.  Good fruits are things like acting in faith, growing testimonies, repentance, growing and improving obedience, doing missionary work, diligence and industry, etc.  Corrupt fruits would be apathy, discouragement, doubt, fear, pride and complacency, rationalization and excuses, persecution, waning obedience, rebellion, hostility, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, pride, etc.

And finally,

A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh. (Luke 6:45)

The kinds of things people say also can also act as a indication of the kind of leader/example they’d make.  The principle is that the mouth speaks far less than the heart holds, so a person speaking good things has much more of good in their heart, perhaps more than they can express in words.  Likewise, someone speaking evil has a heart full of the same. 

(As an aside, I’m sure you’ve noticed there are people out there who say things that are evil, which they try to make sound good.  What does this indicate about what goes on in their hearts?)

Considering that all this comes in the same chapter as the oft-heard words “Judge not that ye be not judged,” we need to realize these principles are not to be used to condemn others, but merely to help us decide whether we should follow someone’s example or not. 

So, to sum up, we are to choose mortal exemplars carefully, realizing the quality of the example we choose will dictate how high we will rise, and also take as our main example Christ.   We are to be aware that our faults may skew our judgment of  real leader quality, and we are to be observant of the quality of the fruits of their acts and of the spiritual quality of their words, whether to edify or destroy, knowing that these are unfailing signals of true or false prophets.

I love that Jesus was so plain and clear about this.  You can see in His words that He knew we needed lesser leaders and examples in addition to His ultimate perfect example, and He wanted us to know how to pick good ones so that we could progress and also help each other.  He wanted us to not be blind followers, but discerning and wise followers.  He wanted us to know how good followers would be considering our leadership and the examples we set.

Monday, March 16, 2015 0 comments

Taking Reproof and Repenting like an Astronaut

 I’ve been reading an Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield, and in it he shares a lot about how NASA deals with mistakes made and turns them into learning experiences.  I want to quote a section that I think can teach some neat spiritual lessons:

“In any field, it’s a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than as a personal attack.  But for an astronaut, depersonalizing criticism is a basic survival skill.  If you bristled every time you heard something negative—or stubbornly tuned out the feedback—you’d be toast.

At NASA, everyone’s a critic.  Over the years, hundreds of people weigh in on our performance on a regular basis. Our biggest blunders are put under the microscope so even more people can be made aware of them: “Check out what Hadfield did—let’s be sure no one ever does that again.”

Often, we’re scrutinized and evaluated in real time. Quite a few simulations involve a crowd: all the people in Mission Control who would in real life work that particular problem, plus the trainers who dreamed up the scenario in the first place and the experts who best understand the intricate components of whatever system is being tested. When we’re simulating deorbit to landing, for instance, dozens of people observe, hoping that something new—a flaw in a standard procedure, say, or a better way of doing something—will be revealed. They actually want us to stumble into a gray zone no one had recognized could be problematic in order to see whether we can figure out what to do. If not, well, it’s much better to discover that gray zone while we’re still on Earth, where we have the luxury of being able to simulate a bunch more times until we do figure it out.  The main point is to learn—and then to review the experience afterward from every possible angle.

The debrief is a cultural staple at NASA, which makes this place a nightmare for people who aren’t fond of meetings. During a sim, the flight director or lead astronaut makes notes on major events, and afterward, kicks off the debrief by reviewing the highlights: what went well, what new things were learned, what was already known but needs to be re-emphasized. Then it’s a free-for-all. Everyone else dives right in, system by system, to dissect what went wrong or was handled poorly. All the people who are involved in the sim have a chance to comment on how things looked from their consoles, so if you blundered in some way, dozens of people may flag it and enumerate all the negative effects of your actions. It’s not a public flogging: the goal is to build up collective wisdom. So the response to an error is never, “No big deal, don’t beat yourself up about it.” It’s “Let’s pull on that”—the idea being that a mistake is like a loose thread you should tug on, hard, to see if the whole fabric unravels.

Occasionally the criticism is personal, though, and even when it’s constructive, it can sting.  Prior to my last mission, my American crewmate Tom Marshburn and I were in the pool for a six-hour EVA evaluation, practicing spacewalking in front of a group of senior trainers and senior astronauts. Tom and I have both done EVAs in space and I thought we did really well in the pool. But in the debrief, after I’d explained my rationale for tethering my body in a particular way so I’d be stable enough to perform a repair, one of our instructors announced to the room, “When Chris talks, he has a very clear and authoritative manner—but don’t let yourself be lulled into a feeling of complete confidence that he’s right. Yes, he used to be a spacewalking instructor and evaluator and he’s Mr. EVA, but he hasn’t done a walk since 2001. There have been a lot of changes since then.  I don’t want the junior trainers to ignore that little voice inside and not question something just because it’s being said with authority by someone who’s been here a long time.”

At first that struck me as a little insulting, because the message boiled down to this: “Mr. EVA” sounds like he knows what he’s doing, but really, he may not have a clue. Then I stopped to ask myself, “Why is the instructor saying that?” Pretty quickly I had to concede that the point was valid. I don’t come off as wishy-washy and I’m used to teaching others how to do things, so I can sound very sure of myself. That doesn’t mean I think I know everything there is to know; I’d always assumed that people understood that perfectly well and felt free to jump in and question my judgment. But maybe my demeanor was making that difficult. I decided to test that proposition: instead of waiting for feedback, I’d invite it and see what happened. After a sim, I began asking my trainers and crewmates, “How did I fall short, technically, and what changes could I make next time?” Not surprisingly, the answer was rarely, “Don’t change a thing, Chris—everything you do is perfect!” So the debrief did what it was supposed to: it alerted me to a subtle but important issue I was able to address in a way that ultimately improved our crew’s chances of success.

At NASA, we’re not just expected to respond positively to criticism, but to go one step further and draw attention to our own missteps and miscalculations. It’s not easy for hyper-competitive people to talk openly about screw-ups that make them look foolish or incompetent. Management has to create a climate where owning up to mistakes is permissible and colleagues have to agree, collectively, to cut each other some slack.

I got used to public confessionals as a fighter pilot. Every Monday morning we got together for a flight safety briefing and talked about all the things that could have killed us the previous week. Sometimes pilots confessed to really basic errors and oversights and the rest of us were expected to suspend judgment. (Deliberate acts of idiocy—flying under a bridge, say, or showing off by going supersonic over your friend’s house and busting every window in the neighborhood—were a different story. Fighter pilots could be and were fired for them.) It was easier not to pass judgment once I grasped that another pilot’s willingness to admit he’d made a boneheaded move, and then talk about what had happened next, could save my life. Literally.

At NASA, where the organizational culture focuses so explicitly on education, not just achievement, it’s even easier to frame individual mistakes as teachable moments rather than career-ending blunders. I remember one astronaut, also a former test pilot, standing up at a meeting and walking us all through an incident where his T-38 (the plane we all train on to keep up our flying skills) slid off the end of a runway in Louisiana. For a pilot this is hugely embarrassing, a rookie error. There wasn’t much damage to the plane, so the guy could’ve either kept his mouth shut, or the moral of the story could have been, “All’s well that ends well.” But as he told it, the moral was: be careful because the asphalt at this runway is slicker than most—it contains ground-up seashells, which, it turns out, are seriously slippery when it’s raining. That was incredibly useful information for all of us to have. While no one thought more of that astronaut for sliding off the runway, we certainly didn’t think less of him for being willing to save us from doing the same thing ourselves.” (pp77-80)

Thinking about this spiritually, I think we can learn a lot about sincere repentance.

How often, when we’re repenting, do we take time to have a debriefing meeting with ourselves as we discover we have sinned or made an error?   Do we concentrate on what we can learn and refrain from labeling ourselves or beating ourselves up? How often do we try to dissect exactly what went wrong, from the thoughts in our mind, to our energy levels, to the pressures that were on us, to the principles that we forgot or were decided to ignore?   How often do we notice where we fell into a gray area where our standard operating procedures of sin resistance training hasn’t been built up?  How often do we amend our inner manuals to ensure it never happens again?   

Faith in Christ is necessary to repentance, but so is self-analysis to figure out what to do better next time.  If our standard ops don’t change, have we really changed?  Not really.

Another thing I notice is that in Hadfield’s experiences, when people gave criticism, it focused on what he did, not who he was.  Even calling attention to his authoritative manner wasn’t designed to attack him, but point out something he was doing.  You have to give him credit that he stopped to think about why it was given and he examined himself enough to realize that there was something to what had been said.
Lessons: Constructive criticism has to be very specific and focused on what people are doing, not who they are.
To receive reproof well, you have to think carefully about whether there might be a reason for it, then find ways to adjust.

Here are some great things that Guide to the Scriptures says about chastening (or reproof):

Correction or discipline given to individuals or groups in order to help them improve or become stronger.
·       Despise not the chastening hand of the Almighty:Job 5:17; ( Prov. 3:11; )
·       Blessed is the man whom thou chastens, O Lord:Ps. 94:12;
·       All scripture is given for reproof, for correction:2 Tim. 3:16;
·       The Lord chastens those whom he loves:Heb. 12:5–11;
·       The Lord sees fit to chasten his people:Mosiah 23:21–22;
·       Except the Lord chasten his people, they will not remember him:Hel. 12:3;….
·       They were chastened that they might repent:D&C 1:27;
·       Whom I love I also chasten that their sins may be forgiven:D&C 95:1;
·       All those who will not endure chastening cannot be sanctified:D&C 101:2–5;
·       My people must needs be chastened until they learn obedience:D&C 105:6;
·       He that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom:D&C 136:31;

I’m okay at receiving constructive feedback in some things, but in other things I am not so great.  I suppose I will have to some careful self-analysis about that in preparation for improvement.

I like what the D&C says, not just about chastisement, but about how we should respond.

31 My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.
32 Let him that is ignorant learn wisdom by humbling himself and calling upon the Lord his God, that his eyes may be opened that he may see, and his ears opened that he may hear;
33 For my Spirit is sent forth into the world to enlighten the humble and contrite, and to the condemnation of the ungodly. (D&C 136: 31-33)

Sometimes reproof and chastisement comes because we are ignorant. We don’t know what we don’t know and we don’t know how to make it better.  I like that the above scripture says that if we humble ourselves and pray for the Lord to help us see, the Lord will enlighten us.  The Lord is both gentle and powerful when He enlightens.  The times He has enlightened my ignorance about what I’ve done, it has not caused me pain, but it has deeply impressed me as to the importance of changing and doing things differently such that I become very motivated.

..with the chastisement I prepare a way for their deliverance in all things out of temptation, and I have loved you— (D&C 95:1)

I love how this scripture is so similar to 1 Nephi 3:7.  Just like the Lord prepares a way for us to keep the commandments He gives, He also prepares a way for us to be delivered from temptation when we are chastised.  

Another spiritual principle we can see in from Hadfield’s experience is that our painful experience can be very helpful in preventing others from getting into difficulty and can help others get out of it.  I’ve heard of how sharing in a safe environment is an important part of addiction recovery meetings.  I know I have been helped by all those who have shared their struggles with me and how they’ve overcome them.  If we look carefully in the gospels, we can find instances where Jesus shares principle of resisting temptation.   

This leads me to a question that I’ll pass on to you:  What do you think is the difference between sharing experience with sin and escaping it in order to help others  versus dwelling it and wallowing in it, as we’ve been instructed not to do?

Bonus insight: What might the NASA debriefing meetings tell us about the kind of accountability interview we might have on Judgment Day?  If the lives of astronauts are so valuable that so much effort is made to keep them safe, and if their technical decisions on spaceflights are so important that they are hashed over so carefully, then what does that say about what awaits us on the other side considering God has told us near the beginning of this dispensation that the worth of souls (our own and others) is great in the sight of God?   Also consider Jesus’s words here: “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” (Matthew 12:36).

I can't end without noting how awesome it is that the Lord helps us with all stages of repentance. He brings about chastisement and reproof so we can realize we've sinned.  He has given us our conscience so we can have an inner connection to Him, no matter what spiritual stage we're at.  He invites us to repent.  He gives us this time of probation in mortality in which to repent before the full consequences of judgment come. He promises and gives enlightenment if we're not sure what to do instead or how exactly we're off.  He takes our sins when we have faith in Him. He helps deliver us from temptation.  He gives us grace to overcome.    

How wonderful that we can repent!