Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Obama Again [Bryan]

The March 4th presidential primary is coming up in Ohio, so it is time to write about Senator Obama again. If you don't like politics, please skip this. I have heard a few irritating claims about Obama, though, that I want to give my response to.

Claim: Obama is a light-weight who is all style and no substance.
Not true. Obama has detailed policy positions published on his website, including a hefty, 60-page document that lists his plans in 15 different areas.With respect to his education plan alone I counted 17 specific policy proposals ranging from before preschool to higher education. I counted 36 specific economic policy proposals ranging from credit and bankruptcy reform to family and labor protections. You don't have to take my word for it, check his plan out for yourself. In my judgment, his policy recommendations are pragmatic, non-ideological, and intellectually serious (even though I don't agree with a few of them). After you do this, compare his policy details to that of John McCain, who really is a light weight on actual policy.

Claim: Obama hasn't accomplished anything as a Senator.
Obama has only been in the Senate for four years. Still, his record as a Senator is surprisingly rich. For example, he has done important work on nuclear non-proliferation. Along with other ethics reform measures, he has passed legislation that creates a searchable record of recipients of federal contracts and grants. He also successfully worked to limit no-bid contracts in Katrina reconstruction and to protect Veterans benefits. A complete list of Obama's senatorial record can be found at the Library of Congress website. Again, compare his real achievements in the same time period with that of John McCain.

Claim: Obama isn't patriotic.
This is just nuts. Real patriotism isn't about wearing a flag pin, shouting out the national anthem as loud as you can, or always talking about how much you "love America." It is about whether you actually do stuff that helps the country. Obama's response to the not-patriotic-enough charge is right on. He compares his patriotism with that of our current regime who have let down our country time and again:
A party that presided over a war in which our troops did not get the body armor they needed, or were sending troops over who were untrained because of poor planning, or are not fulfilling the veterans' benefits that these troops need when they come home, or are undermining our Constitution with warrantless wiretaps that are unnecessary?

That is a debate I am very happy to have. We'll see what the American people think is the true definition of patriotism.
Well said, Barack. Vote Obama March 4th!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ellie's Church Talk [Ellie]

I got asked--six weeks in advance--to talk in Ward Conference. Just the bishop, the stake president, and moi. No pressure. Here's what I came up with. My topic? Invite All to Come unto Christ.

At the beginning of Oscar Wilde’s short novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the young man, Dorian, is presented with a freshly finished portrait of himself. As others in the room exclaim over his beauty, he is struck by it himself. Impulsively, he says, “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June . . . If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that . . . I would give everything! . . . I would give my soul for that!”

Because it is dangerous to wish in a novel, this is precisely what happens. Dorian’s wish is granted. His face remains always youthful and lovely, and only his portrait ages. The picture becomes a stand-in for Dorian’s soul. As he turns to debauchery and sin, his image in the portrait is degraded little by little until the picture is a record of every cruelty and vice Dorian commits. He hides the portrait in an attic, aware that no one seeing the beauty and innocence of his real face would believe the depths to which his soul has sunk.

I realize that this is an odd image with which to begin a talk entitled, “Invite all to come unto Christ.” I begin this way, because I’d like to propose that our ability to effectively invite others hinges on our own first coming unto Christ, and making this fact apparent in our lives and our faces. When our conversion is evident, when we have “received His image in our countenances,” as it says we must in Alma 5:14, we will draw others to us and they will desire to be like us, and have what we have.

Dorian Gray’s countenance was a lie. His beauty drew people to him, despite the ugliness within him. Beauty may draw people, but it does not hold them. Those we hold up as beautiful in our society are readily scorned in tabloids and newspapers for their dissolute lives. Conversely, many of us have known and loved people whom the world looks on as ordinary or even ugly for the profound beauty of their souls.

This idea of goodness marking our bodies is continued in Isaiah, where the Lord says, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.” His hands bear the marks of His love for us. Certainly these marks are significant. He could have been resurrected without them. He is scarred to remind us of how much He loves us.

So how do we let our love for Him mark us? How do we let our joy in His love show through in our countenances and in the way we live our lives? Surely if we are to invite others to come unto Him, we must have first come unto Him ourselves.

In a wonderful talk from April Conference in 2006, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland suggested that coming unto Christ consists of three things: desiring to believe, removing any obstacles to belief from our lives (i.e., repenting), and taking upon us Christ’s name, and “in as many ways as possible” trying to “take upon us His identity.” I want to address Elder Holland’s third way of coming unto Christ—taking upon us His identity. I believe we take on His identity, let His image physically mark our lives, when we humble ourselves to recognize our need for Him, and then study and try to emulate His attributes. Today I’d like to talk about three of Jesus Christ’s attributes that will, I believe, bring in us Alma’s “mighty change of heart” and etch the features of the Savior on our faces. The three attributes I’d like to address are: His Sacrifice, His Service, and His Mercy.

We often think of Christ’s sacrifice as what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, but it must have began much earlier than that. We know that in the Council in Heaven, Jesus volunteered to be our Savior. He knew what this would mean: that His life on Earth could not be like our lives, full of sins and mistakes and course corrections. From His birth, He would be perfect and sinless, though still subject to the temptations we are subject to. He sacrificed the opportunity to live a life like we lived. We know that as early as twelve years old instead of hanging out with His friends like most kids his age, Jesus was teaching in the temple. He began His ministry at 30, when most young men are marrying and enjoying the comforts of their families. In Matthew 20: 28 we get at the crux of the matter: “. . .the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many”—to give His life, not just His death, for us. His sacrifice was total.

After dedicating all His time, all of it, to His “Father’s business,” he did suffer and die for us, to complete His mission here. I can hardly comprehend the love He showed as He took on Himself our sins and sufferings in the Garden, and sealed His ministry on the cross.

There are many things about Christ’s sacrifices that we cannot imitate. Most of us won’t die to save others; most of us are not called to leave our families for a full-time, life-long ministry. But we can do as Christ did in accepting what calls we are given, and doing our best to do as He would do in our callings. Sacrifice is a difficult principle of the gospel. By its nature it’s uncomfortable. It requires us to stretch, sometimes to a breaking point. Yet, no sacrifice we can make can equal Christ’s sacrifice for us. If we accept the burdens we are given and embrace the sacrifices we have to make, we can come to resemble our Savior. As others see us bear our sacrifices willingly, they will be drawn to learn what inspires us to strive on.

A second attribute of Christ that can change us is His service. Jesus seemed completely comfortable with His call of continual service. Even when his circumstances made serving inconvenient, He never hesitated or complained. He healed on the Sabbath—though it was supposed to be a day of rest for Him and others. He welcomed and forgave the woman who washed His feet with her tears, even though she interrupted His dinner with her needs. He calmed the storm for His disciples, even though they woke Him from a much-needed rest. In Matthew 14, we read the most poignant story. Jesus’ friend, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by King Herod. “When Jesus heard of it,” we read, “he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart.” Jesus loved John. He needed time to grieve, to be alone. Yet, “when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities.” The people loved Him so, that they could not give Him even a few hours alone with His sadness. He did not turn them away. “And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.” He went on to preach to them and perform a miracle to feed them all.

When I think about Jesus’ sacrifice and service, I am ashamed of my own weakness. I’m not called to give my whole life—just a few hours a week. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the service demands life makes on me, and I complain to Bryan. Even under the most challenging of circumstances—circumstances more difficult that I will ever encounter, Jesus never complained. He just served where he saw a need, lovingly and immediately. I believe that if I continually make the effort to change myself, and change my heart to be more like His through my service and sacrifice, this will show in my face--as your sacrifices and service will show on yours. The service we give to others, and the light of Christ engraved on our faces will draw others to Him.

A third attribute of Jesus Christ we can emulate is His mercy. I’ll call it mercy, but love and grace also describe what I mean. Of all beings who have lived on Earth, Jesus, as God incarnate, is the most suited to make judgments. He is sinless. He has perfect knowledge of right and wrong. He lived among mortals who were constantly sinning, which must have frustrated Him sometimes. Yet, we really only have a few examples of His wrath. Merchants desecrating the temple angered Him. And there was a fig tree once that He seemed to have it in for. Other than that, though uniquely qualified to judge, He rarely meted out justice. Time and again, He met sinners like us with mercy, love, and forgiveness. He was more likely to shed tears over the misery He saw than He was to shout or lecture. To the woman taken in adultery, He said nothing condemning. Just, “Go, and sin no more.” To little Zacchaeus, the well-known publican and sinner who climbed a tree to see Jesus, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house.”

Jesus showed His mercy in whom he associated with. A king on Earth, He might have associated with those of high stature. Instead, he chose fishermen and tax collectors, the blind and the lame, the penitent sinner, and children. The New Testament is full of scriptures that describe Jesus as full of compassion for those around Him. They must have felt, as I do, the wonder expressed in the hymn, “I Stand All Amazed:” “That He should extend His great love unto such as I / Sufficient to own, to redeem, and to justify.” I can’t imagine a greater gift than to be owned, redeemed, and justified by our Savior.

What power for good we might have in the lives of others if we truly come unto Christ and let His love, grace, and mercy shine through our eyes. Jesus told us, “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” We can emulate His mercy through letting compassion take the place of judgment in our lives. We can try, as He did, to associate with those who need us most—those with heavy burdens to bear. We can strive to let His pure love color our every interaction with others. When people feel our sincere love for them and for Christ, they will feel His Spirit as we share our testimonies. Conversely, when we lack this love and mercy, people will feel that, as well.

I once had a friend, not a member of our church, who knew many members. She’d been invited to lots church functions, and enjoyed associating with the members she knew. Yet she noticed that the invitations she received didn’t seem to stem from sincere love for her. She observed to me: “Mormons only seem to want to hang out with each other.” I was stung by her words, but as I thought about them, I saw the truth of it. She could tell that the Mormons she knew wanted her to join the church, but they didn’t seem to just want to be with her. She didn’t feel Christ’s love through them.

To invite others—our families and our friends—to come unto Christ, we must first have come unto Him ourselves. He is always inviting us: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,” he says, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me: for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” By taking on His attributes—His sacrifice, His service, and His mercy—we come unto Him and allow Him to mark our countenances and our lives. When our love becomes His love, we draw others to us. Then we can invite them to come unto Him.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Star Gazing [Bryan]

Last night was an amazing night. Generally, the Midwest is a terrible place to stargaze. The humidity makes the sky hazy and the dense population means that city light is bouncing off that haze. The elevation is relatively low, so you have a lot more atmosphere to peer through. Even on the best nights, you can only see a couple of dozen stars in the sky. Moreover, the sky is usually cloudy so those good nights are rare. It is very different from the dry, high, clear, light-free sky of the Mountain West where I grew up. (For the best star gazing in the US, go to Lake Powell, Utah. There, the Milky Way shines like, well, milk, splattered across the sky.)

Last night was different, though, here in Ohio. The air was still and clear. The stars were bright. Planets were high in the sky. Orion was to the south and the Big Dipper to the north. And there was a full lunar eclipse! From eight to midnight the moon went from its usual bright white, to a pink, to a dark red, and then back again. I broke out my little two inch telescope and watched the whole thing. I was able to see the rings of Saturn, which was hovering close to the moon. I also got a great view of Great Orion Nebula right in the middle of Orion constellation. Things were so clear I could use my stronger eyepiece, which usually doesn't work very well because of atmospheric turbulence. I was in ecstasy for hours.

The problem was, I was alone for most the night. Ellie had gone to a meeting. I tried to go in a wake up Nora. I turned on her light, shook her, and yelled at her, but she refused to wake up. So I guess I'm stuck with blogging about it. It was a magical night in the skies above Columbus -- one that won't come again very soon. I wish you were all there to see it. It was really cold, though, and I wouldn't have wanted to hear any whining!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Cookies! [Bryan]

Follow the link to a nice little essay about one of my favorite foods:
"The Chocolate Chip Cookie, when executed properly, is one of few very foods in the world capable of producing happiness."
Well said!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Best music video of the 1980s [Bryan]

Seiji Ozawa and the Berlin Philharmonic do a selection from one of my favorite pieces of 20th century orchestration: Orff's Carmina Burana. This is the "Cours' de'amours" section. One of my dreams in life is to see this complex piece performed lived.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Decline and Fall of Mitt Romney [Bryan]

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I've been pretty tough on Mitt Romney. I did not really rejoice, though, when I saw that he had suspended his race. For all his apparent faults, he was probably the best Republican candidate out there. I believe that, at bottom, he is a decent -- if somewhat shallow -- man and that he would have run a competent, drama-free White House. I hope that next time he runs, he figures out that his strength is as a technocratic centrist manager, and not a fire-breathing right winger. He would have been a much more compelling candidate had he not tried to get cozy with the evangelicals, the neoconservatives, and the unitary executivists.

Hearing his final speech, however, I worry that he has not really learned this lesson. He said, for example: "If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Sens. Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror." So electing a Democratic is surrendering to terror? Sheez, Mitt. Harping on national fear and division is not the way to become a real leader.

I think Romney's decline holds certain lessons for us Mormons. I think it is undeniable the Romney's religion played a part in his lack of success among conservative voters. It wasn't the only factor, to be sure, but it was one factor.

Here is one message we Mormons should take: The Religious Right is not our friend. The fear, animosity, and rancor they display toward secularists, Muslims, gays, evolutionists, feminists, pacifists, liberals, immigrants, and so forth, are also often aimed squarely at Mormons. If they are our bedfellows on political issues, perhaps we may want to rethink the company we keep.

At the same time, the secular left revealed its own shortcomings. I saw Romney's religious beliefs ridiculed in many of the left-leaning blogs I frequent. Now, I do believe that there are parts of Mormon history and contemporary practice that deserve sustained criticism (Mountain Meadows, the Priesthood ban, overwhelming Mormon support for wars, and so forth). Much of the criticism I saw was uninformed, however, or presented in the most unsympathetic way possible. I would have expected better from them.

Part of the problem here, though, is that we Mormons on the whole are often not very thoughtful about our religious beliefs. We think there are easy answers to every question. We do not study our religion deeply and, by policy, keep everything at its most simple (simplistic?) level. We are afraid of doubters and questioners. We do not think very much about how our religion should coexist with other religious groups (or nonreligious groups) that all disagree vehemently about basic moral issues. Among ourselves, we think we are hot stuff and we love the way many of our stories and theologies make us different. Yet, at the same time, we get offended when people call us out on this and claim that we actually are different, mysterious, secretive, odd, or non-Christian. We celebrate our differences in private, but seem embarrassed by them in public. I think some nonmembers sense this disconnect, and I can't really blame them for not trusting us because of it.

My advice to Mormons: We should learn to be less defensive about our differences, but also learn to defend them in sophisticated ways. For example, some Mormon leaders have indeed taught that "Jesus and Satan are brothers" (in some sense) just as Mike Huckabee said. How can we turn this shocking statement into a compelling narrative about our belief in the power of freedom and agency, rather than denying it, dismissing it as only a "minor doctrine," or affirming it without an accompanying interpretive framework that gives it power and meaning? We have a lot of work to do if we want people to take Mormonism seriously. Right now, we as a people are a mirror image of Romney -- nice, clean cut, and competent, but also image-obsessed and shallow.