What was the "last charge" meeting? And why was it so important to the question of "authority" in the Church?
When friends and family tell me the Church has divine "authority," they mean they believe priesthood keys have been passed down the generations in a line unbroken, from prophet to prophet.
Those who hold this view believe that authority is "fungible" (meaning a commodity that can be transferred) like a rock that passes hands. You can trace the hands that have held that rock, and you can create rules for it, such as: only one pair of hands can hold it at a time . . .
You get the idea.
I want to begin by letting the Church speak for itself, so you may know (1) what is officially claimed; and (2) that I am not making this stuff up.
"Knowing his mortal ministry would soon come to a close, the Prophet met frequently with members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to instruct them and to give them the priesthood keys necessary to govern the Church.
"These preparations culminated in a meeting with the Apostles and a few other close associates in March 1844. In this extraordinary council, the Prophet charged the Twelve to govern the Church after his death, explaining that he had conferred upon them all the ordinances, authority, and keys necessary to do so. 'I roll the burden and responsibility of leading this church off from my shoulders on to yours,' he declared. 'Now, round up your shoulders and stand under it like men; for the Lord is going to let me rest awhile.'"
There you have it. But is that what really happened?
The Story Grows Legs and Sprouts Wings There are no contemporaneous sources that record Joseph giving the Twelve Apostles any authority to govern the Church in its organized Stakes, let alone in this "extraordinary council" held on March 26, 1844.
Historians call it "the Last Charge" meeting, when Joseph bestowed his keys and authority on the Twelve.
The premise itself is odd because in Joseph's lifetime we find:
"the Twelve Apostles had jurisdictional authority onlyOUTSIDE of Zion and the organized stakes."
It was understood by everyone and their corn dodgers that the Twelve had NO authority in Zion where there were high councils.
The Twelve were supposed to be abroad preaching the word as special witnesses. The scriptures give them no administrative powers at all in the Stakes of Zion.
That's why they're called the "traveling high council" in D&C 107: because that's all they were, a roaming group of wonderful gypsies who were to leave purse and scrip behind and declare the Good News in foreign lands.
President Joseph Smith then stated that the Twelve will have no right to go into Zion, or any of its stakes, and there undertake to regulate the affairs thereof, where there is a standing high council.
Joseph never dreamt of calling a member of the Twelve into the First Presidency. They're separate quorums, for heaven's sakes!
And D&C 107 required a member of the First Presidency to be a high priest; whereas apostles are elders (hence, we address them by that title: "Elder Bednar").
So how in the world did the Twelve obtain management and governance over the entire Church?
Well, that's the problem the Last Charge meeting is all about fixing!
Encyclopedia of Mormonism to the Rescue
If you pull the Encyclopedia of Mormonism off the shelf and dust it off, you'll find these same claims about the Twelve getting their authority from Joseph at the Last Charge Meeting.
"About March 26, 1844, Joseph Smith made his 'last charge' to the Twelve. He declared that he had now given them every priesthood key that he possessed and that it was their responsibility to shoulder the burden of the kingdom while he rested."
So we can see that by the latter part of the Twentieth Century the narrative had fully metastasized.
Let's see if we can summarize the main points:
1. Joseph Smith, over an undefined period of time in Nauvoo, was meeting with the Twelve, even though the Twelve weren't around Nauvoo much since they were serving missions and electioneering; and
2.Joseph gave the Twelve priesthood keys even though he had publicly taught they had no authority in the organized stakes of Zion, and despite the fact that all his focus was on the Council of Fifty and running for president of the United States; and
3. Joseph's conferral of priesthood keys upon the Twelve culminated on March 26, 1844 at the Last Charge meeting; and (here's the kicker)
4. There's no record of any of this ever happening.
Yikes! If I had defended a college term paper so poorly supported by the historical record, I think my professors would have given me a Failing Grade.
So how did this story become the official narrative, when it went against everything Joseph had done in organizing the priesthood again on earth?
Well, in the 1850s some of these problematic accounts made their way into the official Manuscript History of the Church (now I wonder how that happened), and from there the legend grew and grew.
(See, John Dinger, "The Council of Fifty, Orson Hyde, and the Last Charge Meeting," The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2017), pp. 62-82.)
What Really Happened on March 26, 1844?
Historians agree on one thing, which everyone is certain about: whatever happened on March 26, 1844 happened in a meeting of the Council of Fifty.
(See, Andrew Ehat, Joseph Smith's Introduction of Temple Ordinances and the 1844 Mormon Succession Question (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1981.)
That is critically important to understand because anything Joseph said or did on March 26, 1844 ― and any authority Joseph purportedly conferred ―was to the brethren in the Council of Fifty.
Not the apostles.
Don't misunderstand: there were members of the Twelve who were also members of the Council of Fifty, but any "keys" that were delivered were addressed to the members of the Council of Fifty (more formally called "The Kingdom of God and his Laws, with the Keys and Power thereof, and Judgement in the Hands of his Servants").
I mean, just look at the full name! The Council of Fifty had "KEYS AND POWER THEREOF" right there in its name.
So who were the members of the Council of Fifty? Who received this "last charge" from the Prophet? Spoiler alert: there were a lot more than just 12:
Having had some minor interactions with Brother Richard Hozapfel, I can vouch that he is a good guy. He's an expert in LDS Church History. He's a professional historian (got a PhD and everything) and was employed as a professor at BYU in the Church History and Doctrine department. Now he serves as an Area Seventy.
He's written extensively on this topic.
So what evidence, do you think, would the Church's best-and-brightest have to support the Church's claims about the Last Charge meeting?
Let's have Brother Holzapfel spell it out for us in his own words:
"This important gathering, known as the 'Last Charge' meeting, was a particularly significant and far-reaching event for which no contemporary minutes have been discovered."
Re-read that last part, please. There's no "contemporary" evidence. Ooookay.
So where did the story come from?
(1) Wilford Woodruff's 1897 Testimony (54 years later)
President Wilford Woodruff in 1897 gave a special testimony, recollecting this moment in Church history:
"Upon one occasion [Joseph] stood upon his feet in our midst for nearly three hours declaring unto us the great and last dispensation which God had set His hand to perform upon the earth in these last days. The room was filled as if with consuming fire; the Prophet was clothed upon with much of the power of God, and his face shone and was transparently clear, and he closed that speech, never-to-be-forgotten in time or in eternity, with the following language:
"'Brethren, I have had great sorrow of heart for fear that I might be taken from the earth with the keys of the Kingdom of God upon me, without sealing them upon the heads of other men. God has sealed upon my head all the keys of the Kingdom of God necessary for organizing and building up of the Church, Zion, and Kingdom of God upon the earth, and to prepare the Saints for the coming of the Son of Man.
"'Now, brethren, I thank God I have lived to see the day that I have been enabled to give you your endowments, and I have now sealed upon your heads all the powers of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods and Apostleship, with all the keys and powers thereof, which God has sealed upon me; and I now roll off all the labor, burden and care of this Church and Kingdom of God upon your shoulders, and I now command you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to round up your shoulders, and bear off this Church and Kingdom of God before heaven and earth, and before God, angels and men; and if you don’t do it you will be damned.'
"And the same spirit that filled the room at that time burns in my bosom while I record this testimony, and the Prophet of God appointed no one else but the Twelve Apostles to stand at the head of the Church and direct its affairs."
We need to remember something here. Joseph Smith taught that if something isn't recorded, then it's not binding and is not honored by heaven.
Whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven;
It may seem to some to be a very bold doctrine that we talk of―
Whatsoever those men did in authority . . . and kept a proper and faithful record of the same, it became a law on earth and in heaven, and could not be annulled, according to the decrees of the great Jehovah. (D&C 128:8-9)
There is no "proper and faithful record" of Joseph conferring keys to govern the Church to the Twelve in the organized Stakes. Ever.
This is a faithful saying. Who can hear it?
(4) Minutes for March 26, 1844 for Council of Fifty
Well, let's cut to the chase and go directly to the best source of all: the actual minutes of the Council of Fifty for March 26, 1844.
Certainly if Joseph had done something as momentous as alter the government of the Church and establish a new, novel means of succession after his death, it would have merited being mentioned in the minutes, right?
And we have them! If you wish to read the minutes yourself, you may find them here.
Here's what happened that day:
IN THE MORNING SESSION:
1. Previous minutes were read. 2. Several new members were admitted. 3. Joseph "gave some instructions pertaining to the kingdom of God." 4. The brethren threw shade at William Law. 5. Joseph "continued his instructions on heavenly things and many other important subjects." 6. They drafted a memorial to send to the United States Congress regarding immigration and other political issues.
IN THE AFTERNOON SESSION:
1. Approved the morning minutes. 2. Workshopped the Memorial, arguing over whether they should use the words "Be it enacted" or "Be it ordained." 3. Joseph suggested sending missionaries to France (Viva la France!). 4. Elders Hyde and Clayton talked about building up the Kingdom and sending a proclamation to the kings of the earth. 5. Sidney Rigdon addressed the council "on the subject of the kingdom of God. He entered into the subject in a most spirited and animated manner, showing the glory and joy which will exist when God reigns over the nations." (Maybe it was Sidney's countenance that "shone transparently clear" in the power of God that Wilford Woodruff remembered 50 years later?) 6. Joseph answered Elder Babbit's questions pertaining to the kingdom of God. 7. They adjourned.
There you have it.
Nothing about the Twelve. Nothing about keys.
(5) "Draft Declaration of the Twelve," Post-Martyrdom
Now we come to a bit of sophistry, where we see the gamesmanship of the Correlation Department.
When you dig into this, you'll eventually be directed to what is called by the Church the "Declaration of the Twelve Apostles, Undated Draft" (see above), found in Brigham Young's effects.
This is the only document the Church cites in its teachings manual that I quoted at the beginning of this post.
Well, this document was drafted by Orson Hyde in 1844 or 1845. The Church makes this sound like a primary source that we can trust; but what the Church doesn't tell us is that this document was rejected by the Council of Fifty and the Twelve (that's why it never got beyond the "draft" stage)!
Using the word "draft" is pregnant with meaning here, for what it leaves unsaid; in fact, the Church sorta makes it appear like the opposite, that this was a legit document, by how they caption it:
"Quoted in declaration of the Twelve Apostles (undated draft), reporting Mar. 1844 meeting."
Let this sink in: this document was never signed or adopted because NO ONE WOULD go along with it, including other members of the Twelve, and is now being used as evidence that the Twelve got their authority in this Last Charge meeting?
Orson Pratt (the other Orson) objected to the whole charade, saying he wasn't even at the meeting on March 26, 1844 (and how are keys supposed to be conveyed if not by the laying on of hands, anyway?).
Even Brigham Young wasn't willing to endorse Elder Hyde's gambit. That says something!
No, Brigham rested his authority-claims on the following:
"Joseph conferred upon our heads all the keys and powers belonging to the Apostleship."
(Minutes of the Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 1835-1893 (Salt Lake City, privately published, 2010, p. 42.)
You see, for Brigham it was always about the Apostleship ― NOT THE PRESIDENCY (and Joseph did not, in fact, confer upon Brigham's head any keys and powers because Brigham was ordained on April 14, 1835 by the Three Witnesses: Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris).
If you have ever read Brigham Young's discourses, then you know that Brigham's doctrinal explanation for how he could run the Church can be summarized as follows:
1. "I'm an apostle, so I can do whatever."
Brother Hozapfel Explains To Us the "Important" (but discredited) Draft Declaration
The fact the Church hangs its hat on this "draft" document is alarming because it shows there's nothing out there to support their narrative, except for a declaration that nobody supported at the time.
Which is why we're left with the Correlation Department citing a discredited document written by Orson Hyde to trace the Twelve's line of authority back to Joseph.
But no matter how you try to fit a hog into a girl's tutu and make it dance, it's still a hog at the end of the day.
I'm just going to repeat myself because this is all so incredible. The document the Church uses as evidence for the Twelve's priesthood authority was never adopted and was, in fact, rejected by the Council of Fifty and the Twelve at the time.
Maybe Brother Richard Holzapfel can explain it better than me:
"There is another important source about this monumental gathering which may be the earliest written document describing the meeting. Although it is unknown exactly when it was composed, it could have been written as early as September 1844."
So . . . let me get this straight. This "monumental" moment in Church history upon which the Brethren hang all of their priesthood keys appears in our record for the first time after Joseph is dead in an undated and unadopted draft, which no one but Orson Hyde would peddle?
Excommunication of Sidney Rigdon
Orson Hyde (down but not out) tried to resurrect his rejected account of the Last Charge Meeting in September 1844, during the excommunication hearings against Sidney Rigdon.
The fascinating thing about Sidney's disciplinary council was that it was as much about the Twelve's right to lead the Church as it was Sidney's membership.
Brigham Young, Orson Hyde, Parley Pratt, Amasa Lyman and Heber C. Kimball testified. NONE OF THEM said anything about the Last Charge (except, of course, Orson Hyde. So much for the law requiring two or three witnesses, right!).
Orson's account, though, was picked up by the local newspaper who was reporting on the proceedings.
Years later in the 1850s scribe Leo Hawkins took some artistic liberties with the Manuscript History of the Church and inserted details retroactively into the record which bolstered the Twelve's authority to lead the Church, including some of Orson Hyde's story. (See, Dinger, "The Council of Fifty," p. 71.)
I guess it goes to show if you repeat something long enough, it may as well be true.
A Brief Timeline
1. March 26, 1844: Joseph attends a meeting of the Council of Fifty.
2. June 27, 1844: Joseph Smith dies.
3. August 8, 1844: The Twelve are voted to be the successor-trustees for the Church (notice that we weren't voting on a successor to Joseph Smith's prophetic mantle; we weren't interested in a "new" prophet; the members were voting on who would take possession of the Church's assets and property as the successor-trustees of the Church Trust. This was about legal and financial affairs, not spiritual affairs).
4. As a sidebar to #3, 25 years later apostle Orson Hyde recollected (yes, he's back) how Brigham Young was transfigured that day, on August 7/8, 1844:
"[Brigham] spoke, and his words went through me like electricity. This is my testimony; it was not only the voice of Joseph, but there were the features, the gestures and even the stature of Joseph before us in the person of Brigham."(Journal of Discourses 13:181)
The miracle, of course, was Orson Hyde remembering something he didn't witness since he wasn't in Nauvoo on August 7/8, 1844, and wouldn't arrive until five days later.
5. September - December 1844/1845? Who Knows?: The Draft Declaration of the Twelve is Drafted and Never Adopted.
6. 1884: The Council of Fifty no longer meet and informally goes defunct.
7. 1945: The last surviving member of the Council of Fifty, Heber J. Grant, dies. Thus ended the Kingdom of God, and any authority or keys Joseph may have bequeathed it.
How Does the Church Historian's Office Deal With All This?
Let's pretend you work for the Church Historian's Office.
How are you going to present this information about the Last Charge Meeting to the public?
"A significant event likely occurred in this meeting, probably in the morning session, about which the minutes are silent but which council members discussed a year later in connection with a written summary prepared by Orson Hyde."
(Joseph Smith Papers, Administrative Records, p. 63.)
Okay, that was painful. Did you notice what they conspicuously left out after "Orson Hyde?"
"Clayton’s brief note that JS spoke 'on heavenly things and many other important subjects' likely marks what was later referred to as JS’s 'last charge.' This may have been an extension of the charge relating the history, purpose, and rules of the council that was typically given to new members and that JS may have delivered in this meeting."
And that, my friends, is the very best explanation our tithing dollars can buy.
Can we confidently stake our eternal welfare on this?
Measure Twice, Cut Once
This was the post that has been on my mind for a long time.
So many of us view "authority" as black-and-white; as if "authority" were something a person either (1) has or (2) doesn't. But is divine authority binary?
If God were an artist painting with his brush of authority, would the canvas reflect abstract, impressionist, or hyper-realistic strokes?
I wish we would not treat the Melchizedek Priesthood, which is endless and eternal, like we were dishing pumpkin pie, divvying up authority as if it were zero-sum.
The power and authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church.
I wish we would understand that God's authority is manifest through the gifts of the Spirit (which He confers liberally; I mean, everyone has at least one gift, right!), not through administrative "keys."
A bishop's authority, after all, is in his gift of discernment:
And unto the bishop of the church, and unto such as God shall appoint and ordain to watch over the church and to be elders unto the church, are to have it given unto them to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God.
I am home sick today with a cold/flu, and I can only handle so many Matlock and Diagnosis Murder reruns (bless Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke), so I pulled myself out of bed and decided to tackle the thorniest and most challenging of issues, priesthood succession and Church authority claims.
I've avoided addressing these topics head-on because they require historical and doctrinal context; and even though I graduated in History, fools jump in where angels fear to tread.
I am no angel ― so I guess that makes me a fool. Here we go: jumping into the deep end.
When I talk with family and friends about the Church, the most common refrain I hear is:
"Tim, the only thing that matters is whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the only divinely-sanctioned authority on earth today. If I believe they do, then that's it."
I call this the "trump card" of the Restoration.
When a person plays the "church's-got-the-only-authority card," it effectively ends the conversation and closes the box (and we all know what it's like inside a box, don't we? "It's dark in here! Let us out!").
The Epistemological Trap
When someone plays the Trump Card, I ask them, "What reasons do we have to believe the Church has the only divine authority on earth today?"
I can sort the answers into two categories:
(1) Historical Narrative. People in the LDS tradition who inherited Brigham Young's legacy like me will say something like, "Joseph Smith passed his priesthood keys to the Twelve Apostles to govern the Church after his death. Brigham Young was the legal successor of Joseph Smith, and the Presidents after him."
(2) Spiritual Confirmation. Here we find people who have received positive, spiritual affirmations regarding the Brethren and feel a strong testimony of their divine appointment.
I am not here to question or challenge other people's spiritual experiences, so I'll leave No. 2 between them and the Lord.
But as for No. 1, okay, that's flat-out false.
"So Long, and Thanks for All the [Plain and Precious Parts]"
What can we do when we're up against generations of cultural conditioning? Against an imperfect and incomplete historical record?
And what's worse, against men who consciously altered and changed many of the teachings and events in our history?
(1) Brigham Young Having a Heyday with our History
"I notice the interpolations because having been employed in the Historian’s office at Nauvoo by Doctor Richards, and employed, too, in 1845, in compiling this very autobiography, I know that after Joseph’s death his memoir was “doctored” to suit the new order of things, and this, too, by the direct order of Brigham Young to Doctor Richards and systematically by Richards."
(Inez Smith, “Biography of Charles Wesley Wandell,” Journal of History 3 (Jan. 1910): pp. 455-63)
I mean, something as important as the Lord appearing in the Kirtland Temple to Joseph and Oliver has not withstood the test of time. It was recorded in Joseph's Journal (suspiciously at the very end of the notebook) in 3rd Person by Warren Cowdery, with long quotations which the Church Historian's Office admits "must have relied upon a source no longer extant."
(4) D&C 132
Or take the magnum opus on Plural Marriage, D&C 132. The original was destroyed and only a copy in the handwriting of Joseph Kingsbury survives as a copy of something else. That's right: a copy of a copy from a guy nobody's ever heard of, which was concealed and privately held by Brigham Young and only published in 1852 (decades later) after the Saints had jumped on the polygamy bandwagon.
What's going on? Well, the same thing that has been going on since the beginning of time: the victors write the history.
I point these things out as a small sampling of the historical issues we have with our own Church History.
An Example of Recent Mischief
The angel warned us, he really did. Well, to be technical, he warned Nephi about the mischief that would ensue after the records were messed up.
As a consequence of the plain and precious parts being removed,
The Gentiles do stumble exceedingly.
(1 Nephi 13:34)
I encountered, first hand, an example of "stumbling" a couple weeks ago in Sacrament Meeting when a sister quoted Elder Lawrence E. Corbridge (a member of the Seventy).
The quote was shocking. I was aghast, and now these things were being trumpeted to the impressionable youth in the ward.
Elder Corbridge introduced his topic on deception in the latter-days (too ironic to be believed, I know), saying:
"The kingdom of God is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It will 'stand for ever' (Dan. 2:44). The question is, Will you and I stand? Will you stand forever, or will you go away? And if you go, where will you go?"
Each and every part of that quote is misleading, manipulative and regrettable.
(1) The kingdom of God is NOT the same thing as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
While I can forgive a layperson for conflating the Church and the Kingdom of God, as a member of the Seventy Elder Corbridge knows better. This is religious malpractice.
Joseph Smith taught:
There is a distinction between the Church of God and kingdom of God. The laws of the kingdom are not designed to effect our salvation hereafter. It is an entire, distinct and separate government. The church is a spiritual matter and a spiritual kingdom.
The literal kingdom of God and the church of God are two distinct things.
(Joseph Smith, Administrative Records, The Joseph Smith Papers, Church Historian Press, 2016, p. 128)
(2) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will NOT "stand forever."
Neither is the Church the same thing as the Kingdom of Heaven. And it goes without saying the Church is not Zion.
So what is the Church? Well, it is a body corporate that began on a specific date (April 6, 1830, to be exact); and as Joseph Smith taught, it is good logic that anything that has a beginning must have an end.
Where do we find The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Celestial Kingdom? Or even in the Terrestrial?
Nope, you've got to go all the way down to the telestial kingdom (that we currently inhabit) to find the Church.
But in the heavens we find the Church of the Firstborn; also called the Church of the Lamb; but nowhere do we find The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Church is an airplane that must make a connecting flight; it does not offer service to our desired destination.
(3) There's no question about whether you and I will stand; we're immortal.
"The mind of man is as immortal as God himself," Joseph taught. Elder Corbridge was saying that we can only stand if we remain in-step with the Church, which is to say, the Brethren, which is to say (in his mind, I suppose), the Lord.
Anyone who equates the Church with the Lord makes a mockery of God, and insults him, as if he bore the faults of our imperfect organization.
(4) There's no question about where we'll go: wherever Christ is!
Elder Corbridge is apparently alluding to this passage in the New Testament:
Then Jesus said: Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.
Does the Church have the words of eternal life? Does the Church save us?
When will we learn that the Fold of God is here to help us "bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; and mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God" (Mosiah 18:8-9)?
That is the purpose of the Church; we don't need all the bells and whistles about body piercings and tithing and don't-say-'Mormon'; we don't need to boss each other around.
No one needs the religious equivalent of North Korea!
I wish I could have a "reader appreciation" day. Give out owl buttons or something?
I know my posts are long (so my mother tells me) and require a modicum of charity to get through (so my wife tells me), so I am grateful you've chosen to share this telestial time with me.
Over the weekend I realized I had omitted from my last post the perfect scripture in support of Christ being our "Finish Line." And so, to complete the record, here you go:
Relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.
While I am not going to win any Peabody Awards for this blog, I continue to write so my children may know to what source they may look for redemption.
Each year I collate my posts into a Word Document and send them to Office Depot to be printed into a single hardbound volume (that way, when the internet fails, I'll have a print copy I can use as evidence when the dead are judged from the books that are written.)
For whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven.
I don't know about the celestial permanency of digital records, so to be on the safe side I will keep a paper copy; and I'd like it recorded that: I am 6 feet tall and 165 lbs. of pure muscle with thick black hair and good breath.
Just in case.
Adventures of a Church Sunday School Counselor
Many of you have enjoyed reading about my adventures with Clark Burt during our time together in the Stake Sunday School Presidency ― a period of time I like to call (to plagiarize Leonard Arrington) "Camelot."
Camelot is famous for its knights of the Round Table. The symbolism of the circle represents equality.
According to legend, the Round Table depicted the world. King Arthur placed his Knights around the Table so none could boast of a higher position than any other (not even the king).
The legend of the Round Table fits with our teachings about ZION, where "they who dwell in [God's] presence [are] equal in power, and in might, and in dominion" (D&C 76:95).
I've written before that equality doesn't mean we all possess the same aptitude or skill (our intelligences vary as the stars in heaven).
But while we are not equal in our natures, we can be equal in our status.
This summarizes the work of God, which was to take unequal intelligences and exalt them as "one" by becoming joint-heirs with the Son.
School of the Prophets
As Stake Sunday School President, Clark wasted no time. He emailed the dozen-or-so Ward S.S. Presidencies about informally holding a modern-day School of the Prophets:
Clark said, "In 1833 Joseph Smith was inspired to begin a School of the Prophets where saints could 'teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom' (D&C 88:77) and where members could learn the law of the gospel together through 'the grace of God in the bonds of love' (D&C 88:133). We wish to do the same.”
And so it was that we began meeting together to be nourished by the good word of God ― not in administrative meetings or leadership trainings, but simply sitting in a circle and teaching each other the Good News.
It didn't take long for murmurs to reach the Stake Presidency about what was going on.
One of the Ward sunday school presidents got out the Church Handbook (horror of horrors) to show us the error of our ways.
Hearkening to this dutiful informant, the Stake Presidency told us we were holding too many meetings.
This resourceful young man pointed to the place in the Handbook where it prescribed a schedule of annual (or semi-annual?) meetings, as opposed to our monthly ones.
And so, we got shut down.
I have often reflected on Hugh Nibley's statement in "Zeal Without Knowledge," that members put up with "sitting in endless meetings, for dedicated conformity, and unlimited capacity for suffering boredom . . . that tends to breed a race of insufferable, self-righteous prigs and barren minds."
Isn't it ironic that this person who complained was fine going to all the Church ward council meetings, trainings, service activities, youth campouts, priesthood leadership meetings, firesides, presidency meetings, general conferences, welfare classes, interviews, morningsides, face-to-face meetings, coordination meetings, ministering appointments, missionary dinners, and a hundred other types of meetings―
But this was the meeting that broke the camel's back?
Hmmm. Why was that? Looking back, I suspect we would not have gotten in trouble if we had served up regular fare; but we were trying to do something different; exhorting one another to repentance and praying together and debating gospel truths.
Funny how we're willing to dutifully endure (if silently resenting) a multitude of meetings until one comes along that pricks our hearts.
If experience has shown us anything, it is the most dangerous thing we can preach in Church is repentance; and the greatest threat to our testimonies steeped in carnal security is unadorned truth.
But some of the participants in our little School "got it."
One wrote, "I wonder if the faith crisis people have is partly the result of believing things that they feel secure in, only to learn some of those things were actually false."
Where I Eat My Hat
Could faith crises be the fault of hierarchies, since imperfect institutions invariably let us down? Only the pure love of Christ "never faileth" (no one ever had a faith crisis because the gospel is too loving).
What happens when imperfect men and women place themselves between us and God, casting an umbra that occludes our ability to stand fully in Christ's light?
We do not stand on the shoulders of giants, but in their shadows.
Now I am going to say something that will shock you:
Sometimes hierarchies can be good.
Wait, what? Isn't that the opposite of what I've been saying for years?
Well, one of my problems is that I reach for the ideal. But the world we live in is far from ideal.
That is why for some of us a hierarchy can be better than nothing.
Were the children of Israel better off with Moses, when they asked Moses to stand between them and the Lord so they wouldn't have to endure His glory?
Moses was able to bring his people up more than if they had been on their own, right?
But Moses, interestingly, could not bring them all the way up to the "higher law."
Why is that?
The Church Can Only Take Us So Far
Hierarchies are beneficial when someone out there can be inspired and edified by the reflected light of those who lead them, like Moses.
So I guess it's better to follow the prophet than to follow the unbridled passions of the natural man.
But please notice that any good that hierarchies accomplish diminishes the closer we come to Christ, the source of all goodness.
As we ascend the telestial and terrestrial spheres and enter the celestial, hierarchies become at last obstacles to our progression.
Why? Because there is no way for hierarchies not to block the light of Christ.
Perhaps this is why Paul taught us that the organizational structure of the church and its priesthood offices come with an expiration date:
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
Till [Till! TILL!! TILL(!!!)] we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
That we henceforth be no more children.
You see? Some day we'll "outgrow" the organizational Church when we are no longer in spiritual diapers.
This is why we won't see a "rank and file" organization in Zion, which is a company of Kings and Queens who are equal, who hold hands in a circle around Christ, as genuine brothers and sisters, even the congregation of the Saints and the Church of the Firstborn, so that no one comes between us and Him.
He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me: [and he that loveth prophet or apostles more than me is not worthy of me]. (Mark 10:37)
Here is my own depiction of Zion (and why I did not get an MFA):
"Prophet or Disney Princess?"
Clark took the Stake Presidency's chastisement humbly and discontinued our monthly meetings.
No more School of the Prophets. How soon it had all happened: I felt bad; it felt like a minor injustice had been done.
Clark counseled: "It's alright. It was prophesied that instead of becoming a more Zion-like people, the Church would acquire more of the characteristics of Babylon. Instead of becoming God's peculiar people, a nation of kings and priests, we would become an idolatrous people, a people under condemnation, treating lightly the things we have received."
I see now he was right. Who was I to rage against the tide of prophecy being fulfilled? I was witnessing, in real time, Alma's words coming true before my very eyes:
And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.
Notice that the "chains of hell" are not fire and brimstone. It is the bondage of being bereft of God's word.
I want to suggest that nothing about this is new. It is a tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme.
When the Sons of Mosiah went on their mission to preach the gospel to the Lamanites, not all of them were as lucky as Ammon (who was offered a princess in marriage).
Some of the sons, like Aaron, stumbled upon the Amalekites and Amulonites.
Talk about a tough crowd:
(1) They did harden their hearts; (2) They did wax strong in wickedness; and (3) They did practice abominations.
Or, if you were to look at it another way, from the perspective of the locals, and interviewed an Amalekite on the street, you'd learn they:
(1) Were a righteous people; (2) Built churches and assembled together regularly; and (3) Worshipped God.
Hmmm. Which was it? It can't be both ways.
The Amalekites told Aaron:
How knowest thou that we are not a righteous people? How knowest thou that we have cause to repent?
I hear variations on this theme in Church when members defend "the only true and living Church" while turning a blind eye to the rampant hypocrisy in the name of sustaining the Brethren; when their loyalty to the hierarchy is greater than their valiancy towards Christ's word.
But here's the test: Did the Amalekites receive the word of God when Aaron preached it, or did they reject it?
Now Aaron began to open the scriptures unto them . . . and, as he began to expound these things unto them they were angry with him, and began to mock him; and they would not hear the words which he spake.
Years ago I went to a family BBQ and the topic of the Church came up. When I went off script and gave some unorthodox opinions, things got pretty tense.
There's not much I can say anymore at family picnics about the Church without angering someone; and so I have learned to mind my own business. Like Aaron, who, when they rejected his words, "departed" (Alma 21:11).
Aaron hoofed it to Middoni where it went from bad to worse. They cast him into prison.
So if you're expecting a warm welcome when you speak the word of God in Church, be prepared. We are more like the Amalekites than we'd like to believe.
Nevertheless, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Shall we hide the talent God has given us?
Because, like Aaron, there are some few followers of Christ out there who might be "convinced of their many sins, and of the traditions of their fathers, which were not correct" (Alma 21:17).
"All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them."
"Your assignment is to find out what Godly sorrow is," Clark said.
I was serving at the time as a counselor in the Stake Sunday School presidency to Clark Burt.
Clark issued my assignment to figure out "Godly sorrow" as if it were as easy as picking up milk from the grocery store on my way home from work.
The unusual thing about Clark was how he used the "Return and Report" principle. He used it in a way I hadn't seen others use it before.
Instead of treating me like a worker bee, handing me a shovel and delegating a list of chores for me to do ("clean the church on Saturday, take the young men to the temple, plan the Easter program, pick up rocks at the church farm, ask Sister Jones to speak on Sunday"), he didn't assign me things to do, but things to learn.
Well, this caught me off guard. After all, in a Church built around doing, I was not trained for learning.
Staring Repentance Between the Eyes
I took my assignment seriously, assuming Clark had a good reason for giving me this particular task.
And as you know, a person can't get very far studying "godly sorrow" without running across repentance.
Like most young men growing up in the Church in Utah, I had learned by rote the "R's" of repentance:
Recognize Remorse Restitution Reformation
I'm not sure what "R"-word replaced confession (Reveal?), but confession to the bishop was a major theme during our quorum lessons.
I graduated from Seminary and went to BYU; I served a mission in Paris and married my Sweetheart in the Salt Lake Temple; and I felt like I had gotten pretty good at this whole "repentance" thing.
But in reality, looking back now, I don't know if I experienced a mighty change of heart. Instead, I think I had just gotten pretty good at being . . . good.
Yes, as a youth I felt shame for my sins; I prayed and shed tears asking for forgiveness; I tried sincerely to forsake my bad habits. I ran the hamster-wheel with the best of them.
I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
(2 Tim. 4:7)
What was I missing? I wanted to be like the apostle Paul; I wanted off the hamster wheel!
Where was the finish line? Could there even be a finish line when we're told to "endure to the end?" The end of what?
Whereas Paul said he had "finished the race," it seemed to me that there was no finish line to the never-ending to-do lists and commandments we're taught in Church.
Now in my 40s, it's clear that while I never struggled with scrupulosity, I was definitely marinated in a culture of toxic perfectionism.
And so, today I am here to declare in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ:
The gospel has a finish line!
May I repeat the good news: The gospel has a finish line!
What is it?
It is the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is the alpha and Omega, the beginning and the END (Revelation 21:6).
The Devil [was] bound a thousand years, and cast into the bottomless pit.
Bottomless pit? What better way to describe "hell?" A place where we can never do enough; where we can never be enough.
(Perhaps this will give you some additional insight into my poem, Without End.)
Have you ever, perchance, interpreted Nephi's words in this way, when he said:
Dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this.
(2 Nephi 28:8)
Do we dig pits for each other when we pile all these rules and policies and commandments onto our brothers and sisters; when all those things become the gospel for us, instead of Him crucified?
There's a better way.
Good Guys, But Lousy at Repentance
Clark taught me, "As long as we continually think of ourselves as the good guys we will not get very much out of the scriptures."
All my life I had read about "the wicked" in the scriptures, but I guess I never really identified with those guys!
After all, I was a (1) baptized, (2) endowed, (3) full-tithe paying member of the Church. How wicked could I be?
I didn't realize how dangerous it was to start "likening the scriptures unto us" (1 Nephi 19:23). I began studying and applying the verses in The Book of Mormon about "the wicked" to me and to the Church. My world began to turn upside down; once my eyes were opened, I couldn't not see it (yes, that was a double negative).
Clark said, "Ezekiel says that Israel was 'corrupted more than Sodom and Samaria in all their ways' (Ezek. 16:47). That's referring to the Lord's people! How do you think Israel is faring today?"
Before I could experience my mighty change of heart I guess I needed to have my heart obliterated into a thousand potsherds. As I read the scriptures with a broken heart, I began to understand that these words were about me:
"At that day when the Gentiles [that's me! that's you! that's the Church!] shall sin against my gospel, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy, and murders, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, and of secret abominations; and if they shall do all those things, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fulness of my gospel from among them" (3 Nephi 16:10).
And so I knelt down and repented.
But this time it was different . . . .
The Gall of Bitterness
This time I wasn't repenting for some teenage indiscretion or infraction―
I was repenting for a lifetime of pride.
But this went beyond my own pride (from which we could fuel several nuclear reactors, I'm sure, with all the radioactive fallout my spiritual uranium has emitted into the environment over the years), extending to the pride that surrounds all of us and that blankets the world in darkness.
Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
Now something unexpected happened. I felt godly sorrow wash over me ― not just for my own sinfulness but for all wickedness. This will sound crazy except to those who've experienced something similar. How can repentance be about more than just me? I mean, I can't repent for others' sins, right?
I was overcome with grief for my sins and for the sinfulness of this fallen kingdom we inhabit; it was gut wrenching because I couldn't comprehend why we labor in darkness when the Lord's arms are outstreched and I felt ashamed for myself and for everyone else out there who is blind at midday, ignoring the light of Christ that surrounds us; and it hurt. Maybe I was tapping into some collective, higher consciousness or something, but I think the best way to describe it is to paraphrase Peter's words:
I perceive[d] that [we] art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bonds of iniquity.
And I wept bitterly.
I suppose I may have been having a spiritual breakdown like Alma's:
I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that [we] had rebelled against God, and that [we] had not kept his holy commandments.
When Alma felt that pain, he was smart. He cried out:
O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
I wasn't so eloquent. It wasn't so much words but sobs that came out, something like, "I am so, so, sorry, Lord. Please forgive me; please forgive all of us!"―
What happened next was not at all like what Alma experienced. Alma felt relief and could remember his pains no more.
That would have been nice.
But I wasn't given peace. Instead I was filled with "fear and trembling" as the Spirit bore witness to how awful it will be when the Lord shakes the foundations of the earth and all that is prideful shall be abased and brought low to the dust, and great shall be the fall thereof.
Godly Sorrow Come Lately
I returned and reported.
"Clark, I think I learned something about godly sorrow," I said, "but I still have a ways to go."
"What have you learned?" he asked.
"Maybe repentance is not so much about what I've done as it is about what Christ's done. What power has sin over me when I am looking into His eyes, right?"
"Good," Clark said. "Now I want you to learn what Justice and Mercy mean."
My all-time favorite scripture about authority comes from the inimitable apostle Peter in Acts 5.
This was after the Ascension, when the religious authorites put Peter into prison.
What were his crimes?
Sick folks and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: they were healed every one.
How awful! The apostles were actually healing people instead of teaching them to have faith NOT to be healed.
Then the high priest rose up . . . filled with indignation,
Why was he so angry? Was he upset these nobodies from Galilee didn't have permission from the proper authorities? Because they were making the leaders look bad?
And laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in the common prison.
I guess from the perspective of the high priest, what good is healing if the leaders aren't getting the credit? Put the rascals in prison where we can knock some sense into them to make them play ball.
Notice the signs of the apostleship that followed Peter. Isn't it interesting the sick were healed "every one?"
This made the religious authorities look impotent (because they were); it destroyed the illusion their priestcraft created.
Guess who posted Peter's bail?
Heavenly Bail Bondsman
In the ultimate jail break, an angel came to lend Peter a helping hand.
The angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth, and said,
Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.
For such a short verse, there's a lot to unpack in the angel's instruction to Peter:
1. "GO." The angel was like, "What're you doing here in jail, fellas, when there are people out there who need to hear the Good News?! Get out of here; go!"
This showed a complete disregard to the authority of the religious leaders who had put them in jail.
2. "STAND." The angel was telling the apostles to get off their duffs and stand up! Stand up to the spiritual abuse; stand up to the hypocrisy; stand up for Christ in the midst of spiritual wickedness.
The angel was like, "Do you think you're on a smoking break? What're you doing lying about in jail, as if this were a jolly holiday, when there are people out there who need to hear the Good News?!"
3. "SPEAK." Simple, wasn't it? Speak! "Go open your mouths and declare the Good News!"
Peter: "We [are not] permitted to speak anything of our own. For we are sent; and of necessity he who is sent delivers the message as he has been ordered, and sets forth the will of the sender. For if I should speak anything different from what He who sent me enjoined me, I should be a false apostle."
(Clement of Rome, Recognitions, Book II, chapter 33)
The Lord's message to us in the latter-days is the same as it was to Peter; he wants us to SPEAK:
But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man.
What do we "fear" from man? That we might be embarrased for our beliefs? That we might be shunned in Sunday School for our witness of Christ? That we might be excommunicated by the bishop for our boldness in declaring his Word?
4. "IN THE TEMPLE." Well, this is interesting: the angel sends them to preach where it's going to make the high priest the maddest, in the seat of the Jewish authorities' power: the temple.
How ironic that the Jews sought salvation through the temple while rejecting the living Temple of God (Christ).
Like the Jews, the Church today focuses on the temple in a way that gives the members false hope. There is no redemption but through Christ.
"But Tim," someone says, "the temple is about bringing us unto Christ. We make covenants with Christ in the Temple."
Okay. We might as well baptize a bag of sand, or endow a bag of sand, or seal a bag of sand, for all the good it will do them, if they do not have the Words of Life abiding in them.
5. "TO THE PEOPLE." Notice the angel tells them to preach indiscriminately, to everyone. They aren't to focus on a specific segment of the population ("stay away from Blacks; or gays; or feminists"). Their message is universal to all of God's children.
It's also interesting the angel sends them directly to the masses and not through "proper priesthood channels." The Lord doesn't seem to care who delivers His message, and at times he even speaks from the mouths of babes.
When the Good News is filtered through leadership, it often gets watered down with the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches, as they worry about proper messaging, and the Church's image, reputation, tithing receipts, etc.
7. "ALL." The angel tells them to not hold back. None of the redaction and censorship we get from modern authorities who keep sacred secrets; who conceal Church finances and who place our historical records under lock and seal.
What does the Lord have to hide? The Good News is all good to share. The angel doesn't tell them to pocket their pearls. No, he says "go and speak ALL the words of life."
8. "THE WORDS OF THIS LIFE."
Who else could this refer to, but to the Word of This Life, even Christ Jesus, in whom abides eternal lives?
Things Heating Up
The high priest convened a council with "all the senate of the children of Israel" to handle Peter once and for all (Acts 5:21).
They summon the prison guard to escort the prisoners to the council, but learn that Peter has escaped. In fact, Peter had "entered into the temple early in the morning" (Acts 5:21).
Peter had been in prison all night, but instead of going home to take a nap or bathe, he goes at first light to preach in the temple.
So the guards went to retrieve Peter from the temple and brought him before the council.
The high priest accused him:
Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name?
Yes, the leaders had been crystal clear. But Peter answered to a higher power. It would be like going to your "membership council" where the leaders accuse you of apostasy, and tell you to stop saying all those awful things that Christ wants said, about needing to repent.
Here's Peter's response, and it is my all-time favorite come back.
Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said,
We ought to obey God rather than men.
Pause; I don't want us to miss what this means. Peter is saying something that was quite insulting to the high priest, calling the Lord's anointed (the high priest) a man.
How dare he! In modern vernacular, it would sound like this:
Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said,
We ought to obey God rather than [the Brethren].
The Knives Come Out
Things are about to get dicey because Peter has provoked the religious authorites who "were cut to the heart" (Acts 5:33).
Despite being religious and moral authorites, the leaders "took counsel to slay them" (Acts 5:33).
Why were they so upset? Well, Peter had stood up to them; he couldn't be silenced and wouldn't sustain them; and the people were listening to him.
Peter testified to the council:
We are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.
If there is one thing religious authorites cannot tolerate, it is people obeying God when it conflicts with their agendas.
Because Peter was popular with the people, the high priest let him off with a beating, this time.
And the council called the apostles, and [after they had] beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus.
So did Peter obey the council's decision? Did he obey their command to not speak or pray in Church?
And daily in the temple and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.
[Spoiler alert: The Parable of the Babysitter is at the end of this post]
After reading a recent post, a friend asked me point-blank, "Are body piercings and tattoos really against God's will?"
Now, they weren't actually asking for my opinion on tattoos and nipple rings. They were asking, "Is it possible for the Prophet to be wrong?"
Here's my answer:
1. A servant can only have one Master (Matt. 23:8). The authority of a master over their servant is singular (so let's hope we get a good one).
2. No one (that's right, no one) can serve two masters (Matt. 6:24). So if we had a master but wanted to moonlight-on-the-side, it would not end well.
3. The answer to my friend's question ― and the answer to 99% of all our questions, every time (!) ― is asking ourself, "Who is my master?"
Who Is My Master?
This question is a LOT harder than it appears.
Is my wife "my master" when she forces me to fold the laundry?
Am I "the master" of my children when I make them read Oscar Wilde?
What does it mean, in a spiritual context, to be a master? A servant?
Looking at our Savior's example, we can ask, "Who was Christ's master?"
And the follow-up question, "What sort of Servant was Christ?"
Of Masters and Vineyards
It's pretty interesting that the Lord is compared in the scriptures to a "master" of . . . a vineyard. So I guess it is safe to say the Lord knows a thing or two about fine vintages.
(It'll be worth attending the Wedding Supper just to sample the wine.)
A feast of fat things, of wine on the lees well refined.
One of the things I love in the allegory of the Olive Tree found in Jacob 5 is the servant saying to the master:
How comest thou hither to plant this tree, or this branch of the tree? For behold, it was the poorest spot in all the land of thy vineyard.
To paraphrase, the servant is saying, "Are you crazy? This is the worst possible place to plant a tree, don't you know?!"
And the master responds, "Counsel me not" (Jacob 5:22).
Like when Lucifer tried to counsel the Father, telling Him he had a better plan; while Christ was willing to become a Son.
Seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand.
Taking counsel is NOT a one-way street. We're not talking about marching orders. It involves dialoguing with the Lord, raising questions and honestly considering alternatives and seeking greater light and understanding.
People whose faith and beliefs have not matured beyond what they held in their teens and 20s and 30s probably do not spend much time counseling with the Lord.
Why? Because it is impossible to counsel with Him and not be transformed.
He changes our hearts and renews our minds.
Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good.
What does counseling have to do with masters and servants, you ask?
Ask yourself, "Whose counsel are we obeying?"
1. If we're doing what the devil says, then he is our master (Mosiah 4:14).
2. If we're doing what the Prophet says, then he is our master (D&C 76:98-100).
3. If we're doing what Christ says, then He is our Master (Matt. 23:10).
Choose Your Master
The irony of the whole situation is we get to choose our master (Joshua 24:15). If you don't like the one you've got, then choose a better one.
This isn't the Hunger Games. We're not conscripted into serving against our will; we have agency. We get to volunteer for whatever team we want to be part of.
1. Those that serve the Prophet will receive a Prophet's reward (Matt. 10:41).
2. Those that serve the devil will reap the devil's reward (Romans 6:23).
3. And those that serve Christ shall receive a commensurate reward (John 17:2).
Which master will we choose?
A Prophet Is Only a Prophet
Sometimes I drive people crazy when I distinguish between Christ and the prophets, probably because we teach that "whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same" (D&C 1:38).
I get confused how this tradition ever sprang up ― that whenever a prophet speaks his words are God's will ― when Joseph taught "a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such" (History of the Church, 5:265).
I would alter that quote to say, "A prophet is only a prophet when he is [speaking the words of Christ, by which we may know he is] acting as such" (History of Tim, 8:22:22).
I do not see any benefit in treating the Lord and the prophets interchangeably; and in fact, I have seen a lot of mischief come from doing so.
The Prophet is Not our Master
By way of analogy, my father is a wonderful, wise man. Not perfect, but who is?
Yet my dad has no "authority" or power over me because, as a father myself, he no longer gets to be in charge of my life. He can't dictate my bedtime or make me turn off the TV and clean my room.
As a 40-something adult, I've come to trust my dad and I appreciate his counsel. We converse on all kinds of issues and problems, and if what he says connects with me, either through reason or revelation, I take it to heart.
On the other hand, if my dad ever gives me dodgy advice, I am free to ignore it.
At the end of the day, when I go home and counsel with my wife, she and I get to decide how to raise our children and what sort of adults we want to be.
So while we honor and love our parents, we don't have to believe as they do, nor are we required to live our lives according to their values.
Why? Because we are not the servants of our parents; we are servants of the Living Prophet, Jesus Christ.
The Parable of the Babysitter
Now we're to the part I've been building up to. Let's apply this to prophets.
Do prophets babysit us? Are they our nanny? Do they get to dictate our bedtimes and how many earrings we have?
"Well, yes, Tim, they do!" someone says. "God gave them priesthood keys, so they're in charge; we have to obey them as if they were God because He gave them His authority," they tell me as if I am a few beans short of a burrito, like their claims should be obvious and self-evident to anyone who has graduated nursery.
Parable: Even though we're not kids who need babysitting, arguendo, let's pretend our parents left us with a babysitter.
It's 6:00 o'clock and our parents kiss us goodnight. "Now be good. Do whatever the babysitter says," they say as they jet off, leaving us alone with our babysitter.
(This scenario is something Nephi warned us about. In the latter-days, he saw people making the claim that God had given them his authority. Even though Nephi throws all kinds of red flags on this play, it still has somehow become LDS doctrine. Go figure!)
They say unto the people: Hearken unto us, and hear ye our precept; for behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men; Behold, hearken ye unto my precept.
(2 Nephi 28:5-6)
So back to the Babysitter. She makes some Kraft Mac-n-Cheese for dinner. She puts us in pajamas and starts Bambi on the television. When we're settled, she calls her boyfriend on the phone and invites him to hang.
The boyfriend arrives and seems nice enough. As they sit on the couch with us smoking weed, the Babysitter offers us a marijuana joint.
"Go ahead," she says, "I'm in charge; take a good drag. It'll relax you before bed."
"Sorry," we say. "Our parents taught us not to do drugs."
"Hey, calm down little fella!" she says. "It's okay. Really. Your parents trust me. They left me in charge and so you have to do as I say while they're gone!"
"No we don't," we answer matter-of-factly. "You were left with representative authority, and not independent authority, and you are to be obeyed only insofar as your commands are consistent with and not repugnant to the standards of this home. While our parents are not physically present, their values still preside within these walls. You have violated that implied covenant and have shown yourself to be untrustworthy of the position my parents gave you. Not only will we refuse your drugs, but we will also be telling Mother you should not babysit anymore. In fact, I believe we would all be better off if you and your boyfriend left. Good night."
The Moral of the Parable
The moral of the story is we do not serve babysitters. We serve Christ alone.
The only authority prophets have is by virtue of speaking the words of Christ, by persuasion, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned.
When a prophet gives us the drugs of carnal security, telling us "all is well," while prescribing the precepts of men mingled with scripture, we may show them the door.
Do you remember how, several years earlier, we had survived the Mayan Calendar Apocolypse of 2012 without incident?
The world didn't end.
We watched the news as Russia invaded Syria (this was before anyone was flying Ukrainian flags except for Returned Missionaries who had served there). The US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in its Obergfell decision.
And the world went on.
Trayvon Martin became a household name before anyone had heard of Black Lives Matter. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a new policy prohibiting the baptism of children who had gay parents―
[Wait. Rewind. What did you say? I must have misheard.]
I said: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a new policy prohibiting the baptism of children who had gay parents―
[Okay, I don't believe you, because that sounds crazy, but continue.]
And there I was, in October 2015, being interviewed by Elder Marcus B. Nash and Elder Evan A. Schmutz as a candidate to serve in the new Stake Presidency of the newly-formed Lehi Thanksgiving Stake―
[Now I know you're messing with us; there's no way that is true.]
Don't worry, I wasn't picked. A much better man than I was chosen.
And with the creation of the new stake I found myself without a Church calling.
Sweet! Time to kick back and enjoy my Sundays for once!
Check, Check, Check, Check
Imagine, for a moment, a Church that didn't assign us callings. Could that be possible?
(1) A calling (2) A friend (3) To be nourished by the good word of God.
I think the Church does a terrific job with No. 1 on that list: giving everyone a responsibility.
But we struggle a bit with No. 2; and we're downright failing at No. 3.
I'm only speaking from personal experience and your's may be different, but I think we can all agree on one thing: the Church is good at keeping its members busy.
We treat the iron rod like a conveyor belt at the grocery store, constantly loading stuff onto it and watching it disappear as the cashier rings up our balance.
It is never-ending, this thing we call religion; it has an insatiable appetite to consume the souls of men and then spit them out like gum that has lost its flavor:
- Attend all meetings - Magnify your calling - Attend the Temple - Wear your garments properly - Dress modestly - Do not drink alcohol, coffee, or tea - No smoking - Keep your thoughts pure - Do not watch rated-R movies - Store one year's supply of food storage - Read the scriptures - Don't get a vasectomy - Don't use Audio-Visuals in Sacrament Meeting - Do not view porn or play with 'the little factory' - Avoid energy healing - Do not get tattoos or multiple piercings - Go on a mission - Be a member-missionary - Be a faithful ministering brother or sister - Fast - Pay 10% tithing - Have family home evening - Follow the Prophet - Keep the Sabbath day holy (whoops: that one is on the Top Ten, too) - Don't act gay or transgender - Bear your testimony - Don't gamble - Do not pray to Heavenly Mother
Kinda makes you nostalgic for the good old days, doesn't it, when we only had Ten Commandments instead of a thousand?
"Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It"
Well, no sooner had I started to let my hair down, basking in my newfound freedom of being callingless, when I received the dreaded call:
"Brother Merrill," said the new Stake Clerk, "We'd like you to come down to the stake office and meet with a member of the Stake Presidency on Tuesday night."
"May I ask what this is regarding?"
"No," the Clerk said.
I knew the Church liked to hold its cards close to the vest. They hadn't invited my wife to the interview, so I knew it wasn't an "important" calling; and it sounded like I was meeting with a counselor in the Stake Presidency and not the President himself, so that confirmed it.
"I assume this is about a new calling; couldn't you just deliver the assignment over the phone right now rather than having me anxiously wondering what it will be for the next four days?"
"No," the Clerk said.
Well, there's no reason to expect a leopard to change its spots.
"Okay," I said, hanging up.
My wife asked, "What was that about?"
"Who knows?" I said, "They wouldn't say."
Another Day, Another Calling
Counselor in the Stake Presidency: Brother Merrill, thank you for coming.
Me: [Laughing] Like I had a choice?
Counselor: Well, we appreciate your service and wanted to extend you a calling.
Counselor: You see, this is a bit unusual, and if I'm honest, I wasn't sure it was a good idea.
Counselor: I know you've been serving as the Stake Sunday School President . . .
Counselor: Well, we've called a new Sunday School President, and he wants you as one of his counselors.
Counselor: It's a little strange, I know, going from the President to a counselor.
Me: [Shrugging] It doesn't matter where we serve, but how, right?
Counselor: Good, good, then. Thank you for your service.
Just Say No?
We don't really have the option of saying "no" to a calling, do we, in the Church?
I mean, sure, someone might have a good excuse, like being terminally ill or working out of state.
But for most of us, turning down a calling gets you a reputation. Even blacklisted.
This passive-aggressive way callings are often doled out, without any meaningful consent, reminds me of something I read from a Sister in the Church:
Before President Hinckley’s talk on ear piercings, they were just a matter of personal preference and were morally neutral. But after President Hinckley’s talk, ear piercings became a way to judge our faith and obedience.
When prophets take morally neutral actions and turn them into tests of obedience and faith, they are essentially creating a new category of wrongdoing (as if we needed more guilt).
But here's the tragic part: the Church spends more time instructing its members about these "prophetic personal preferences" than it does about actual sins.
Because the leaders institutionalize their personal preferences, the Church has lost a lot of its moral credibility.
When I asked Clark why he chose me as his counselor, he said, "Several months ago in our Stake Council Meeting you offered the closing prayer."
"So?" I said.
"In front of the Stake Presidency and High Council you asked Heavenly Father to forgive them for spending 45 minutes discussing whether primary teachers should give candy to the children in their classes when we should have been about our Father's business."
"Oh yeah," I said, "I had forgotten that."
Clark put a hand on my shoulder. "That's when I knew I liked you."
A New Faith Recently I was visiting with a good friend about the Church. I know I should be no respector of persons, but this person is special (perhaps because they offered me a Piña Colada as we talked).
Like so many right now, they're going through the proverbial briar patch we call a "faith deconstruction."
I think that's healthy. It's good for our faith to undergo reconstruction. It's like the remodel of the Salt Lake Temple: President Nelson said the temple needed to be stripped down to the studs and rebuilt in order to become strong enough to "withstand the forces of nature into the Millennium."
I appreciate President Nelson's metaphor, though I believe C.S. Lewis said it best:
"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised.
"But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to?
"The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself."
(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Chapter 9, 1952).
One reason I don't use the term "faith crisis" is because I view it a blessing (not crisis) to investigate one's faith honestly.
"Why Do You Stay in the Church?"
And so, after a long conversation with my friend, I asked them why they came to me, of all people, with their doubts and questions about the Church?
They said, “You see all the messiness and yet you choose to stay. Why?”
I leaned back on the couch, unsure of how to answer. I thought of another friend who recently invited me to lunch to tell me that he and his wife had decided to leave the Church.
And from what I understand, he's not alone. There's a mass exodus out of the Church today as people are choosing to leave its oppressive Egypt-esque culture. Members are feeling tired and sore from building bigger pyramids.
Like Moses leaving Egypt seeking a greater priesthood than Ham's (Abraham 1:27), so we see people leaving the Church today in search of pure religion.
Let me say, for the record, there is no shame in leaving an organization that is toxic to one's spirituality.
It reminds me of what lawyer-turned-apostle Elder James E. Faust said about "just cause" to get a divorce. Apply these words to those who decide to "divorce" the Church:
"In my opinion, ‘just cause’ should be nothing less serious than a prolonged and apparently irredeemable relationship which is destructive of a person’s dignity as a human being."
A religion that is "destructive to a person's dignity as a human being" cannot bear the imprimatur of Christ; it cannot be called "living"; and it does not have any power to save (see D&C 121:36-41).
"Why Don't You Leave the Church?"
So as I sat sipping my Piña Colada, reflecting on how to answer my friend's question as to why I stay, I answered with my own question.
"Since the Church is negatively affecting your mental health, why don't you leave?"
Their response was immediate, reflecting years of conditioning that I am all-too-familiar with. "Well, I think I would except the Church is the only place that has divine authority and priesthood keys, right?"
I remained silent.
"I mean, I don't see how that can be," they continued, "when I learn about all the bad stuff in Church history. I just don't see how this is the only true Church, but . . . "
I said nothing.
"We're told to stay on the Covenant Path, and they tell us that they're the only ones who can get us into heaven. . . . "
I took another sip.
"I just don't understand; but I want to be with my family for eternity, and so even though I feel like a fake and fraud as I sit in Church and serve in my callings when I don't believe it, I don't want to risk losing my family."
In that moment I understood something. It dawned on me that many members stay in the Church bearing the marks of an abusive relationship.
Two areas the Church seems uncommonly exercised about are: (1) dictating how its members view and speak about it; and (2) protecting its image for outsiders (I mean, have you ever read the Church's Style Guide?)
"Why not? Doesn't the Church teach us to magnify our talents? And anyway, I pay Tithing on it!"
As we all know, one of the best tools for control is fear.
When we are afraid, we feel trapped, like we have no real choice in the matter but to stay in the boat and hold on (even if the boat plummets off a waterfall).
And so, if the Church has a monopoly on God's authority, what choice do we have? Are we stuck?
It's like Comcast. If they're the only cable provider in your neighborhood, what will happen if you cut the cable? You risk losing . . . Sports Center! Cartoon Network! Turner Classic Movies!
Ask yourself: do you really need those channels?
As many have discovered, there's a variety of streaming options available if you are tired of broadcast and cable television.
Spiritually speaking, there are a variety of streaming options available to those who are unable to pay the high cost of monthly cable service.
What Would Joseph Do?
Would Joseph Smith, as a 14 year old boy, sitting through Sacrament meeting and Teachers Quorum, remain in the Church?
At what point would his native and cheery disposition have cracked? How long would it have taken for his spiritual visions to be deemed "apostasy" by leadership, who today fill the role of the Methodist Preacher who, upon hearing of Joseph's vision, "treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days [except those given to the current] apostles [and if God wanted to speak to his children, it would be through them]" (JS-H 1:21).
On May 1, 1842, Joseph Smith taught something that apparently we've forgotten.
Preached in the grove on the keys of the kingdom charity &--
The keys are certain signs & words by which false spirits & personages may be detected from true.--
which cannot be revealed to the Elders till the Temple is completed--
The poor may get them on the Mountain top as did Moses.
That talk ― the Beetlejuice my generation was weaned on ― was delivered by then-President of the Twelve Apostles, Ezra Taft Benson, to BYU students in February 1980.
The talk is a veritable recipe book for cooking up latter-day idolatry.
Step 1: Heat oven to "Hot Enough to Burn Stubble"
Step 2: [This is the most important step] In place of a Golden Calf, insert 'Living Prophet.'
Step 3: You will know the idolatry is done when you reject the higher law for the lesser.
I cannot help but thinking, as I reflect on President Benson's words and the way they are stridently shouted from the rooftops of our cultural halls and universities today with all the fervor of those who danced with Aaron beneath the golden hooves:
Cursed be the day wherein I was born: let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed.
Wherefore came I forth out of the womb to see labour and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame?
(Jeremiah 20:14, 18)
I am ashamed; I am sorry to live to see the day when the Lord's people are fed husks and count their bellies full; to see a time when vanity is called faith; when the children of Zion put off the yoke of Christ for vainglory.
In fact, the talk distressed Church President Spencer W. Kimball so much that he had Elder Benson apologize to the General Authorities.
President Kimball feared (rightly so) that this type of message might lead members to "an unthinking 'follow the leader' mentality." (D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, Signature Books: Salt Lake City, UT, 1997, 111).
Even though Elder Benson retracted his words privately, since there was no public reckoning the message survived (and was even reprinted the following year in the Ensign).
In the ultimate irony, the man who told us to follow the living prophet . . . didn't. He continued to espouse what he thought best despite President Kimball's admonition.
Now the "Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet" has become an LDS Classic.
That's right: a talk which was deemed heresy 40 years ago has now become the entrenched orthodoxy.
Several years ago as I sat in Church, listening to the typical comments and prophet-worship, enduring another lecture on Home Teaching, the thought whispered in my mind:
"Isn't it interesting how our sacred cows invariably end up as golden calves?"
BETTER: Discontinue Tithing Settlement (Declaration) and remove payment of tithing as a requirement to enter the Temple, since holding the ordinances of the Lord's House hostage to those that pay you money is precisely what Ezekiel called "extortion." (Before we criticize Eli's sons, we better take a good, hard look in the mirror.)
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them [unless they are the child of a gay parent until they are 18 years old and only after they disavow their parent's lifestyle and promise to pay you 10% of their money] in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Matt. 28:19, Revised November 2015 Ed.)
The fact the policy was leaked to the news speaks volumes (that's right; we learned about the policy only because someone sent a copy to Mormon Stories, who posted it on Facebook and it was picked up by the news; so you know something stinks when you first hear about it from the anchorman).
Again, I don't understand all the cloak-and-dagger at Church Headquarters; why are they always climbing over fences in the dead of night instead of using the gate? Is it because Jesus stands at the Gate and they are ashamed (John 10:1)?
I remember watching TV with my wife as we learned about the policy on the 9:00 o'clock news. We both looked at each other and knew, instinctively, based on the light of Christ, that this policy was not of God.
After all, wasn't Jesus the one who taught:
Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not [unless they happen to be the unlucky child of a parent who has made decisions over which the child had no say, but let the child answer for the sins of their parents if said sins be gay].
(Luke 18:16, Revised November 2015 Ed.)
While the news made me and my wife speechless, I thought of our loving Savior who appeared to his Nephite disciples:
Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized [except those of you who live in homes of great friction caused by the sexuality of your parents, and so as an act of love, do not be baptized; you won't need the gift of the holy ghost in your teenage years; after all, I will send you the comfort of great youth leaders; and do not scoff at having to wear the Scarlet Letters 'GA' ― not as my General Authorites wear it, but for your 'Gay Adult' parent].
(3 Nephi 27:20, Revised November 2015 Ed.)
And finally, who can forget when the Church voted to canonize this dramatic change to D&C 68, in which the Lord enjoins his people:
And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to...be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old [except and excluding those of gay parentage, for whom this revelation is null and of none effect; so you may forget about the '8 years old' part, for, I say unto you, the only children that reach the age of accountability who need saving are those of heterosexual marriages].
(D&C 68:25, 27, Revised November 2015 Ed.)
When this misguided policy was rescinded (sort of) in 2019, I heard many friends and family comment that they were relieved because "they never understood the policy in the first place."
But where were they during the 3.5 years this policy mocked God?
I was 35 years old and had the cushiest calling the Church: Stake Sunday School President.
It was 2015. I had made partner at my law firm and my wife was expecting our fifth child.
President Thomas S. Monson was leading the Church and the buzz-phrase at the time was "hastening the work."
Life was good. Except . . . it wasn't. Something troubled me but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
(I suppose, looking back, I was experiencing years of bottled up cognitive dissonance bubbling to the surface.)
I thought I might have depression. I thought it might be stress from work and fatherhood. I thought it might be the fact that the Church ignored the Sermon on the Mount.
I began to search the scriptures for answers.
I spent many-a-lunch-break at the Chinese buffet in American Fork, Utah pouring over the New Testament and Book of Mormon while eating kung pao.
And then I met an angel.
The Greatest Sacrament Meeting Talk I Ever Heard
Relax, it wasn't that kind of angel.
Angels come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they have in common is they "speak by the power of the Holy Ghost" (2 Nephi 32:3).
In a way, an angel is anyone who "speaks the words of Christ" (2 Nephi 32:3), regardless of whether they wear skin or spirit.
Since I was serving as an auxillary officer at the time as the Stake Sunday School President, I was assigned to accompany members of the High Council who went around to different wards to speak on Sundays.
As their junior companion, I would give a talk in Sacrament meeting before they delivered their high councilor remarks (I was the opening act, I guess, to warm up the crowd.)
And so it was, on a typical Sunday in February 2015, that I attended the Cranberry Farms 2nd Ward in Lehi, Utah, as the companion to Clark Burt, a member of our high council, to speak in Church.
I don't remember what I said that day to the congregation, but I will never forget the words spoken by Brother Burt.
Faith Cometh By Hearing, and Hearing by the Word of God
I wish you could have been there with me. Sometimes hearing the word of God is better than reading it (Romans 10:17).
As Moroni lamented:
Lord, thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them;
And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands.
The first thing I noticed as Clark spoke was that he was saying things I had never heard anyone say in Church before (which grabbed my attention).
The second thing I recognized was I knew the words he spoke were true, and that I had always known them ― as if I were re-learning something I had forgotten from a former life.
But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
And finally, his words were an answer to prayer because they addressed some of my questions about why the Church operated more like a business than like Zion.
By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them
Clark's talk began:
I would like to compare two fictitious members of the Church. One is Sister Bonnie Franklin and the other is Brother Robert Woodhead.
People would describe Sister Franklin as a very nice person. She is married to a man who is a successful businessman. They have raised five children and she is adored by her friends and family. In her many callings and responsbilities in the Church she has always excelled, drawing praise from those she has served.
Brother Woodhead, on the other hand, comes from a troubled family. The girl he wanted to marry wished to be sealed in the temple, so he worked to quit smoking in order to qualify. They got sealed and his Church activity since then has been mixed. Members of his ward are put off by his gruffness, and as a result he has no friends in the ward.
Clark paused, and then asked the congregation, "So who is the better Mormon?" (this was before the name-rebranding).
Now I was keenly interested, because he was asking the question that gets debated all the time in Ward Council (although we don't think of it that way).
Anyone who has spent any time in a bishopric or Ward Council understands that the majority of gossip (excuse me: discussion of members' needs and who would be a good fit for which callings) is about evaluating, assessing and judging other members:
- Do we agree with their opinions and beliefs? - Are they good with youth? - Are they regular Sunday attenders? - Do they have good spouses and jobs? - Are they dependable and hard working? - Do they keep all the commandments? - What did Sister So-and-So say last month about the police cars in their driveway? - I heard that they're having marital problems. The husband yells at the kids. Their yard's a mess, something must be going on. - Brother So-and-So's countenance isn't as bright lately. I wonder if he's using drugs? - On Facebook I read that Sister So-and-So is going through a faith crisis. . .
Church government, I have observed, isn't run on revelation so much as it is on reputation.
And heaven help you if you get the wrong reputation!
Continuing with Clark's talk:
I think we can agree that Sister Franklin is a better member of the Church than Brother Woodhead.
By which I mean, her participation contributes more to the organization than his. She does more.
We can see that Sister Franklin's output is greater than Brother Woodhead's because she produces more. More casseroles, more lessons, fulfills more assignments, attends the temple more frequently, and keeps a cleaner house.
Now, some would even go so far as to say that Sister Franklin, because of her many talents and good works, will be judged more favorably than Brother Woodhead.
In fact, Sister Franklin may even believe it.
At this point in the talk I did a mental face-palm, realizing I was guilty of thinking this as much as anyone.
Clark's simple illustration revealed how we're trained in the Church to be high performers.
The culture of Church government shows the most important thing is works (or at least, to keep up appearances); which encourages us to market each other's activity-levels as a commodity in a capitalist context; to value high-achievers and promote the best producers because they are good for the organzation.
I understand there are good, practical reasons we'd want to run things this way. After all, we don't want a bunch of lazy missionaries who never leave their apartment, eating Cheetos and surfing the internet all day (then we'd have the dorms at BYU). Nothing would ever get done if we didn't have hard working members.
But there's a downside:
We begin to view a person's "worth" in relation to our own self-righteousness.
"But is this the gospel of Jesus Christ?"
But is this the gospel of Jesus Christ? In God's eyes Sister Franklin needs saving every bit as much as Brother Woodhead.
We should not be surprised if we find among Latter-day Saints people who discount those who are "lesser-than," which is ironic since it is often the Brother Woodheads of the world who are more likely to turn unto Christ.
Christ seemed to attract such awful people.
The nice ones, the active ones, the successful ones ― the "good" ones ― often fail to realize their need for Christ in their lives. Those with high credit card limits easily forget how indebted they truly are.
Because Sister Franklin is blessed with intelligence, and a good and generous disposition, and had opportunities for an education and had a good upbringing, she could easily take credit for these gifts from God.
But the lost sheep that Jesus so dearly loved ― the little, the low, the least, the timid, warped, lonely, sensual and unbalanced sheep ― they learn quickly they need Christ's help.
Who do you think more easily heeds the Savior's call to repent?
A world of nice people, who are content in their own niceness, would be just as desparately in need of salvation as a miserable world ― and might even be more difficult to save.
For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not about improvement, but about redemption.
We have turned "the power of God unto salvation" into the power of ourselves unto improvment.
What a bunch of clean-cut, upstanding citizens we are, right? Thank heavens we're not like that less-active bum over there! (Luke 18:9-14).