Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Philisophical Beauty

O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell[!]
2 Nephi 9:10
There's a second major reason I believe in the Gospel as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I believe that, when fully understood, the Gospel encompasses all truth and organizes it into the most wonderful, merciful, and just view of the nature of God, the nature of man, and the purpose of life and existence. I don't claim to be a theologian or expert on world religions, but I am familiar with the basics of most major world religions, and I honestly believe that Mormonism holds the most truth. If I thought another religion or philosophy had more truth, I would join that other religion. So far, I haven't found one.

In this blog post, I won't include scriptural support for my writing; that would make this entry far too long. I will delineate the basic essentials of LDS doctrine.

In the LDS scriptures, there are multiple terms to describe the all-encompassing plan that God has for us. It is called, at various times, the "plan of happiness", "plan of redemption", "plan of mercy", "plan of salvation", "plan of deliverance from death", and "plan of restoration". I think my favorite is the "plan of happiness".

To understand this all-encompassing plan, you have to know our true relationship to God. This knowledge was lost soon after the death of the Apostles in the primitive Christian Church and restored through Joseph Smith.

God is our Father in a quite literal sense; we are of the same divine race as He is. We are gods in embryo. God is not some kind of ethereal, supernatural entity that is categorically different and far removed from us. God, angels, and man are all of the same divine race at different stages of progression. God has fully developed and matured, and His entire purpose in regards to us is to see us grow to be as He is.

A basic tenet of existence is that things grow and evolve. Although we don't know much about the primal origins of our spirits, we do know that there was a time of growth before being born on Earth. Just as babies are born in mortality and grow to maturity, passing through different stages of development, so too are all of God's children born as children and must grow and develop naturally. The final goal is to attain to God's status and become, with Christ, an heir of God's kingdom.

Another important fact is that God has a corporeal body. It is different from our mortal bodies, but our bodies were fashioned after Christ's, which was fashioned after God the Father's. That physical body encompasses both crude element and spirit. All spirit is actually a type of incredibly fine matter, undetectable by our current methods of observation.

Before coming to the Earth, we didn't have physical bodies. Although we are children of God, we are still very young and at an early stage of our development. Before living on Earth, we had bodies composed entirely of spirit, not element. Because we didn't have bodies, there are certain things we couldn't do (such as move and act) that we naturally wanted to do. Eventually we reached a point where we couldn't continue to progress unless we obtained a body. There are certain things that simply cannot be experienced or achieved without a physical body; things that are vital to continued growth to becoming as God is.

The problem is that having a body exposes a person to all sorts of temptations and afflictions. Receiving a body and living in it is a trial-and-error experience, and sometimes we make serious errors.

God is perfectly just. There is a certain order to the cosmos and God's nature that cannot be broken, or else He would cease to be God (for instance, He cannot lie). Because of that justice, he cannot allow anything that would disrupt that perfect order into His kingdom. Therefore, anything and anyone who breaks that perfect order is unfit to live with Him. Unfortunately, everyone who has lived has sinned to some degree and therefore fallen short of the perfect glory of God. That sin corrupts our souls and makes us unfit to return again to live with Him.

God knew that this would happen, and prepared a contingency plan. Jesus Christ was also with us before the world was created. Christ was another child of God who was much farther along the path than we were. Christ was chosen to be the Messiah (literally, the "anointed one") who would act as our Savior: if we would listen to Him and obey His commandments (which He would ensure were always possible to do), He would forgive us our sins, heal our souls, and help us return to live with God again.

One of the defining characteristics of God is agency: He can choose what He will do, thereby affecting the universe. It is by this principle of agency that He is able to organize the cosmos in such a way so as to produce conditions amenable to His children's growth. Because we are like Him, agency is also one of our defining characteristics. We get to choose what we will do, thereby choosing the consequences of our actions.

This mortal life has many purposes. One of those purposes is to act as proving grounds and see whether we will do everything that God requires of us. If we faithfully preform our God-given duties, we will have proven ourselves worthy of inheriting God's kingdom. We must be tested on the most primal level, so that the very core of our nature is revealed. If we remembered our lives before mortality, the proving process wouldn't work as needed. Therefore, there is a "veil of forgetfulness" that stops us from remembering our lives before mortality.

When you combine the natural difficulty of morality (with its temptations and afflictions) with human agency and the veil of forgetfulness, you have a recipe for potential disaster. Even with a Savior, many men and women would choose to reject the truth of God for various reasons. Some would even, after having been fully healed by Christ and brought into His presence again, reject God and thereby damn themselves eternally. A portion of humankind would be lost.

God made us aware of this fact before the Earth was created. We entered into this trial willingly, fully informed of the trials that awaited us. The fact that some would be lost, however, was alarming to a number of God's children. This created a division where Lucifer led a contingent of God's children in rebellion against God and Christ. At the center of the conflict was agency itself: Lucifer claimed that, if given the power, he could remove man's agency and force everyone to do good. That way, Lucifer claimed, every spirit would return to live with God and none would be lost. It is written that a "third part" of God's children sided with Lucifer. They lost the conflict, however, and were subsequently cast out of heaven into the Earth.

The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is symbolic; it's not a literal history of the beginning of mankind. It is meant to convey to us the truths we need to believe to understand our place in the world and how we relate to God. According to that allegory, God created the Earth and the Garden of Eden and put Adam in the Garden. God gave Adam certain commandments that had to do with what to eat and not to eat (tree of life: good; tree of knowledge of good and evil: bad) and then created Eve. Adam and Eve were both innocent in the beginning, like little children, and didn't know the difference between good and evil. Adam relayed God's commandments to Eve, but Satan (or "adversary", as Lucifer was now known after his fall) tempted Eve and convinced her to take the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. After partaking of the fruit, she convinced Adam to partake as well and they both learned the difference between right and wrong.

As a result of transgressing God's command not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. They began to have children and, after a time, angels appeared to Adam and taught him the Gospel of Jesus Christ: that Jesus Christ would be born into mortality, at some point, and live and die as a propitiation for Adam's transgression and the sins of all mankind.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is simple, and is explained, by Christ, in 3 Nephi 27:13-21:

13 [T]his is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.
 14 And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—

 15 And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works.

 16 And it shall come to pass, that whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled; and if he endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world.

 17 And he that endureth not unto the end, the same is he that is also hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence they can no more return, because of the justice of the Father.

 18 And this is the word which he hath given unto the children of men. And for this cause he fulfilleth the words which he hath given, and he lieth not, but fulfilleth all his words.

 19 And no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end.

 20 Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day.
 21 Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel[.]

That, in a nutshell, is the plan of happiness: despite our sins, personal failures, and sadness in life we can be forgiven and healed through the mercy of God. That healing and forgiveness comes through following the commandments of Jesus Christ, who is our advocate with God.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Personal God

[B]y the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

I think it would be fitting to start this blog with a brief summary of my life, accentuating the reasons I believe in a merciful and just Heavenly Father, and in Jesus Christ the Savior, and have hope in an afterlife of glory to be inherited after this mortal life is done.

I was born a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) Church. My parents both converted to the Church before they were married, and so I was born and raised in the Church. I was born in Utah, but my family moved around and all but my earliest memories are of Fort Collins, Colorado, where my family moved when I was about 5 years old. Until I graduated from high school, my family would live either in Fort Collins or one of two nearby towns, Windsor or Greeley.

Growing up was difficult. My mother's family had a history of severe depression, and so all the children (me and my two sisters) were diagnosed with depression at young ages and put on anti-depressant medication with insufficient oversight. I believe I was 12 or 13 when I was first put on Paxil, an SSRI, and it caused me serious behavioral issues until I got off them at age 24 (more on that later). Because of behavioral, mental, and biological issues, I was prone to severe depression, lack of ambition, and suicidal ideation.

Although I attended church weekly growing up, I only believed and lived my religion half-heartedly for the first part of my teenage years. Although there were some notable experiences that cemented my desire to live the Gospel, such desires usually fled after a time and I was left to struggle by myself. I wandered through thick mists of confusion and searched for a guiding rail to hold onto that would lead me to a better place than I was currently in. Up until this point, I only remember one concerted effort to seek the will of God in my life, and at the time that effort didn't seem to have lasted long or produced valuable results.

When I was 17, in the summer before my senior year of high school, I was still wandering somewhat aimlessly, doing what I did because I was told to do it and rebelling half the time. I was semi-inactive at church and had only a very shallow belief in the doctrine. I hadn't had any significant experiences that would root me in my religion. This all changed during a trip in July to move my older sister from Kentucky back to Colorado for school.

I don't remember the exact sequence of events leading up to this trip, but I do remember becoming very concerned with my future and what I was going to do after high school. I was debating whether I would take a course of action that would lead to leaving the Church, and was on a crash-course for emotional disaster after high school.

While on the trip, I decided to read the Book of Mormon all the way through. I had never done so before, but a few days into the trip I developed a hunger for reading it that I had never felt before. I read the entire thing, from front to back, in a 48-hour period. I was mesmerized by the events and message(s) contained therein, and I decided that I really wanted to know if it was true or not.

In the last chapter of the Book of Mormon, there's a promise written that anyone who reads the book and then asks God, in the name of Christ, if it is true--and if they have "a sincere heart, with real intent, [and have] faith in Christ"--then God will testify of the truth of the Book of Mormon to them on a personal level, by the power of the Holy Ghost (Moroni 10:3-5). I decided to put that promise to the test and see if it was true.

Because I didn't begin keeping any kind of significant journal until years after this incident, the exact order of events are foggy. The key events, however, are emblazoned on my memory and dramatically altered the course of my life.

When I was reading the Book of Mormon that first time, I was overwhelmed by the positive, joyful spirit I felt. I felt elated and eager to learn more. I wanted to know and understand everything in that book, because of how wonderful it made me feel. Most of all, there was a generally calm, content feeling that pervaded the entire week surrounding my reading of the Book of Mormon (which was a rarity in my life, which was anything but calm and fulfilling). Reading the Book of Mormon brought a clarity of thought and a hope for the future that I hadn't experienced before, and it was wonderful. Looking back on it now, I realize that was the effect of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, which was testifying the truth of the Book of Mormon to me by removing the contention in my heart in response to seeking after truth from the fount of all truth- God.

Two other notable events happened that week. The first, and the one that stands out supreme in this triumvirate of spiritual experiences, occurred within the next two days of finishing the Book of Mormon. In the wake of my newfound enlightenment, I began re-evaluating my entire life. My chief concern was the same thought that had dominated my childhood and teenage years--I wanted to be a family man, a good husband and father. I went to the Lord and asked about my future.

In response to this inquiry, I was given a brief, crystal-clear vision of my future. The contents of that vision are sacred and should not be shared in a public venue such as a blog; suffice it to say that it was a vivid, intense, instantaneous moment that transcended waking reality. In one split second I saw and fully comprehended a scene that would have taken at least two minutes to absorb otherwise. It occurred when I was fully awake, although my eyes were closed at the time. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was a gift from God to comfort and guide me in my efforts, and give me hope of receiving what I wanted most out of life: a loving wife and children.

The final experience, another manifestation of the Holy Ghost, was a prolonged experience where I was commanded to do something very specific and very uncomfortable. That experience revealed a lot about me to myself, and it still acts as a sort of "guiding rod" and comfort to me. Again, the details of what was required isn't as important as the fact that it did happen.

These three experiences--the deep and abiding feeling of peace in response to seeking truth from God, the dramatic vision of my future, and the receipt and following a command from God--was the beginning of my faith and have formed an irreplaceable part of the bedrock of my hope in God.

Since those experiences, life has been up and down. The initial weeks of hope and joy were followed by months and then years of struggle, interspersed with times of joy and peace like oases in the desert. Old demons returned and had to be conquered slowly; new demons arose and had to be put down. Old habits died hard, and new habits were slow to form. Nevertheless new habits did form, old demons were put to rest, and new, priceless knowledge was gained--all thanks to the continued guidance and patience of God.

Throughout the journey, there have been many more times of deep and abiding peace as well as the dramatic manifestations of the Spirit. Since that week in July so many years ago, I have had dreams and visions teaching me very important lessons. In times of great need and growth, I have had angels minister to me. Although I never saw the angels (except in a few dreams), I heard their voices and experienced an influx of physical and intellectual power that I know didn't originate from inside of myself. More than once, that angelic help was related to helping me overcome my natural laziness to be able to get to an early-morning job on time that, if not for the help, I would have lost at a time where losing my job could have meant homelessness or severe emotional trauma.

The greatest events, however, judging from the affect they had on my life, both occurred in the year 2012. Both times my mind became perfectly still--much more still than the deep peace I experienced the first time I read the Book of Mormon--and I received two very, very strong impressions. These impressions were accompanied by a feeling of awe amounting almost to dread and fear. How Daniel described his feelings, upon seeing the Lord of Hosts, accurately reflects how I felt:

Therefore I was left alone, and saw this great vision, and there remained no strength in me: for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength.

The first impression was to go to the local college campus and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the free speech zone (a prospect that filled me with dread), which I eventually did. The second time, I was commanded, by the Lord, to stop taking the anti-depressant medication that had hindered my emotional growth for so long. I did that as well, and I was somehow given the emotional and physical strength to stop taking the medication cold turkey (a course I wouldn't personally suggest to anyone else).

These events, all of which came through the medium of the Holy Ghost have convinced me of the following facts. I believe these to be true because I have personally encountered the Spirit of God more than once, and every encounter has either taught or reinforced one of the following:

-There is a God. He exists! Moreover, God wants to be involved in our lives. He is willing to move heaven and Earth for our good, if we will let Him. We don't see his hand more in our lives because of our lack of faith (belief). We are hindered by our own ignorance, wickedness, and lack of believing what is possible. He is our Heavenly Father, which is a literal title because we are the same species, if you will, as he is. We are gods and godesses in embryo, and this mortal life is a very difficult, very refining period of trial, error, and repentance.

-Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He exists! He is our advocate with God, and it is his atoning actions that allow us to be forgiven, healed, and return to live with God one day. He is the God of this world, who willingly gave his life for us because he loves us.

-Through the medium of the Holy Spirit, we can be comforted and healed and learn about the Gospel of Christ, which is the "Good News" or "God-story" of Christ. Healing, peace, and knowledge comes through this medium, which is received as a result of Christ's mercy and love towards us and our keeping His commandments.

-Joseph Smith was a real prophet of God. He translated the Book of Mormon, which was written for our generation as a sign to the world that God has not forgotten us and that he will fulfill all the covenants he made to our forefathers.

-The Book of Mormon is real scripture for our day. I believe it to be historically true, and that it was translated by the gift and power of God. It was meant to be read and understood in conjunction with the Bible, and the two were meant to "grow together" to establish the true doctrine and Gospel of Christ. The Book of Mormon contains a roadmap on how to learn and do God's will for each of us, personally, and by so doing be brought back into the presence of Jesus Christ, whether in this life or the next.

-Anyone and everyone in the world can come to know these same things. There is a set pattern that must be followed and, if followed, it will always produce the same results: a personal knowledge that God exists. That pattern requires humility, faith, and action, which are very hard to put together sometimes. There is a very real power opposing our growth and happiness, and it seeks to keep us from approaching God and learning about Him personally. Each person has the option to either give in to that evil power or choose humility and love.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

About This Blog

"But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."
-1 Peter 3:15, NIV

The title of this blog reflects the nature of my intent in starting it. I want to give a reason for the hope that is within me, and explain how and why I can remain a faithful Christian in today's social and intellectual climate.

I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church). Because of that, most of my posts will tackle subjects from that perspective, but I hope each entry will be personally engaging for every reader. I believe that the doctrine that can unite all Christians--belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the spiritual Savior of men who will return at the Second Coming and become the temporal Savior as well--is more important than the doctrine that divides us, although differences in doctrine, both inter- and intra-denominational, shouldn't be neglected or ignored.