Why you should support charitable organizations outside your church

This is a guest post written by Holly Whitman. Holly is a freelance writer and journalist, originally from the UK but now based in Washington DC. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman and more of her writing on her blog, Only Slightly BiasedTo submit a guest post, email ourthoughts@gmail.com.

Giving is at the core of who we are as Christians. Of course, prayer and involvement in the church community are critically important, but philanthropy allows those beliefs to have a positive impact on the world around us.

Sacred Scripture is filled with reminders and urges to be charitable. It includes the call to give of the first fruits of our harvest, the parable of the poor widow who donated more than the rich men around her, and the reminder that God loves a cheerful giver.

Perhaps the most well-known call to charity comes from Matthew 25:37–40,

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you? And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

So there is no doubt that as Christians, we have a special vocation to be generous with our time, our talents and our money. But often, we give to the collection plate at church and think we have fulfilled our Christian duty. Not so! Let’s explore why you should support charitable organizations outside of your church.

International organizations

Thanks to social media and a globalized society, we are able to hear stories of those in need from across the globe. The persecution of Christians and other religious groups, children in need of food and clean water as well as victims of natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis inspire us to donate to causes around the world. Potential international giving partners include Charity Water, Pencils of Promise, and Catholic Relief Services.

Think beyond the chequebook

If your family budget doesn’t have room for more charitable giving, or if you are looking for a way to grow closer to family or coworkers while improving your community, consider volunteering your time instead of (or in addition to) your dollars.

Volunteering improves workplace morale and inspires self-reflection. Simply put, volunteers can often come away more changed and blessed than those they serve.

Local charities and events

In day-to-day life, we often hear of worthy causes. Make it your mission to take note of these organizations or needs and follow through with generosity.

If a coworker mentions that their special needs child has benefited from a local therapy program, donate a lesson for another child in need. If you lend a book to a new mom who is struggling, donate a copy of that book to your local library so others can access it as well. There are opportunities to bless those in your local community every day — you just have to be on the lookout.

Online giving

Remember a couple of years ago, when you couldn’t log on to social media without seeing video of a friend or celebrity dousing themselves with ice water? The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is an example of online giving gone viral.

You may also receive requests to give to friends participating in 5Ks, fun runs or other fundraisers that provide easy online giving mechanisms. This is a great way to learn about new causes and the wide net cast by these campaigns means even a small donation can make a difference.

Supporting your church home is important. Practically speaking, the electric bill needs to be paid, and your church also provides support to people and families in need, education to children and other important causes. But giving generously means donating both your time and money beyond church as well. Remember, whatever you do for your brothers and sisters in need, you do for Him, too.

Joseph Smith and the democratization of religious worship

In our elders quorum class today, we were discussing chapter 5 in the Howard W. Hunter Manual: Joseph Smith, Prophet of the Restoration.

Typically, this topic tends to amount to running through a list of Joseph Smith’s accomplishments and how great of a prophet he was. (That’s how it went down in the Relief Society class today.) When I was preparing my lesson, I knew I wanted to approach it in a unique way because I knew it would garner better discussion, which ultimately results in better introspection.

When I came across this quote, I had a good idea how I wanted to approach the lesson:

When Joseph announced that he had seen a vision and had seen the Father and the Son, the query came to the minds and lips of the neighbors, the ministers, and the townspeople: “Is not this the farmer’s son?”

The following quote just a few paragraphs later closed the deal for me:

within God’s hands and under the direction of the Savior of the world, weak and simple things should come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones.

As a communist, I was intrigued by the idea that Joseph Smith—despite his flaws and regardless of how authentic he was in his actions—was a revolutionary in his day. That was something I hadn’t consider in much depth before.

The bulk of our conversation on the topic revolved around 2 ideas found in another quote in that chapter:

the claim that God had spoken, that Christ’s Church was again organized and its doctrines reaffirmed by divine revelation, was the most outstanding declaration made to the world since the days of the Savior himself when he walked the paths of Judea and the hills of Galilee.

There were 2 main ideas that Joseph Smith’s First Vision changed: God was a nebulous, formless entity distant from us and revelation had been closed off with the death of the 12 apostles. These principles solidified the position of religious leaders of the day to be the gatekeepers of biblical interpretation and gospel explication.

The First Vision shows us that God looks like us: he’s a glorified, perfect human who is intimately familiar with the mortal experience, which makes him highly approachable, the opposite of how he was treated by Christian sects of the time.

In addition, the First Vision showed us that God can speak to us. We don’t need religious leaders to counsel us on our individual beliefs and aspirations; we can skip the intermediaries and petition God directly.

This revolutionized religious worship. It empowered the people with autonomy over their own religious beliefs. In fact, this idea is encapsulated in one our Articles of Faith:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

This leaves me with one question, however: if God could use Joseph Smith as a weak and simple thing to come forth and break down the control the religious establishment had over the people, how might we, too, be weak and simple things and what mighty and strong things might God have us break down?

An Evening with a General Authority

Last night, in a devotional directed at Church Educational System (CES) employees, Elder Ballard spoke of challenges that many youth face, including questions asked on social media.

(Kids these days and their FaceSpace, amirite?)

From a Deseret news article about Elder Ballard’s talk:

“Drawing on the scriptures and the words of the prophets, [students] will learn how to act with faith in Christ to acquire spiritual knowledge and understanding of His gospel,” he said. “And they will have opportunities to learn how to apply the doctrine of Christ and gospel principles to the questions and challenges they hear and see every day among their peers and on social media.”

Applying the doctrine of Christ to questions of church doctrine makes sense. Is it true and is it helpful? Does it follow the golden rule?

Elder Ballard continued, comparing faithful interpretations of history to vaccinating the youth against topics that are “sometimes misunderstood” — a polite way of saying, negative toward the church.

You know, we give medical inoculations to our precious missionaries before sending them into the mission field, so they will be protected against disease that can harm and even kill them. In a similar fashion, please, before you send them into the world, inoculate your students by providing faithful, thoughtful and accurate interpretations of gospel doctrine, the scriptures and our history, and those topics that are sometimes misunderstood.

And in a praiseworthy show of transparency, Elder Ballard listed a few topics which in some circles (or at least in the not so distant past) would have been considered anti-mormon.

To name a few of such topics that are less-known or controversial, I’m talking about polygamy, and seer stones, different accounts of the first vision, the process of translation of the Book of Mormon [and] of the Book of Abraham, gender issues, race and the priesthood, or a Heavenly Mother. The efforts to inoculate our young people will often fall to you CES teachers.

Perhaps if I’d been further inoculated as a youth, I wouldn’t have found these topics so difficult to digest when I finally found them too hard to swallow. So roll up your sleeves while I share with you what I remember being taught about this list while at the same time you’re going to get inoculated.

Before you run off searching high and low looking for how far the rabbit hole goes, Elder Ballard warned of the dangers of access to too much information:

It was only a generation ago that our young people’s access to information about our history, doctrine and practices was basically limited to materials printed by the church. Few students came in contact with alternative interpretations. Mostly, our young people lived a sheltered life. Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today — a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the church from every possible point of view. Today, what they see on their mobile devices is likely to be faith-challenging as much as faith-promoting. Many of our young people are more familiar with Google than they are with the gospel, more attuned to the Internet than to inspiration, and more involved with Facebook than with faith.

For the sake of Elder Ballard’s concern about Google, I’ll only use church approved sources for the inoculation and I’ll stay far away from Facebook.

Continue reading An Evening with a General Authority

Cutting Your Nose to Spite Your Face

“Cutting off the nose to spite the face” is an expression used to describe a needlessly self-destructive over-reaction to a problem.

According to a report by KUTV, The Church has issued a statement responding to a bill on Utah’s Capitol Hill that would toughen penalties for hate crimes against “ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation”. The church doesn’t want it to pass because it thinks it shifts the balance too far away from religious liberties in favour of gays:

“The Utah Legislature achieved something extraordinary last year in arriving at legislation that protected both religious liberty rights and LGBT rights,” said church spokesman Dale Jones in a statement Wednesday afternoon which was released in response to media inquiries. “Interests from both ends of the political spectrum are attempting to alter that balance. We believe that the careful balance achieved through being fair to all should be maintained.”

I’m trying not to have a knee-jerk reaction here, but the article points out that according to the Utah Department of Public Safety, the rates of reported hate crimes are staggeringly more likely to be based on religious intolerance rather than homophobic bigotry. I’d say this is a clear case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. I just don’t get it.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Kick Them out

Last night I bumped into an LDS acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years. He asked me what ward I lived in and I told him that I didn’t attend church and I started to explain. He tried to cut me off, assuring me that no explanation was necessary, however, I pressed forward just getting out that, “It was my inability to suspend my disbelief.”

It never fails to surprise me, when the topic of my disillusionment with the church comes up, members (for the most-part) don’t seem to want to know why I’ve lost my faith. I think it’s because members of the church don’t like to acknowledge when someone leaves the faith because of tough questions. Recognizing that there are questions that have ugly answers says ugly things about themselves and the church.

The feelings I have about the church are certainly a mixed bag. One of the things that bothers me is my own fear of speaking up. I’ve been trained not to speak of my disillusionment for fear of church disciplinary action even though it’s just an honest search for truth that has brought me where I am today.

Having concerns about the church is not grounds for excommunication, however it’s in publishing those concerns that can get you in trouble. Is there trouble for publishing even this short blog post about my own disillusionment? Probably not, but the fact that I’m so worried about telling my story demonstrates the level of fear the church has instilled in me.

This morning I found a link to a press release about a member, Jeremy Runnells, facing excommunication because of his widely publicized questions about the church. To my knowledge, he’s never said anything that anyone can demonstrate is false — if he’s like me, he would LIKE to be shown that the church’s claims and history are what it claims it is. However, it’s disciplinary action like this that spreads fear. Instead of answering hard questions, the church takes punitive action against those that dare query.

From Jeremy Runnells’ press release:

Jeremy Runnells, author of the popular Letter to a CES Director faces excommunication from the LDS Church on charges of apostasy

American Fork, UT (February 9, 2016) – Jeremy Runnells, author of the popular Letter to a CES Director (also known as CES Letter), has been summoned to a disciplinary council by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on charges of apostasy. CES Letter represents Mr. Runnells’ sincere attempt to obtain answers to legitmate questions and doubts through proper church leadership channels. Instead of providing pastoral support to Mr. Runnells, the LDS Church has chosen to continue its recent trend of excommunicating members who openly question or doubt church teachings.

CES Letter began as a letter Mr. Runnells wrote to an LDS religious instructor (CES Director) outlining his questions, concerns, and doubts about LDS Church foundational truth claims (e.g., Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham historicity, Joseph Smith’s polygamy and polyandry, LDS priesthood restoration, multiple first vision accounts). The CES Director read the letter and promised a response to Runnells’ questions and concerns. No response ever came.

Upon its public release, CES Letter went viral and immediately became a Mormon internet phenomenon, providing validation and support to tens of thousands of questioning current and former LDS Church members. CES Letter has been downloaded an estimated 600,000 times to date, and over 12,000 LDS Church members have reached out to Runnells after reading the CES Letter.

Runnells reports that he met twice with his LDS Stake President, Mark Ivins, in the fall of 2014. During these discussions Runnells sought answers for questions posed in CES Letter and raised concerns about the LDS Church’s recent historical essays (http://lds.org/topics/essays). President Ivins assured Runnells that he wanted to help, and that he would obtain answers. Runnells did not hear back again from President Ivins until January 25, 2016 when Ivins telephoned Runnells to inform him of his intention to challenge Runnells’ LDS Church membership. Runnells requested a delay until March 15th, citing a close family member in hospice care, which was originally accepted by Ivins. On February 8, 2016 Ivins reversed his decision and informed Runnells of his disciplinary council scheduled for February 14, 2016.

A public press conference has been scheduled for Runnells on February 10th, 2016 at 7:00pm Mountain Time at 50 West Club & Cafe in downtown Salt Lake City (50 Broadway, Salt Lake City, UT). The venue is open for dinner prior to the press conference at 6:00pm. Parking is available in surrounding lots. All interested media, along with supporters of Runnells, are invited to attend and show support.

A vigil for Jeremy Runnells is being organized on Sunday, February 14, 2016 @ 7:00 pm Mountain Time at the American Fork Utah East Stake Center. Address is: 825 E 500 N, American Fork, Utah.

For more information and developments on this story, see http://cesletter.org.

Book of Mormon Bankruptcy Exemption

Though perhaps slightly esoteric in nature, I found this tidbit of information about Illinois law mildly interesting. (Perhaps the most interesting part is how she acquired the book in the first place.)

The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a rare and valuable first edition copy of the Book of Mormon was eligible for bankruptcy exemption under a personal property exemption statute which allows “exemption for a bible”.

On February 25, 2013 Ms. Anna F. Robinson filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition seeking to reprieve $23,834.00 in debt. Among her personal property, Ms. Robinson included an “old Morm[o]n bible” of unknown value which she acquired while cleaning a storage area at work and was given permission to keep any of the old books she found. From the Seventh Court’s ruling:

Ms. Robinson testified that, in 2003, while employed at the local public library, she made an agreement with the library director that, if she cleaned out a storage area, she could use the area as an office and keep any books she found. While cleaning, Ms. Robinson found the Book of Mormon and later had it authenticated as an 1830 first edition Book of Mormon, one of only 5,000 copies printed by Joseph Smith. At the time, it was valued at $10,000.00. Ms. Robinson explained that she stores the Book of Mormon in a Ziploc bag to preserve it. She does not use it regularly, but does take it out occasionally to show her children and fellow church members.

The bankruptcy court denied the exemption citing the fact that she had other copies of the Book of Mormon, but the district court reversed the ruling:

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge. Anna F. Robinson filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in the Southern District of Illinois seeking a discharge of unsecured debts. Ms. Robinson claimed an exemption for a rare, first edition Book of Mormon under the Illinois personal property exemption statute, 735 ILCS 5/12- 1001(a), which provides an exemption for a bible. The bankruptcy court denied the exemption, but the district court re- versed. Because we agree with the district court that the plain wording of the Illinois personal property exemption statute allows the exemption for Ms. Robinson’s Book of Mormon, we affirm the district court’s judgment.

The thought that expensive bibles (or in this case a rare Book of Mormon) can be used to disrupt bankruptcy laws made me wonder if it’s possible to skirt the law by running up debt, moving to Illinois, buying up tons of expensive bibles and then declaring bankruptcy.

Nope, at least not if it’s done less than 6 months before the filing, according to the Illinois Legislative Reference Bureau:

If a debtor owns property exempt under this Section and he or she purchased that property with the intent of converting nonexempt property into exempt property or in fraud of his or her creditors, that property shall not be exempt from judgment, attachment, or distress for rent. Property acquired within 6 months of the filing of the petition for bankruptcy shall be presumed to have been acquired in contemplation of bankruptcy.

The image above from wikimedia is a photograph of the 1841 First European (London) edition of the Book of Mormon, at the Springs Preserve museum, Las Vegas, Nevada.

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Following the prophet is easy when all you need to do is agree

A sacrament speaker brought up the November policy change today.

That marks yet another consecutive week of someone mentioning the policy change at least once during sacrament meeting, Sunday school, and elders quorum class.

I’ve beaten to death my feelings on the wordings and implications of the policy change, but as I was stewing on pondering the words of the speaker, a thought came to me that I hadn’t considered before, particularly connected with something the following speaker mentioned.

Why are Mormons so quick to stand firm behind the prophet when what he says requires no sacrifice?

In this case, I am definitely in the minority in my ward and stake regarding my feelings regarding this policy change. Most ward and stake members I know (and for that matter, Mormons I know outside of my stake) support the brethren on this change.

But it’s easy to support it. You don’t have to invest anything into supporting them. In fact, all you need to do is agree with them.

Let’s contrast this with home teaching.

Our high council speaker today reported that home teaching in our stake sits at 27%. That means that 3 out of every 4 families in our stake don’t receive visits from their home teachers. While anecdotal, friends of mine have shared similar statistics where they live.

So, back to my question: why are Mormons so quick to stand firm behind the prophet when what he says requires no sacrifice but so slow when what he says requires sacrifice?

Conversely, why am I labelled an apostate or a heretic when I disagree with the brethren on a policy (like the recent decision to prohibit children of gay parents from being baptized) but follow their counsel in other ways (like home teaching every month)?

Why are others not labelled apostate or heretics when they agree with the brethren on a policy (like the recent decision to prohibit children of gay parents from being baptized) but don’t follow their counsel in other ways (like home teaching every month)?

To be abundantly clear, I’m not judging those who don’t visit their home teaching families. I’m simply using that as an example. And it’s certainly not the only example we could use.

Finally, you know what the irony is in all this? Thomas S. Monson sat on the committee that established the current home teaching programme.