Friday, May 20, 2011

Chosen, but also called

Another writing that has influenced me: the book of Amos, in the Old Testament.

After reading Eugene England’s “Good Literature for a Chosen People,” this quickly became my favorite book of the Old Testament.

England explains the context and appeal of this book far better than I, so here we go. This is specifically written to Latter-day Saints but relevant to everyone.

VERY EARLY IN OUR HISTORY, we Mormons began to identify ourselves symbolically with ancient Israel as a chosen people….But being "chosen" seems not so much being choice, better than others, but rather being called or selected and then asked not only to live better than all the others, but to try to be a blessing to all those others too. The Israelites had trouble with this complexity. They liked the choice part of chosen and often forgot the called part.

Perhaps the central burden of the so-called literary prophets of the Old Testament is to remind Israel that they are chosen by God in order to serve him in a special way so they can bless others, that rather than favoring or excusing them, he holds them especially accountable.

The classic example is Amos, a "herdsman" from the hills just south of Jerusalem, who about 750 B. C. was called by God as a prophet to preach repentance to the Israelites, the chosen people. He went to Bethel in the Northern Kingdom, whose people thought themselves, because chosen, not only superior to the non-Israelites, but also better than their cousins, the people of Judah in the south.

In what might be called the "Amos strategy," the Lord through his prophet uses the people's pride in being chosen to set them up to be especially affected by his message of repentance.

God first condemns the Gentiles for their idolatries: "For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof" (Amos 1:3), he declares, and then he continues the refrain to condemn all the Israelites' pagan, idolatrous neighbors, Gaza, Ammon, Tyre, Moab. We can imagine the crowd murmuring its agreement: "Amen, brother Amos, amen."

Then the Lord condemns their neighbor Israelites: "For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have despised the law of the Lord, and have not kept his commandments." We can imagine the shouts of assent at the threatened punishment of their hated relatives: "I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem." (Amos 2:5)

But now the prophet, at the height of the chosen people's self-satisfied judgment of others, turns the judgment of God on them: "For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor" (2:6-7).

Being chosen, in this view, means being the ones known and taught by the Lord and, thus, the ones most responsible to keep his commandments and to be punished if one does not. It does not mean being better than others, by definition more righteous and blessed. It does not even mean simply knowing the correct forms of worship and having special priesthood power to perform them as the core of one's religion.

The Lord makes this painfully clear by saying, through Amos: "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offering, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take you away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. .. . Woe to them that are at ease in Zion .. . That lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall.. . but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph" (5:21-24; 6:1, 4, 6).

In other words, religious worship, even in the approved forms and with authority, is an offense to God if it is not accompanied by intense social morality— that is, by aggressive caring for justice and mercy in society, by compassionate grief for the afflictions of the poor and exploited.

We [Mormons] are satisfied with the one part of chosen, where, for instance, God calls us "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I . . . am well pleased" (D&C 1:30), but we forget the other part: "Ye only have I known among the nations of the earth; therefore, I will punish you for your iniquities" (Amos 3:2).

Our best writers, I believe, address themselves to both parts of chosen, our specialness and our special responsibilities. They both comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and, at their best, do the comforting in part to be more effective at the afflicting.

Spontaneous order and the invisible hand

Along with detailing some personal guiding principles, I'm going to post some of my favorite writings. These are a favorite topic of mine.

“I, Pencil,” Leonard Read, 1958.

This economics class features your friendly drawer-dwelling #2 as the narrator, explaining the fascinating fact that no single person in the world knows how to make him. Instead, he is produced by thousands of people each of whom brings a certain piece of knowledge to the table – how to mine graphite, how to log wood, how to design a pencil machine.

“Who feeds Paris?” Frederic Bastiat, from Economic Sophisms. (Google Doc, PDF)

“On coming to Paris for a visit, I said to myself: Here are a million human beings who would all die in a few days if supplies of all sorts did not flow into this great metropolis. It staggers the imagination to try to comprehend the vast multiplicity of objects that must pass through its gates tomorrow, if its inhabitants are to be preserved from the horrors of famine, insurrection, and pillage.

And yet all are sleeping peacefully at this moment, without being disturbed for a single instant by the idea of so frightful a prospect.”

Or consider this problem: try to design some set of metrics to calculate the relative social value of a Civilization IV CD, a bushel of apples, and living in a studio apartment in New York City for a month.

How do you do that? Even if you could, I could easily add fifteen more items to the list.

Any metric you design will take lots of time and still be relatively arbitrary and imprecise. To demonstrate this, ask an acquaintance to assign numbers to the same items and compare results.

The alternative solution: you could just use money.

Commonplace are laments about our financially-driven society, how everything is monetized, how some things like the Civilization IV CDs are priceless, etc, etc. But that’s somewhat like only realizing you have a body when you get sick.

For one thing, complaining as complaining isn’t conductive to happiness. For another, you can’t go lay out in the sun, play Ultimate Frisbee, etc if you don’t notice your corporeality.

Ideally, it seems we should be about equally able to recognize the value of money and its pitfalls. That a toaster can be produced and sold for $5 – our awe and gratitude should be written in our hearts. The many variations of the thought, “Money isn’t everything,” – they should be on the tip of our tongues.

The latter is practiced by almost everyone; the former, by few. I only learned through reading Bastiat and Read.

“Seeing around corners,” Joanathan Rauch in The Atlantic, April 2002.

An economist, a political scientist, and a programmer team up to make computer models of society. They create models of human beings and are able to replicate corrupt societies transitioning to honesty, racial self-segregation in America, Zipf curves for distribution of income and city size, a native American society’s ecological and civilizational collapse. Even genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda.

“I don't think I'm alone in finding this artificial genocide eerie,” writes the author. “The outcome, of course, is chilling; but what is at least as spooky is that such complicated—to say nothing of familiar—social patterns can be produced by mindless packets of data following a few almost ridiculously simple rules.”

The warning is clear. Spontaneous order is a two-sided coin.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Your life's greatest work is you

I might blog a little bit about my scripture reading this week. Here, I'm going to quote one of my favorite talks called The Fourth Missionary by Lawrence Corbridge. (It's gated, but I have a copy so if you want one, comment, or email.) This is a really nice talk for missionaries about completely dedicating yourself to the work, but I'm just going to quote the part that's applicable to all of us.


Your life's greatest work is you

You can choose what kind of person you will become. Do you think about that? Do you think about and plan for who you want to become?

As you entered the mission field you concluded one phase of life and began another. To this point many of you have had the protection and close support of family and church leaders and teachers. Now you have moved into a new phase of life on your own. You are essentially on your own. From this point on, you are wholly responsible for what you do and most importantly for who you become.

For the most part, your life is yet ahead of you. What will you do with it?

What will be your greatest work? What will be your most important creation?

I will tell you. Your greatest work: your most important creation is and will ever be you. What kind of person will you become?

By this I do not mean what role in life will you take. I don't mean will you be a cowboy, lawyer, surfer, homemaker, engineer, computer programmer, accountant or the like. I do not refer to what kind of car you will drive; what kind of clothes you will wear; what kind of house you will live in; what kind of spouse you will marry or what kind of family will you raise.

I mean, when all of that is removed and there you stand alone, who will you be? I mean, you.

What personality will you have; what strengths; what knowledge; what character; what emotional state; what presence; what qualities; what virtues? What will you look like? What will you sound like? What will it be like to be around you? Who will you be?

Envision and plan for your greatest work.

We plan many things in life. We each live in a house that was built from a plan. Someone first envisioned the house in his mind and a plan was then put to paper.

One of my sons had a poster picture of a Porsche Carrera on his bedroom wall. It is a beautiful creation. The lines and symmetry of its design make it a work of art in the opinion of some. That car began somewhere, sometime ago in someone's head. First, someone saw it in his mind and then put it to paper. Someone envisioned it; then plans were prepared, the work was done, and a beautiful car was created.

Some of you have carefully planned your education. You carefully planned your course selections over these past several years with a view toward college admissions and intended occupations.

All of you at some point made a plan to serve a mission, you followed that plan and here you are. Now, hopefully all of you plan the appointments, activities and goals of each day and week.

We plan many things in life. But, have you planned your greatest work? Have you envisioned who you will become? Do you plan for what kind of person you want to become? Can you see in your mind who you want to be? Do you know?

The choices

As you consider what kind of person you want to become, what choices do you have? The choices are more limited than what you might think. Here are most of the choices, but overall they are a choice between the qualities of light or the qualities of darkness:

Do you want to be powerful or weak?

Certain and confident, or afraid and insecure?

Comfortable with your self or arrogant and abrasive?

Do you want to be filled with light or darkness?

Do you want to have peace or conflict within?

Generous or selfish?

Influential or inconsequential?

Do you want to be free or be a slave?

Happy or miserable?

Do you want to be kind and loving, or mean and cruel?

Honest or dishonest?

Do you want to be forgiving or hard and unforgiving?

Knowledgeable or ignorant?

Do you want to be a person of faith or doubt and fear?

Trustworthy or unreliable?

Hardworking or lazy?

Do you want to be cheerful or despondent?

The first of each of these choices is an attribute of light. They are incorporated into your character as you choose to follow Christ.

Dynamic process; always changing

As you consider the question of what kind of person you will become, you must understand the dynamic process of life. You not only can change but you do change all of the time.

Sometimes people do not believe this. They excuse their failures and weaknesses by saying: "That's just the way I am." "I am just short tempered, impatient person." I can't get up in the morning. That's just the way I am." "That's my nature." Or, "I'm just shy. That's all. That's just who I am." "I am not really a spiritual person."

To believe that weaknesses and deficiencies in your character are unchangeable is to reject the central truth of the plan of salvation. You are not cast in stone. You not only can change but you do change all of the time. You are a dynamic, changing, evolving being. You are always changing. You never stay the same. You cannot stand still.


Amen, Elder Corbridge, amen.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

1 Nephi 8

The tree of life.

I’ve read the tree of life narrative many times. The first time I read the Book of Mormon, I remember being impressed that this was something of substance, weight, not fluff. And this was in a read-through where I was like, “Well, this book is written from an interesting religious point of view. Hmm.”

A couple lessons stand out this time.

The first thing is that the fruit is experiential.

Ultimately, I believe – and hopefully you believe – because we tasted. Your dedication to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ doesn’t come because of carefully honed, convincing argument. Such argument perhaps establishes a climate for belief, but it is personal experience that leads to belief. Blake Ostler has a wonderful piece on this, entitled “Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment,” on YouTube or html.

The second thing is that this is real.

When it says that “there arose an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they which had commenced on the path did lose their way,” I think of Suguna or Madhavi.

When it says that “after that they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed…and they fell away into forbidden paths,” I think of Suni or Jay Tony family.

This should help me love them more, judge (in the bad way) them less, and rekindle my desire to help them back on the path. Does it? I don’t know.

And when I read “they did point the finger of scorn at me, and those that were partaking of the fruit also, but we heeded them not,” I think of myself, or the person I hope to be and continue becoming.

My sophomore year, I was living in a dorm, coming to church and the elders were visiting me. One time, walking down the hall to the door and letting them in, I wondered what everyone else would think. I wondered if I should keep meeting them in my dorm. And then I remembered those words, about what happened to the people who were ashamed. I remember the thought dawning on me, and smiling to see the application of the words I had read.

Oh those beautiful words: “but we heeded them not.”