Monday, November 26, 2012

Machiavelli & Moroni: Happy in Hell?

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

Niccolò Machiavelli (1489-1527) was an influential politician and writer from Florence at the peak of the Italian Renaissance.  His work The Prince is so notoriously self-serving and unscrupulous, that it spawned the whole concept of Machiavellian ethics. Not surprisingly, he didn't exactly have the reputation of a pious saint. 

I recently read an account of "Machiavelli's dream" which reminded me of a similar passage written by Moroni.  Failing in health,  Niccolò's doctors could do nothing more for him and encouraged him to make peace with God. Shortly before his death, while surrounded by his friends, he recounted the details of a dream he had.  Maurizio Virol's biography of Machiavelli (Niccolò's Smile) describes his dream thus:

In his dream, he had seen a band of poorly dressed men, ragged and miserable in appearance. He asked them who they were. They replied, "We are the saintly and the blessed; we are on our way to Heaven." Then he saw a crowd of solemnly attired men, noble and grave in appearance, speaking seriously of important political matters. In their midst he recognized the great philosophers and historians of antiquity who had written fundamental works on politics and the state, such as Plato, Plutarch, and Tacitus. Again, he asked them who they were and where they were going. "We are the damned of Hell" was their answer. After telling his friends of his dream, Machiavelli remarked that he would be far happier in Hell, where he could discuss politics with the great men of the ancient world, than in Heaven, where he would languish in boredom among the blessed and the saintly. 

Machiavelli was also credited with this brutally honest admission:

I desire to go to Hell, not to Heaven. In Hell I shall enjoy the company of popes, kings and princes, but in Heaven are only beggars, monks, hermits and apostles. 

It would seem that Moroni foretold such sentiments 1100 years earlier. And, like Niccolò, was brutally honest about it:

Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell. (Mormon 9:4)

Intuitively, one thinks they would obviously be happy in heaven and miserable in hell. Were we asked to let our wishes be known, everyone but the most Machiavellian among us would desire heaven.  Yet, sometimes people's actions speak louder than their wishful thinking. It's somewhat sobering to ask yourself where you'd be happier. If you were the fly on your life's wall . . . what would the evidence say?

I think that on judgment day there will be no surprises. We'll pretty much judge ourselves. Either we'll be thrilled to be in the presence of the Lord (D&C 121:45), or we’ll be dying to get to hell.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Law of the Harvest

nurturing the seeds we planted

Thanksgiving is a time of harvest and thankfulness. It's definitely my favorite holiday. I've been thinking about the harvest Paul's use of the the harvest as a teaching moment. In summarizing the Law of the Harvest, Paul said:
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. Galatians 6:7

a canola field
You reap what you sow. This is not rocket science. You cannot plant peas in the spring and expect to harvest carrots in the fall.  Planting peas always yields a crop of peas.  Yet, this seems so difficult for us to understand. How often do we plant the seeds of anger and are surprised when we don’t harvest happiness? Why do we sow seeds of laziness and go out to reap a harvest of hard work? Why plant seeds of fear and feel puzzled when when look in vain for the fruits of faith?  So often we want our relationships to be loving and trustworthy, yet have never planted anything but the seeds of selfishness.

It is time to wake up. We need to decide now what we want to harvest next fall and sow our seeds accordingly.  Fortunately, there is still some time until spring planting begins. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Solzhenitsyn & Mormon: Parallel Perspectives

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)
Taken while a prisoner in a Kazakhstan Gulag

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago).   A former Red Army captain, he was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp in 1945 for making derogatory comments about Joseph Stalin in a private letter to a friend. After being interrogated and tortured at Lubyanka prison in Moscow, he was sent to a Gulag in Kazakhstan to work and suffer. 

After the death of Stalin in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev assumed power. He ordered the release and exoneration of Solzhenitsyn in 1953, whereupon Solzhenitsyn secretly began documenting the horrors of the Stalinist regime and Gulag system. After the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962, Khrushchev used this popular book to exploit public sympathy in his attempts to purge the stains of Stalinism from the USSR.

Solzhenitsyn became instantly famous. His ordeals had taken him through a broad spectrum of the stations of life: impoverished peasant, university student, Red Army captain, political prisoner, secretive dissident and national celebrity.  Though he lived life both as victimizer and as victim, in the end, he found himself embracing the principles of liberty and Christianity.  It is another great story affirming the ability of men to rise above the wreckage by finding peace through Christ.

In reading Solzhenitsyn's story, I found a fascinating quote that harmonized with my current reading in the Book of Mormon:

Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened." Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened." *

Examples of people forgetting God and suffering the consequences of godlessness and unrestrained evil are so numerous that you can’t begin to list them all. But Solzhenitsyn's comment reminds me of Mormon’s powerful eye-witness account of a great people that met a similar fate.

And my soul was rent with anguish, because of the slain of my people, and I cried:  O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss. (Mormon 6:16-18)

Mormon's account of the final struggles and destruction of the Nephite people is almost overpowering in its sadness (see Mormon 2:11-15).  In some ways it surpassed the suffering seen in Solzhenitsyn's day, since it resulted in the disappearance of the Nephite civilization. In both cases, what makes the stories so sad is that the destruction was so needless. To turn from God is to trust in men; left to their own devices, men can do great evil.

In an ironic footnote, the need for men to root out their inner evil was emphasized by an unlikely messenger that played a pivotal role in Solzhenitsyn's life: Nikita Khrushchev. In a speech defending One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to the Politburo, Khrushchev (of all people) warned of the potential we all have to harbor great evil within us:

"There's a Stalinist in each of you; there's even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil." **

Unlike Solzhenitsyn,*** Khrushchev never came to know that it is impossible to fully root out our inner evil without the atonement of Jesus Christ. Today it seems that history is doomed to repeat itself as men rush to forget God. As they turn away from the light of his gospel, they turn to darkness. Unfortunately, this darkness is the perfect environment for the Stalinist within us to awaken and flourish.

* Edward E. Ericson, Jr., "Solzhenitsyn – Voice from the Gulag," Eternity, October 1985, pp. 23–4
** Peter Benno, "The Political Aspect", in Max Hayward and Edward L. Crowley, eds., Soviet Literature in the 1960s (London, 1965), p. 191
*** When asked if Russia had simply replaced the evils of socialism with the evils of capitalism, Solzhenitsyn said: "In different places over the years I have had to prove that socialism, which to many western thinkers is a sort of kingdom of justice, was in fact full of coercion, of bureaucratic greed and corruption and avarice, and consistent within itself that socialism cannot be implemented without the aid of coercion. Communist propaganda would sometimes include statements such as "we include almost all the commandments of the Gospel in our ideology". The difference is that the Gospel asks all this to be achieved through love, through self-limitation, but socialism only uses coercion. This is one point. Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive." (Joseph Pearce. "An Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn." St. Austin Review 2 no. 2 [February, 2003])

Friday, November 16, 2012

William Blake On Grudges

A Poison Tree
by Merm-ish

A Poison Tree
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree. 
William Blake, 1794

I came across this poem and couldn't help but feel it should mandatory reading for anyone working at the House, Senate or White House. I find it ironic that the members of the Senate refer their political foes as 'my friend' while speaking on the Senate floor.  The rancor of the last few years has those words falling to the floor with a deafening clatter. They are not kidding anyone.

I certainly wouldn't hurt for the rest of us to take this advice to heart as well. This kind of poison is pretty indiscriminate and ends up hurting everyone. Interesting how a late 18th century poem is so relevant today.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Perspective On Taking the Lord's Name in Vain

The Deuteronomy Scroll
A copy of the Ten Commandments as recorded in Deuteronomy 5
The Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit - Philadelphia, PA - 2012

Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority
When I visited the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in Philadelphia I was very moved by the display of The Deuteronomy Scroll, which recites the Ten Commandments.
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold guiltless the one who takes his name in vain. The Deuteronomy Scroll*
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. KJV Deuteronomy 5:12
Recently I was using email to coordinate care of a mutual a patient with a Jewish friend and colleague.  After I had recommended some laboratory testing and treatments, he got back to me as follows:
"Copy and G-d bless!"
I was amazed. These days respect for the name of God has all but disappeared in the working language of many people--even the most religious. Devout Jews, have always excelled in showing God not only respect, but also reverence. I was so refreshed to see reverence for God in an ordinary email. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we also take the directive in the 3rd commandment very seriously. I know this reflects well on us, just like it reflects well on our Jewish friends. 

Up until recently, I've viewed the 3rd commandment from the narrow perspective of the profane use of the name of deity.  This all changed for me while I was studying the process of taking on the name of Christ. I searched the scriptures using two search words: "take" and "name". At first blush, the results seemed to be contaminated with references to taking the name of the Lord in vain.  I passed over the contaminated search results and focused on on the subject at hand: taking on the name of Christ
And whoso taketh upon him my name, and endureth to the end, the same shall be saved at the last day. 3 Nephi 27:6 (emphasis mine)
There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives. Mosiah 5:8 (emphasis mine)

The more passages I reviewed, the more impressed I was was how frequently scriptures that tell us to take on the name of Christ also emphasize the need to endure to the end (see also 2 Nephi 31:13-15; Moroni 6:3; D&C 18:21-24; D&C 20:37). It then occurred to me that my search may not have been 'contaminated' at all. 

To take on the name of Christ, yet fail to endure to the end, is to take the Lord's name in vain. Such a person supplants Christ's name with another name. And, no matter what that name may be, it will not save them. It is the vainest of hopes to somehow believe it will. In fact, it may represent the most egregious example of taking the name of the Lord in vain

Taking the name of Christ is the most important thing we ever do as a believer since it is the first step in accessing the atonement (Acts 4:10-12; Galatians 3:27; Mosiah 5:10). It becomes the charge of all those blessed with a witness of the divinity of Jesus Christ and the restoration of his Church to not only take his name, but to identify with his name, and then reverence it through the lives we live--to the end. 

* Abegg, Flint & Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (1999, Harper: San Francisco), page 154.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


George W. Bush at a 2005 Press Conference

UNWEARYINGNESS: I came upon this word while reading the Book of Mormon recently and it kind of jumped out at me. The word could arguably be considered a heavenly equivalent of a BushismHowever, one has to be a little careful in being too critical of God's linguistic style. Actually, I looked it up and it is a legitimate word.  But it's certainly not one you encounter in the scriptures every day.

In God's estimation, it must have been the first thing that came to mind in describing Nephi, the son of Helaman. I'm doubtful he just blurted it out, but it made it into the scriptures twice.  Since the Lord is known for meaning what he says, that's enough for me. Here's the quote: 

Blessed art thou, Nephi, for those things which thou has done; for I have beheld how thou hast with unwearyingness declared the word, which I have given unto thee, unto this people. And thou hast not feared them, and hast not sought thine own life, but hast sought my will, and to keep my commandments.
And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.  Helaman 10:4-5
Nephi and Lehi Encircled by a Pillar of Fire
Ronald K. Crosby
In the October 2012 General Conference, Elder David Bednar described unwearied diligence as one of the attributes of one that had been converted.
. . . the key characteristics associated with conversion are experiencing a mighty change in our hearts, having a disposition to do good continually, going forward in the path of duty, walking circumspectly before God, keeping the commandments, and serving with unwearied diligence.
I was astounded to find these truths also echoed in the words of President George W. Bush. With a little "analyzation", we can all agree that Nephi's unwearyingness in doing God's work is an attribute that we could all use to "embetter" ourselves and our children. After all, "families is where our nation finds hope, where our wings take dream." Think about it for a minute. Nephi's devotion was so great that he was granted whatever he asked, because God knew he would never abuse the privilege.  That is some deep trust! 

Lest we forget, "this is still a dangerous world. It's a world of madmen and uncertainty, and potential mental losses." If ever there was "a pit bull on the pantleg of opportunity" it was Nephi. If we all had a little of Nephi's brand of unwearied devotion to God, how much easier would it be to "put food on your family", to truly "knock down the tollbooth".  This kind of unwearyingness would quite literally "vulcanize society" and "make the pie higher". That is "Major League."

Although we generally look to the scriptures and words of the prophets for direction, once in a while a secular leader has sage counsel for us as well. Indeed, the 43rd President of the United States left us words to live by:
"Let us never misunderestimate the importance of unwearyingness in God's work."*

* Actually George W. Bush never said this but is credited for coining 'misunderestimate' along with the other words and phrases above. But, since he's known to be a God-fearing man, and has the ability to laugh at himself, I'm confident he would heartily endorse the statement. 

Malapropisms and spoonerisms notwithstanding, I've never missed W more (for real). 

Richard Thompson's Richard's Poor Almanac: "Make the Pie Higher" (January 2001).
A compilation of quotes of George W. Bush rearranged as prose by a fellow with a great sense of humor.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Getting Chosen

Scene from the 1993 classic: The Sandlot
Anyone from my era has recollections of the anxiety provoked by the Physical Education teacher telling us to "line up and pick teams".  I'm not sure if they still do this given how traumatic it can be for the kid picked last. I vividly recall the anticipated horror of being unchosen, and forced upon the team with the last pick. Kids generally were not that nice about those kinds of things. It was a cold reminder of social stature on the playground and left the unchosen one feeling unwanted, rejected and less valuable than everyone else (see a related diatribe here). Thankfully, if it happened to me, I've managed to repress the memory.  Still, there was always one unfortunate kid at every game. For those unchosen, it was a big deal--not always something you could just walk off. In contrast, the prospects of always being chosen and highly valued didn't just impact playground hierarchy, it also influenced one's self-esteem.  

These playground memories came back to me as I was reading about what it means to be chosen from the perspective of scripture.  In the scriptures, the theme of being chosen first by God is remarkably pervasive.  It is beautifully summarized in Deuteronomy:  
For thou are an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. Deuteronomy 7:6 (see also Deuteronomy 14:2)
The scriptures have some pretty high-profile passages that refer to the elite status of the chosen: "many are called but few are chosen" (D&C 121:34, 40; see also Matthew 20:16; Matthew 22:14; Abraham 3:23) is often our mantra in the church. We are also promised that, because of this chosen status, we will be highly favored, blessed and sanctified by God (D&C 19:9; D&C 95:8; D&C 105:35-36). If being chosen first on the playground boosts our sense of worth and confidence, then being chosen first by God should be of enormous advantage in life. 

Yet, like the children of Israel, we are extremely vulnerable to a certain elitism that comes from being one of the chosen.  We must ever remember that the line between self-worth and pride is razor thin. To cross it is to lose any advantage we had from being picked first. As I think about the "many are called but few are chosen" mantra, I realize that things could just as easily have been stated thus: 
Though many are called, most remain unchosen.*
It should be enough to bring back the awful sense of foreboding you felt as a kid in PE. "What if I don't get picked!" 

The unchosen in PE would have done almost anything to be chosen. Yet there was only so much a kid could do: it all boiled down to a complex mix of popularity and athletic ability. But the same is not true of those that would be picked first by the Lord.  In fact, it has nothing to do with popularity, ability or lineage.  Rather, it is all about believing in Christ:
Father, I thank thee that thou hast given the Holy Ghost unto these whom I have chosen; and it is because of their belief in me that I have chosen them out of the world3 Nephi 19:20 (emphasis mine; see also 3 Nephi 19:28)
It remains within our own control whether we are chosen or unchosen.  Independent of our assets or popularity, we can be on the team. And, once there, it is within our ability perform at a level that vastly exceeds our talents.
But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. 1 Corinthians 1:27

* But behold, verily I say unto you, that there are many who have been ordained among you, whom I have called but few of them are chosen. They were are not chosen have sinned a very grievous isn, in that they are walking in darkness at noon-day. D&C 95:5-6.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Is The Election In The Bag?

A huge chunk of America is on pins and needles as we approach the biggest election of our lives. I've been afraid to get too optimistic--I've been disappointed too many times before.  I've therefore been a bit of a doubting Thomas, but am feeling good enough about it now to get this out BEFORE the election results are in. 

Call me crazy, but methought I saw a sign during General Conference this fall.  Take a look at this screen shot taken during Dallin H. Oaks talk (Protect the Children) at the Saturday morning session.  The pattern in the green leaves behind and left of Elder Oaks looks like a face staring back at the camera. At first I thought it looked a bit like Abraham Lincoln.*  On closer inspection . . . it's not Abe.  It looks like my old Stake President: Mitt Romney!  And that has to be good news for this election.

Go ahead and call the authorities . . . they also called Lehi a 'visionary man' (1 Nephi 5:2-4, 1 Nephi 2:11). I'd love to right on this. But if nothing else, at least this post will give you a chance to watch Elder Oaks throw it down while you're waiting for election returns to roll in. 

* I texted the picture to the family so see what they thought. It confirmed for Ty and Robyn that their father had finally lost it completely. Tate thought he saw the the face of the Holy Virgin . . . probably because he went to Costa Rica on his mission. Tiff just smiled and nodded.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Limits To The Power of the Lord

'Head of Christ'
oil on oak, circa 1648-1650

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

There's nothing like an election year to bring out the worst in people. As the rhetoric heats up, it's no longer just the candidates that are vilified, but their supporters as well. Republicans are painted as heartless capitalists and religious fanatics that are all racist to the core. Democrats are portrayed as godless sluggards in perpetual search for government handouts--able but unwilling to take responsibility for themselves. Truth falls victim to 'the greater good' as it is conceived by special interest groups that fund the parties. 

These days my political passions run strong because I believe the future of this country is on the line. There have been many days when I've wondered if one person/one vote makes any sense. After all, about half of the people are going to get it wrong on election day. It's easy to feel frustrated and powerless, especially when the choice before us seems so obvious. 

As I work through my temptation to 'destroy the agency of man' this election year, I've spent some time thinking about the seriousness with with God views agency and free will. We're accustomed to thinking of the limitless power of God and take great courage in being aligned with him. Yet how often do the scriptures describe him lamenting because what he could not do? "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!" (Luke 13:34; see also  Chiasmus in 3 Nephi 10).

The Savior undoubtedly experienced great frustration during his earthly ministry (here for a take on Rembrandt's portrayal of the face of Jesus). Though all powerful, he was rendered powerless by the agency of others. 
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon?  and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.  But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kind, and in his own house. And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief. An he went round about the villages, teaching. Mark 6:3-6 (emphasis mine)
Amulek taught that Christ cannot save us in our sins.  Imagine a Savior that cannot save!
And I say unto you again that he cannot save them in their sins; for I cannot deny his word, and he hath said that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore, how can ye be saved, except ye inherit the kingdom of heaven? Therefore, ye cannot be saved in your sins. Alma 11:37 (emphasis mine; see also verses 40-41)
'Head of Christ'
oil on oak, circa 1648-1656

Philadelphia Museum of Art
by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Though Satan still attempts to frustrate the works of God, it is the god-given agency that Satan tried to destroy that limits God's power. Ironic!  It was determined faithlessness--enabled by agency--that allowed the miracles of the Savior to fall ineffectually to the soil in Nazareth.  It is the desperate clinging to sin--enabled by agency--that allows men to stand before a Savior that cannot save them.

It would seem that even God sees limits to his power, through his own promise to respect the agency of men. No doubt he feels frustration on a level that we can't dream of--even in an election year. Perhaps we should take time to reverence the principle of agency, whether is that of a political rival, or someone that chooses to live and believe in something different than we do.

Had he wanted, the Lord could have forced the miracle in Nazareth or saved the sinner by compelling them to repent.  He chose not to, out of reverence for the agency of man. I guess I would be wise to do the same, and carry on (the Savior didn't quit after the whole Nazareth debacle). Some things are not ours to control.
'Head of Christ'
oil on oak, circa 1648-1654
Detroit Institue of Art
by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

During these times of distress and frustration, we must not forget that, though respectful of our agency, the Lord remains all-knowing, and all powerful. He has answers to all our problems and promises peace to those that seek him. 
Cry unto him for mercy, for he is mighty to save.  (Alma 34:18; see also 2 Nephi 31:39 and D&C 133:47).
Sometimes, in the press right before an election (or the powerlessness of everyday life), that is all we can do.