Friday, November 28, 2014

All Hands On Deck: A Poem About Addiction, Sin & Hope

by Jonathan Decker:

Author's note: I wrote this poem years ago when my own struggles with sin had distanced me from God's presence through the Holy Ghost. This poem came to me as I prayed for redemption, and I wrote it down. It gave me hope and comfort then. I hope it does so for you now.

The world's a storming, tumultuous sea
With multitudes drowning, struggling, lost
So the Captain's crew fights valiantly
To bring all aboard no matter what the cost

His ship provides a place to rest
Clean warm clothes, a nice hot meal
A place one can becomes one's best
A place where one's wounds fully heal

"All hands on deck!" echoes the command
Tired sailors comply without a groan
For one of the Captain's few demands
Is that none be left to drown alone

One of their own has lost his grip
And fallen into the murky deep
He desperately cries out for the ship
And the Captain begins to weep

He stops the ship, but does not turn it round ...

"Captain, shall we not turn back?
Our friend is out there in the black!
Instead of commanding, now you weep
While a sailor sinks in the deep!"

Looking in the Captain's eyes
This crewman sees his own mistake
For he should never have surmised
His leader could leave any in the wake

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving in 32 GIFs!

by Scott Heffernan:

It's Thanksgiving! Yay!

It's important to spend quality time with family…

And stay connected to your siblings.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Orson Scott Card’s Songmaster: The Power of Songs and Negative Emotions in Mormon Music

by Peter Shirts:

I recently read Orson Scott Card's early novel Songmaster (1980). I wanted to read the book not only because I like much of Card's writing, but because I'm a musician and was curious how Card would use music in his book. The story follows Ansset, a gifted orphan who has been brought up in a singing school, one that is known throughout the galaxy for producing young singers whose talent is so powerful that people will spend fortunes to host these singers, called "Songbirds," for just a few years. Ansset ends up singing for a ruthless emperor, perhaps inspired by the biblical story of David and Saul. The book could probably be categorized as science fiction, as the story takes places in a future where Earth has become the capitol of a huge galactic empire, but Card's use of music is more like a magic system in a fantasy novel. This "magic" is based on touching people emotionally, sometimes reflecting or amplifying their own emotions, at other times changing them completely. And in the book, music changed the course of history.

Can Music Really Change People's Emotions?

In this book, music bought large swaths of lands, inspired riots and suicides, brought communities together, and changed the way people thought. But often fantasy magic is used to amplify traits that already exist in reality. Can music really do all those things? Music can certainly galvanize people, change people's moods and even hearts, and help people to accumulate wealth. I think it is possible that prolonged listening of certain music could bring someone suicidal thoughts, but only if those feelings are already present to a degree (which is what happens in Songmaster). I think that Card is right that powerful, well-performed music can amplify what someone is already feeling, letting a person swim in those heightened emotions.

What is the source of the music's power over emotions? Is it the words that accompany the music or the music itself? Music's power is often not in the words, though words can bring associations that change the interpretation of the music. It is interesting that in Card's story, words are often not the most important part of a Songbird's power. Card chooses as his highest form of music a human voice that can communicate words, so words are somewhat important, but instead of composing words for songs and presenting those as a text, as is more common in a literature (which is built on words), Card often gives a summary of the lyrics and then tries to explain how the music conveys the feeling of the words. To accomplish this musical description, he delves into more music-specific vocabulary than is usually done by novelists (music, it turns out, is hard to describe with words, and so some writers just skip this). I think Card's choice to describe rather than simply provide words was a good one—it assigns the music power, which I think it more indicative of the mostly inexplicable way music actually works. Music is a language that is often left to the interpretation of the hearer, though it gives some symbols and markers that can point the interpretation in certain ways.

Mormon Music: Something's Missing?

While Card doesn't speak specifically about Mormon music in Songmaster, I feel that the book illuminates one critique of Mormon music. The book ends with the conclusion that songs are greater and more powerful when singers can express what might be called the negative emotions: pain, heartbreak, and tough experience. While I think there are arguments against this (certainly there is plenty of room for happy, optimistic, positive music in the world), in my study of music, I feel that the greatest music is often an exploration of negative emotions. Yet, these "negative" feelings that are mostly absent in Mormon music. Another thread throughout Songmaster is the idea of a singer expressing their own voice and songs instead of just copying others, another trait that is not necessarily condoned by Mormon culture, which places a great amount of emphasis on a fixed body of hymns, and (even outside of hymns) certain musical styles. Should we as Mormons encourage more unique voices in music? Should we also encourage art that expresses negative emotions?

I had an experience recently that illustrates how music can 1) express negative emotions, 2) amplify emotions, and 3) reflect back emotions. I was conducting the congregational closing hymn after a fast and testimony meeting. The hymn was Come, Come Ye Saints. Someone in the congregation had just given a testimony in which she talked about a friend who had died unexpectedly that week. When we got to the 4th verse ("and should we die ...") she started crying, which in turn made me start to cry, too. Clearly, the negative emotion expressed in the words was amplified by the music, causing her to re-experience her negative emotions. Then, that emotion (again carried by the music) was amplified back to me. While I can't say it was a pleasant experience, it was a powerful and testimony-building experience. And isn't this a type of experience that we should encourage in our worship services, services whose main topic is the atonement-enabled healing of negative emotions?

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 Peter Shirts has directed ward and stake choirs and has mastered the art of suggestion when he's not directing the church choir he's currently in. While at BYU, he co-founded an ensemble that played Klezmer (Eastern European Jewish music) and enjoyed teaching Mormons how to dance at Jewish weddings. After receiving 2.5 degrees in music and one degree in library science, he is currently gainfully employed as a music and audiovisual librarian in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he lives with his wife. He blogs weekly about musical things at
 photo Line-625_zpse3e49f32.gifImage credit: Scott Heffernan (used with permission).

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Religious But Not Spiritual

by Reid:

This is part two of a two-part series. Part one - Spiritual But Not Religious - was posted yesterday.

My favorite photo from Thailand; a RBNS macaque in Lop Buri.

If spiritual but not religious (SBNR) is the movement that lulls the secular masses into a false sense of spiritual security, then religious but not spiritual (RBNS) is the equivalent amongst regular church goers. Whether it is the temple-going-returned-missionary whose apostasy you never saw coming, or your Christian friend whose lifestyle betrays no evidence of their born-again-and-go-to-church-every-Sunday faith, it is far too common for comfort. These are ever-present reminders that outward religiosity does not equate to actual spirituality.

Elder Donald L. Hallstrom spoke to the risking trend of RBNS in the church in the April 2012 General Conference:
Some have come to think of activity in the Church as the ultimate goal. Therein lies a danger. It is possible to be active in the Church and less active in the gospel. Let me stress: activity in the Church is a highly desirable goal; however, it is insufficient.
In Mormon circles, there is a great tendency to equate regular church attendance with having it all together spiritually. Most of us are guilty of going to lengths to cover our blemishes prior to showing up at sacrament meeting. Like a good actor, we're 'in character' for at least three hours every Sunday. Often, we become so good at it that our audience starts to believe it. In all honesty, I wouldn't have it any other way. We need as much practice as possible in being the person we would really like to be. But there is a fine line between putting on our Sunday best (literally and figuratively) and trying to appear to be someone we're not.

I love the assessment of Fr. James Martin who speaks out against the perils of both RBNS and SBNR:
"Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community."
RBNS is every bit as unproductive for the pious as SBNR is for the secular. In truth, outward religious behavior that is not mirrored by internal spirituality is an "abomination" in God's eyes. The Lord said "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me (Joseph Smith History 1:19)." For the purposes of this post, the Good News Translation of Isaiah 29:13 is very instructive (here for KJV):
The Lord said, "These people claim to worship me, but their words are meaningless, and their hearts are somewhere else. Their religion is nothing but human rules and traditions, which they have simply memorized." (GNT Isaiah 29:13)
The Lord is not interested in lip service, but "requireth the heart and a willing mind" (D&C; 64:34). It is far easier to memorize the rules and customs of a religious tradition and intermittently perform it's associated rites than it is to actually be spiritual—at least as defined by God (Romans 8:5-8). To do so is the essence of being RBNS. The RBNS have "a form of godliness, but [deny] the power thereof" and spend their efforts "ever learning [but] never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:5, 7). In some cases it is a deliberate attempt to appear to be something we are not. In most cases, it is unintentional. Either way, it amounts to Christianity-Lite. Though it may taste great, it is definitely less filling.

Elder Hallstrom went on to say: "We need the gospel and the Church. In fact, the purpose of the Church is to help us live the gospel." You can't have one without the other.

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Reid is an endocrinologist from Henderson, Nevada. He's blessed with wonderful wife and three great kids. His interests are charitably characterized as eclectic: cycling, fly-fishing, history, travel and the coinage of the Flavian dynasty of Imperial Rome. With a deep-seated belief that people habitually do dumb things, he's trying really hard to keep things positive. People are not making it any easier these days. The gospel has helped a lot. Blog:
 photo Line-625_zpse3e49f32.gifImage credit: Reid Litchfield (used with permission).

Monday, November 24, 2014

Spiritual But Not Religious

by Reid:

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two - Religious But Not Spiritual - will go up tomorrow.

I've never met Reverend Lillian Daniel, but hearing her call out the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) crowd on this podcast made me an instant fan (listen to her 3 minute audio clip here, transcript here).
"Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself."
I particularly enjoyed her jab about sunsets and beaches. So true! Fortunately, Reverend Daniel is not the only one that is standing up to the SBNR. Alan Miller sums things up nicely as well:
"... the spiritual but not religious reflect the 'me' generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking, where big, historic, demanding institutions that have expectations about behavior, attitudes and observance and rules are jettisoned yet nothing positive is put in replacement."
OUCH! It turns out that SBNRism is pretty prevalent. A 1999 Gallup poll on American religious life found that 38% of respondents identified themselves as SBNR. A USA Today poll in 2010 found that 72% of millennials describe themselves using terms like SBNR. Furthermore, two-thirds of the respondents that identified themselves as "Christian" did not pray, read the Bible, and rarely or never attend worship services. Not good.

SBNRism is a very convenient philosophy for those trying to find the perfect Laodicean temperature on the 'commitment to God' scale (i.e. – lukewarm; see Revelation 3:14-16). It enables the adherent to rationalize the dissonance between the moral absolutes that have been the hallmark of organized religion for 6000 years, and the desire to live without boundaries. The formula is fairly simple: reject organized religion and embrace a spirituality that is so abstract that it can't be judged by anyone but yourself. In one fell swoop you are free of all the structure, demands and effort of religious devotion, while still proclaiming that you are every bit as spiritual as devoted churchgoers.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Memories Getting Dim: I Guess Some Things Never Leave You

by Jared Le Fevre:

I'm 40 years old and am starting to lose it in the memory department. Not in an early Alzheimer-y kind of way. More in the way of: I'm 40, work a lot, have five kids who never stop talking, and there is always someone who needs my time and my brain is too full to absorb/remember it all. Under those circumstances, who can remember everything that happened years ago?

Apparently some folks get disturbed that there are multiple accounts of the first vision, wherein Joseph Smith mentions some details and not others. The Church must have sensed the concern and felt the need to write an essay explaining it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Joseph Smith, Sausages, and My Testimony

by ldsbishop:

The West Wing episode "Five Votes Down" finds the senior White House staff in a race against time to find the extra votes they need to pass a gun control bill. Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff remarks, "There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make 'em: laws and sausages."

I would add one more thing: religions.

I began to investigate The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2002, in my early twenties. I would receive the discussions from the missionaries, and with my appetite sufficiently whetted, in between the scripture reading and prayer they asked me to do, I would turn to the internet to find extra information.

In some ways, I count myself very lucky that I was able to integrate the awkward issues surrounding Church history into my testimony. By the time I entered the waters of baptism, I was well aware of the issues surrounding polygamy, race and the priesthood, the Book of Abraham, DNA evidence for the Book of Mormon and various other topics, none of which the missionaries, I suppose correctly, discussed with me. I was able to discuss these issues with my future father-in-law who would honestly answer my questions based on his cavernous knowledge of Church history.

A rather crude analogy would be that I was able to apply the above sausage rule in developing my testimony of the restored gospel. OK, so some strange ingredients were around but the end results still tasted good to me and I wanted some of it.

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