Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Naming and Blessing an Infant

It has been my privilege for the last (nearly) seven years to participate in every baby blessing in my ward (when I was not traveling, which is not often on Sunday). My stake president encouraged me, and I agree, that as the "father of the ward" it is a right and a privilege to stand in each baby blessing. It has also been my custom before the baby blessing, to sit down with the Priesthood holder who will be performing the blessing to go over the steps and give some words of counsel and encouragement. I do this with all fathers, regardless of their first time or their tenth. I find it good practice and helpful.

There are a few things that the Handbook encourages and a few things it discourages. One is that large groups are discouraged. In my mind, seven men is the high end of the circle. Ironically, when my oldest was blessed, I counted seventeen men in the circle. Truly, it was ridiculous. There were men in the circle that I didn't even know, men that were invited by other men. Kind of strange. It seems that a small group of Melchizedek Priesthood holders is a better way of doing things. In my mind, it implies a reverence and dignity that the holders possess of the priesthood.

The current (2010) Handbook of Instructions gives five steps to the blessing of a child in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are:

1. Addresses Heavenly Father.
2. States that the blessing is performed by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
3. Gives the child a name.
4. Gives words of blessing as the Spirit directs.
5. Closes in the name of Jesus Christ.

Authority vs. Power:
Even though the instructions in the Handbooks, at least the last two [check this out with the others], state that the ordinance is to be done by the "authority" of the Melchizedek Priesthood and not the "power" of the same, I will still often hear priesthood holders invoke the "power." Is this a big deal? I would say that is a definite maybe. We have been taught that authority is something that all holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood bear. But power is synonymous with righteousness and to state that we are performing the ordinance (and this is true of blessings as well) is to presume that we are righteous when that is a privilege only God Himself can determine. This has been taught most recently by President Boyd K. Packer: "Authority in the priesthood comes by way of ordination; power in the priesthood comes through faithful and obedient living in honoring covenants. It is increased by exercising and using the priesthood in righteousness." ("The Power of the Priesthood," April 2010 General Conference.)

Common ways of the language preceding the naming of the infant:
We often hear something along the lines of, "The name he/she will be known on the records of the Church and throughout his/her mortal life shall be..." There is really no reason to say that. There is no problem with saying that, but it has become more of a customary thing to say rather than something that is proscribed in the instructions. Or at least the Handbooks don't give any preference to this kind of language. On the other hand, a priesthood holder could simply say, "The name we give you is..." With my own children, I have done it both ways.

Either way a father or priesthood holder says it, it seems that we don't really give the infant a blessing. Instead, we state the name of the infant. I don't know that it is a big deal, but it is a little interesting. I wonder if we ought to be giving the name of the baby? It has been my custom when conducting a meeting and I have instructed my counselors to do that same: we announce that the baby will be blessed by the father (or whomever will be performing the blessing), but we do not announce the name of the baby. It seems that if the father has not "given" the name to the baby, it is not my place to preemptively make that declaration.

Blessing or Prayer:
This is the area that I hear the most differing opinions. I must state at the outset that I know good men who see this very differently and I believe that is okay. It is my feeling that good men can disagree on a whole host of things and still enjoy the approbation of Heaven. Having said that, I feel very strongly in one direction over the other. It is my sense that the ordinance of blessing an infant has two parts. The first part is when the father directs his voice to Heavenly Father. Obviously, when he invokes His Holy Name at the beginning of the ordinance, this could be viewed in no other way. But when the father gets to the portion of the ordinance when he is to bestow a blessing, it seems wholly proper for the father to now turn his direction to his child. The language in the 2006 Handbook for this portion of the ordinance is that the man giving voice to the ordinance, "gives a priesthood blessing as the Spirit directs." [check language.] In my mind, this concept was more perfectly illustrated by Elder Bruce R. McConkie. As his son told me the story, when Elder McConkie would travel the Church and speak in Stake Conferences, he would be sometimes asked if, in a baby blessing, the father directs himself to the Father the whole time or half-way through directs his comments of blessing to the infant. I am told that Elder McConkie would respond by saying, "Well, if you want to say a prayer then you had better hand the baby to the mother, because she will give a much better prayer than the father ever will. On the other hand, if you want to give the baby a blessing, you'd better let the father who holds the priesthood do it." Elder McConkie's son, Joseph Fielding McConkie understood this to mean (from other discussions on the topic as well) that when the father begins to give "words of blessing" (2010 Handbook), he is directing himself to the infant, as any priesthood holder would do in any blessing. Another way to look at it is to say the Priesthood is not needed to say a prayer but it is needed to pronounce a Priesthood blessing. If you were the infant which would you rather your father do?

The Handbook (both current and past) also indicates that baby blessings should take place on Fast Sundays. I have been occasionally asked why this is the case. As I have thought about it, I have determined that it is principally a logistical decision. By that I mean because of the flexible nature of a Sacrament Fast and Testimony Meeting; and because a baby blessing often brings larger gatherings and sometimes take a bit of time, Fast Sunday is a better Sunday to do this rather than another Sunday. I am confident there are other reasons, but I cannot think of what they may be at the moment. Another aspect of this is that the ordinance is normally to take place at Church in the Meetinghouse during a regularly scheduled Sacrament Meeting. There are of course exceptions to this, but they are rare and in my opinion should not be sought out. I think the reason they are to be performed at Church in the presence of the ward (other than that is how the Lord told Joseph Smith and the Church members to do it--D&C 20:70), but it is to serve as a reminder to each member present of the purity and primacy of infants and children in the Plan of Salvation.

Therefore, what?:
Beyond all of these rules, policies, regulations, interpretations, and guidelines, there is one question that I get more than any other: why do we do this? Or in other words, what is the doctrine that is involved in giving an infant a name and a blessing? This is an excellent question. In Doctrine and Covenants 20:70 we are commanded to bring infants to the elders of the Church, to have them presented and then blessed. Both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon have many stories of Jesus Christ blessing little children and reminding us "adults" to be more like children. And so, beyond offering the infant a blessing, perhaps the ordinance is to also serve as a reminder to us of the special place babies have in the Lord's Gospel.

It has been an absolute pleasure and one of the highlights of my time as the bishop in our ward to participate in these sacred moments. Each father blesses his infant in different ways. However, there has been a consistency that is wonderful: they are always done by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood. They are always done in love. And I have always felt the presence of the Holy Ghost. The blessing of infant in the Lord's True Church is a blessing not only to the infant, but also to the father and mother and indeed the entire congregation.

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Sunday, June 05, 2011

Did Joseph Smith use a 17-point Checklist for the Restoration?

I was asked recently, by one of my Young Men that is preparing to enter the Mission Field (he has received his call to serve in a mission in Texas) about the Seventeen Points of the True Church. He wanted to know what I knew about it and what I thought. I first encouraged him to read it and give me his perceptions. After he reported back, I gave him my perception. First of all, I am not necessarily knocking the man who authored the Seventeen Points, nor am I downgrading the experience of people who have enjoyed reading the story and the Points and have been strengthened by doing so. However, I wonder sometimes if we are thinking this through very well.

When I think of the Seventeen Points, I don't look at them from the authors perspective. Rather, I look at it from Joseph Smith’s perspective. When he asked which church to join, he was told none of them. in fact, in one of the accounts of the First Vision he is told that “the everlasting covenant was broken” and that he would be a part of restoring it. Interesting. Then, four years later, he prays again to know where he stands with God and this time God sends Moroni to teach Joseph Smith. Moroni quotes almost entirely from the Old Testament. Interestingly, among the New Testament scriptures that he does quote to Joseph, none of them are part of the Seventeen Points. Then, when he begins the translation of the Book of Mormon, he is told (and we are too, on the Title Page of the Book of Mormon) that there are three reasons for the Book of Mormon:

1. To remind us the great promises God has given to our fathers,
2. The importance of the Abrahamic Covenant, and
3. That Jesus is the Christ.

Again, none of the Seventeen Points are mentioned. Rather, we are taught the reason for the Book of Mormon is to point the seeker of truth to Covenants, the Temple, Joseph Smith, and Christ.

So, there may be nothing wrong with the Seventeen Points per se, but I think they miss the point. And yes, it is interesting that these guys that had the original Seventeen Points experience used the Bible to determine what was true. It is kind of neat actually. But I hope they moved beyond that. My concern is that I have seen missionaries use the Seventeen Points as a method to try to convince people that the Church is true. How sad. The thing is, anyone can take those Seventeen Points and set up a church. But they would be missing the one major thing that both Christ and Moroni and Joseph Smith all perfectly understood: the Covenants. This important doctrine is taught in the Book of Mormon.

In reality, we could go through the scriptures and find 10, 21, 50, or 100 points of the true Church. Now that I think about it, I remember a guy in my home ward in Seattle gave me a big print out before I left for the MTC. He told me that he had found something like 150 “points of the true church,” and that these guys didn’t find enough. Any evidence or checklist that someone is looking for is always going to come up short. I would worry just as much that someone might be looking for archeological evidence of the Book of Mormon and hang their testimony on that.

So I wonder, if the Seventeen Points are so critical, why didn’t Moroni tell Joseph Smith the Seventeen Points? Or better yet, why didn’t the Father and the Son tell them to Joseph? He was really interested in finding the true Church. Christ could have revealed to Joseph the checklist in the first place, then sent the angels to restore the various doctrines with Joseph and Oliver simply checking the list off, one by one. But as we know, that is not how it worked. Instead, the Lord sent Joseph angelic ministrants to give him Priesthood Keys and restore the doctrines and authorities line upon line. But the doctrines always dealt with covenants and would eventually lead Joseph (and us) to the inevitable: the Temple.

In fact, one more interesting fact: any idea what the missionary lesson plans were in the earliest days of the Restoration? The Gathering of Israel to the New Jerusalem (the Temple) to make covenants with Christ. Interesting that the early missionaries, along with Joseph Smith (not to mention Christ and Moroni), never thought of teaching the Seventeen Points.

So I guess my thought is that there is nothing inherently wrong with the Seventeen Points of the True Church. It's just that, at best, they the wrong Seventeen Points.

- Posted using my iPad

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Sacrament

This last Sunday was our fifth Sunday, combined Priesthood and Relief Society lesson. As is usually the case when I teach or speak, I usually feel pretty confident about my choice in topic until the last moment. Then I change. Luckily, that realization hit me sooner than later and I had time to really think about the doctrine that I felt impressed to teach.

So, as the title of the entry suggests, I determined to speak on the Sacrament. My hope was to get a little deeper than we usually do and help the members of my ward (including myself) really appreciate what we are doing each in week when we partake of the Sacrament. I will only mention a thing or two that I learned, and incidentally, didn't have time to teach or share on Sunday.

I read the transcript of a class that Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught at the University of Utah Institute of Religion in 1970 on the Passover and the Sacrament. One of the points he makes is on the use of the bread and water. He rhetorically asks why is it that we use traditionally bread and water and not something else? He goes on to explain that from the time of Adam to Christ, animal sacrifice was used Biblically as the Passover or Sacrifice to point the minds of the pre-Meridian Saints to the Great and Last Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He reasons that for those 4,000 years our ancestors live in tribal and familial clusters. They primarily raised their own animals and grains for food. Their who survival, for the most part, was based on and around an animal. Therefore, what better way to typify Heavenly Father's Sacrifice of His Only Begotten Son, than to ask His followers to offer a main source of sustenance as a type of Christ? In the same way, in the 3,000-4,000 years after the Meridian of Time (depending how long you look at the "little space of time" when Satan will be unleashed), we now live very different styles of life. We are in largely urban communities. For the most part, we do not raise our own food but rather buy or barter. However, we still require bread and water (or some form of beverage) for sustenance. And because we require bread and water as the most basic source of our survival, what better way than to point our minds back to the Great and Last Sacrifice of Jesus Christ?

The other aspect that I wish I had more time to develop was the doctrinal reasons for the Sacrament and its immediate benefits for our salvation. The key part of the Sacrament prayers is that the end result is that we will have His Spirit to be with us, always. In the Doctrine and Covenants we are promised that with the reception of the Holy Ghost, comes a remission of sins. To me that means in the Sacrament, when partaken of worthily, we can receive a literal forgiveness of sins. Which of course is the whole point of the Sacrament and its pointing us to the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

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