30 April 2010

New Website: By Study And Faith

I have decided that it is time to move from Blogspot and to my own server and domain. My new gospel blog site is: http://bystudyandfaith.net (note the .net and not a .com)

I will no longer be posting updates on this blog but it will remain online. All posts are on the new site. I will update the feed via Feedburner so it should transfer over for you fine for those of you who subscribe to my feed. Everyone else, please update bookmarks and whatever else you need to update. I know it is a bit of an inconvenience for you but it was time to have my own domain. From this time forth, my gospel blog will no longer be A House of Prayer; rather it will be By Study and Faith. Same content, same goals, same everything else except for a new name, a new design (it might change; I'm trying out a few templates), and a new name [there's a gospel lesson in this but I won't go into it at the moment].

Again, please visit my new blog and begin reading over there. Let me know if you have any problems with my new site.

27 April 2010

Tools for Gospel Students and Teachers

I hold the opinion that the most important tools for teachers in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the scriptures and the Holy Ghost. Sensitivity to the Spirit and knowledge of the scriptures will allow a teacher to teach powerful lessons that help those being taught have a stronger desire to live the gospel. "Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth? Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together." (D&C 50:21-22). Having the Spirit of the Lord is vital in gospel teaching.

There are other tools that can benefit gospel teaching and learning. The LDS Church recently released their Gospel Library iPhone app. While there were other LDS library apps out previously, none were official apps of the Church. I use this app on my iPod to both prepare lessons and to teach my lessons. In the app you can annotate the scriptures or lesson manuals by adding your own cross-references and notes. The other boon for my lessons is the fact that most of the Teachers in our quorum (okay, 2 out of the 3 active young men) have either an iPhone or an iPod Touch. This means that not only do they always have their scriptures with them, they also have the Aaronic Priesthood manual that we use for the lesson. This allows them to follow along with the lesson (at the portions of the lesson when I'm using the manual) and find the scriptures quickly. For the one youth who does not have an iPod or iPhone to use, the lack of the device has not been an issue because I never make it one.

If everyone had an iPod Touch or iPhone or iPad then I would make the app a little bit bigger portion of my lessons but for now I'm just glad that some of the Teachers can follow along with the lesson. This will help them remain a little more focused on the lesson, or at least the gospel if they are browsing through the app during the lesson.

One thing I like about having the LDS Gospel Library app on my iPod is having scriptures and lesson manuals and conference addresses with me at all times. If I have some down time I can read the scriptures or prepare a lesson or listen to General Conference whenever I want to and wherever I am (within reason, of course!). Many times I've been riding the bus to or from the campus where I attend school when I had a gospel insight - or rather, when one came to me through the Holy Ghost - that I jotted down in my iPod note app. Now I can also jot down these thoughts right in the LDS Library app near an appropriate scripture. Soon these notes or highlights or cross-references will sync with the new LDS Gospel Library website. Or, if I annotate my scriptures online, it will sync with my iPod app. I'm looking forward to these tools.

Most of my gospel study and reading is done on a computer (iPod included). This has been the case for nearly two years now. While I occasionally pick up my hard copy scriptures and read them (something that I miss but not enough to make it my primary method of study), I mainly use electronic forms of scriptures. I do this in part because this blog is a large part of my gospel study. Having tools that allow me to better consolidate and correlate my study is a step forward in adding consistency to my study. Being able to sync my mobile study with my at home (or school) study allows me to transfer information to this blog better. It also allows me to have all my notes for my Sunday lessons in multiple places but synchronized between those places. This will also allow the young men that I teach to highlight scriptures on their iPods or iPhones in class or in Seminary and have that information also available online.

One issue I can see is when they go on missions but I think it is a good idea to have a new set of scriptures just for a mission that get read and annotated and cross-referenced with things that are most meaningful to the missionary at the time. I have to admit that I have not added much in the way of notes or cross references in my scriptures since I returned home from my mission almost 9 years ago. I added some notes but I haven't generally been able to devote hours per day to scripture study like I could as a full time missionary. I figure that between studying in the mornings before we went out, studying sometimes at lunch time, and studying and reading at night before bed or at other random times, I got in a good 2-3 hours of gospel studying every day. I did not have to learn a new language (something that is both fortunate and unfortunate) so I could devote much time to studying the gospel. I cannot often devote that much time to gospel study now due to family, school, and church responsibilities. However, what having this LDS Gospel Library app on my iPod does is allow me to make better use of my 'downtime' (such as when I ride the bus or walk across campus). As a related note, that is also why I enjoy having the General Conference podcast on my iPod - I can listen to talks as I walk across campus or ride the bus. On weekdays I typically get through at least two talks. They are great sources of knowledge and Spirit, especially because I often miss talks the first time around due to dealing with young children.

These are all tools the Lord is helping make available so gospel study and hearing and reading the words of His prophets are more accessible than ever. While we should never let technology overwhelm our lives (not that I'm one to preach much about that because I am almost never away from a computer or my iPod - due in part to what I do as a student but also due to my preferences for leisure time), technology is a part of our lives. It can be used for both good and evil. If we spend our time with the good we will not have time for the evil (not that that is sufficient reason to not do evil - "I'm only not sinning because I do not have time to" - rather, our reasons to not sin should be because we are sanctified and have no more disposition to do evil; however, crowding out the evil with the good is certainly a start). If you are going to spend the bulk of your time using technology (e.g., computers), at least make it productive and worthwhile and do good.

Whether we are teachers at church or home or simply studying for ourselves, there are new tools that allow for easier and more frequent gospel study. I'm thankful for the technology that allows me to have access to God's words wherever I am.

18 April 2010

On Christianity

Update: Here is the link to a discussion of this same topic on the LDS Newsroom blog.

One discussion I really do not understand is whether or not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are Christian. Let's ignore the name of the LDS Church for a minute - after all, any church can claim that they are the Lord's (however, only one church is claimed by the Lord as His: "And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually" {D&C 1:30}). Again, if we ignore the name of the LDS Church, we can move on to a discussion of the Christianity of the LDS Church and if that Christianity or lack thereof really matter. My view is that the discussion is silly.

Be that as it may, why does it matter to some people whether or not the LDS Church is Christian? I have read many blog posts and articles and statements about how members of the LDS Church are not Christian. I had the discussion with a number of people while I was a missionary. In essence my question is "What is a Christian?"
  1. Are Christians people who believe the Bible to be God's word? If that is part of it then we Mormons pass that criterion.
  2. Are Christians people who believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world? We believe that as well.
  3. Are Christians people who believe that Jesus Christ is divine, even God? We believe that as well. I recognize that LDS conceptions of Jesus Christ as God might differ slightly from the official doctrines of many other churches but Mormon doctrine of the nature of God is supported completely by the Bible (and clarified and expanded by latter-day revelation).
  4. Are Christians people who believe that the Bible is all of God's word? Well, we Mormons do not meet that criterion. However, that is a belief that is not supported by the Bible. How could the Bible rule out "modern" (i.e., concurrent) revelation when that is exactly what it is?! I know many people would quibble with me on this point because they have before but nowhere in the Bible are we taught that the Bible contains all of God's words and that there is no more need for revelation or prophets.
  5. Are Christians people who try to live as Christ intended - doing good to those who hate you, helping those in need, lifting burdens, teaching His gospel, and so forth? Mormons meet all these criteria.
  6. Are Christians people who accept Jesus as their Savior and recognize that salvation comes only through Him? Mormons fit that criterion as well (I can't speak individually for all LDS Church members but it is the doctrine of our church).
  7. Are Christians people who are either Catholic or Protestant, at least in theology? I've heard and read serious arguments that boiled down essentially to this. The problem is that that position is anything but Biblical. It's based on the acceptance of the Creeds of Christendom - which is ironic because the people who accept the Creeds generally do not accept continuing revelation from God (i.e., the Bible is a closed canon); in short, many people accept the teachings and interpretation of theologians but will not accept what many claim to be direct revelation from God in our day. I might be a little cynical in this example but I've heard a lot of people imply that they have the Bible and that was (more than) enough of God's words for them: "We already have a Bible, we don't need another one."
I could go on but those points should suffice for now. My other main question besides what are the criteria for being Christian, is why is it so important to some people to demonstrate that Mormons are not Christian? What are their motives for this position? I can put forth some guesses but I won't because I try not to ascribe motives to others, especially when I have no idea.

For me, and I think most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and most other Christians, being Christian means as a start "one who believes in Jesus Christ." That's it. However, truly being Christian means more than a profession of belief in Jesus Christ, it requires a life of striving to be like the Savior in deeds, words, and thoughts. On one level, being Christian is completely personal. On another level, being Christian is evident in how one lives one's life. Trying to give or deny Christianity using other criteria is, I believe, misguided.

14 April 2010

One Word

On Sunday in our Teacher's quorum we talked about prayer. One point I tried to teach our Teachers is that God really does answer our prayers. The topic of prayer and answers to prayers leads naturally, at least for me and especially when teaching 14-15 year old boys, to the prophet Joseph Smith.

When Joseph was a preteen he starting thinking about the universe and the nature of God. He started seeking for truth. As he entered his teenage years he became surrounded by tumultuous teachings and preachings. A religious revival was underway - Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists were all preaching their gospels and vying for converts. Each minister had the same Bible (more or less) and each read the same verses but there was little agreement of key doctrines of the gospel (there still is little agreement). Joseph Smith was confused by all the controversy. If there was one Bible and one God, should not there be one gospel?

In order to sort out his confusion, Joseph did what the faithful have done throughout history - he sought the Lord in prayer. Joseph went into a grove of trees near to his home and knelt down in humble prayer. Joseph wanted to pray aloud, something he had not done before. But as soon as he started to pray he was attacked by a dark being; Satan himself tried to snuff the life out of the boy Joseph. This was one prayer Satan did not want uttered. Joseph felt the will to live flowing out of him; he started to despair but continued to pray in his heart. Then the darkness was gone and Joseph saw a light that was brighter than the sun. When this light rested upon him, Joseph saw two Beings - radiant, glorious, perfect Beings. Then came what was one of the most powerful words spoken in this dispensation - "Joseph" said one of the Beings.

The particular word "Joseph" was not what was powerful, the implications of the word were. With this simple word, Joseph's name, the boy learned a powerful lesson, a lesson we all can learn. God loved Joseph Smith; God knew him. God loves each of us; He knows each of us by name. We are not faceless entities created to worship the Almighty God (although we should!), we are His children. He sees us with his perfect love. That is what the utterance of Joseph's name taught - that God knows us; He hears our prayers and He answers them. Our prayers will likely never be answered in a similar manner as Joseph's but our sincere prayers are heard and answered.

That is the lesson I wanted my Teachers to learn - they are loved of God. He knows each of their names and cares about their lives. Joseph Smith was a special person, he was called to be the Lord's prophet but each of us are special too - we are all sons and daughters of God. While Joseph's experience was powerful, each of us can know with the same power - the power of the Holy Ghost - of God's love for us.

11 April 2010

A Heart of Charity, Part 1

C. S. Lewis explained his belief in Christ in this way: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else" (Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, 1945). Christ said, "I am the light of the world, he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness..." (John 8:12). Christ also said, "Ye are the light of the world...let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works..." (Matt. 5:14,16). What is this light? Did Christ mean that He was merely a physical light, an electromagnetic radiation that brightens the world around us? It is true that Jesus Christ shines with a radiance above the brightness of the sun, as Joseph Smith described. But this is not really what Christ meant when He stated that He (and, by our following His example and through His spirit, we as well) is the light of the world. Christ is more than electromagnetic energy; He is more powerful and deeper than this physical light.

One powerful source of energy is love. Love is energy, you can feel it - it radiates like the sun. Jesus is "the light of the world"; He created the earth, the moon, and the heavens above. He caused the sun to shine upon the earth to give us life. Jesus lights the earth around us but He also does more than that - He lights our souls with His love. Christ is love. When we are told to "let [our] light[s] so shine" the Savior is telling us to follow His example by lighting others' lives by love; we are to warm the hearts and souls of all humankind through the warm radiance of charity. When we follow our Lord by keeping His commandments, He lights our souls with His love. When we have His love, we can share it with others. This means that it is not possible to light someone else's soul without a burning in your own. This is a light that is in all people's souls. In some it burns with a dazzling brightness, in others it flickers like a dying candle, but it is there. C. S. Lewis said, "[We are] in a society of possible gods and goddesses...[in which] there are no ordinary people. [We] have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit." (Lewis, The Weight of Glory). When we have charity we keep in perspective who those around us really are - we are all sons and daughters of our Eternal Father in Heaven. We have His divine spark within us. We all have the potential to become as He is.

But that is a process - the becoming as God is. None of us is perfect; people are not perfect. We are in an embryonic stage, trying to grow up and control these wonderful, mortal, physical bodies the Lord blesses us with. As premortal beings, all of us here on this earth as mortals subjected our spiritual bodies and wills to the will of the Father; that is why we are here in mortality - we accepted the opportunity to follow God's plan for us. Now as mortals we are trying to subject our physical bodies to the will of the Father, a difficult task at which we much work each day. Once again Christ was the consummate example. His will was completely in subjection to His Father's, which subjection culminated with His death on the cross and His triumphal resurrection from the tomb.

07 April 2010

How Many Children Do the Apostles Have? A Statistical Exercise

After General Conference was over my mother (who was visiting to help out with our new baby) remarked about how most of the Apostles had only a few kids. Being a scientist and a bit compulsive about my statistics I put together a little spreadsheet with the number of children each apostle has from which I calculated the mean, median, and mode number of children. My mother was correct in that more apostles have 3 children than any other number; however, the mean (4.93) and median (4.0) are higher.

Here are the numbers (Apostles are sorted according to seniority):

Apostle       # of children
Monson 3
Packer 10
Perry 3
Nelson 10
Oaks 6
Ballard 7
Scott 7
Hales 2
Holland 3
Eyring 6
Uchtdorf 2
Bednar 3
Cook 3
Christofferson 5
Andersen 4

Anyone surprised by the numbers? I was that the mode was 3 but my guess of the average was 5, which is what the mean turned out to be. We cannot really throw out Elders Packer and Nelson as outliers because the sample size is small, plus it would defeat the purpose of the analysis to remove them from the analysis just because they create a slight positive skew to the data (skewness = 0.85, kurtosis = -0.30). In any case, I think it is interesting that 9 of the 15 apostles have 5 or fewer children (most of those 9 have 2 or 3 children). The rest have 6, 7, or 10. There is a moderate correlation between number of children and age (r=0.49, p=0.06; should you feel a non-parametric correlation is more appropriate, Spearman's rho = 0.40, p = 0.14).

When I looked at the above chart, it looked like there were two clusters of apostlesXchildren based on seniority. I thus created two groups within the Apostles based on seniority; the 7 most senior (through Elder Scott) were one group and the 8 left were the other group (beginning with Elder Hales). This group split was as close to a median split as possible. A t-test revealed that there was a significant difference in the number of children between groups (mean for group 1 = 6.57, mean for group 2 = 3.5, t = 2.68, p = 0.02, Cohen's d = 1.35 - a large effect). There also is a significant difference in age between the two groups (which is not surprising; group 1 mean = 83.57, group 2 mean = 68.38, t = 4.99, p = 0.001).

Should my split of the groups be criticized based on the fact that Elder Hales only has 2 children and so placing him in group 2 might be undue manipulation of the data, here are the values with him in group 1 (group 1 mean number of children = 6.00, group 2 = 3.71, t = 1.79, p = 0.097; this is no longer significant but the sample size is also small {although, it could be viewed as large because the entire population of living apostles is 15 and I 'sampled' the entire population}. In any case, the effect size of this difference is still large - Cohen's d = 0.95). I think the split should be between Elder Scott and Elder Hales because Elder Hales is the first of the apostles called while Pres. Hinckley was the prophet (technically, Elder Hales was called to fill the vacancy in the Twelve when Pres. Hunter died; Pres. Hinckley was called to replace Pres. Hunter); in other words, Elder Scott was the last of the apostles called in the 1980s and Elder Hales was the first called in the 1990s (there was about a 6 year gap in between when they were called). Either way I split the groups, the difference in number of children is large between the more senior Apostles and the newer Apostles. There are the outliers in the groups (Pres. Monson and Elder Perry for group 1 and Elder Eyring for group 2) but overall, the groups cluster together well (see the "Within Cluster Variation" chart).

If seniority roughly equals age (remember the significant difference between the ages of the two groups), does age explain the difference in number of children? In part it does. Age explains 24% of the variance in number of children (R = 0.49, F = 4.166, p = 0.06), which is a moderate amount but it is obvious that age alone cannot account for the difference in number of children. There are other testable (e.g., number of children in their nuclear family, age at marriage, income, etc.) and untestable (e.g., personal choice and how many children the Lord let them know they could or should have) factors that might explain the difference. Frankly, it does not matter in the end. Can we really explain why people have the number of children that they have? Sometimes we can if there are fertility issues but the number of children a couple has boils down largely to personal choice. That is why I am not going to try to explain why we see these differences in the number of children between the more senior Apostles and the newer Apostles.

I hope you found this an interesting analysis - I certainly did! I think it would be interesting to expand it to include the 1st and maybe 2nd quorums of the Seventy as well but that is an analysis for a later time.

05 April 2010

Easter Births and Rebirths

Having a child born on Christmas day and now another one born at Easter time (he'll have an Easter birthday some years), my children's births serve as a reminder to be of the Savior Jesus Christ. As I was involved in the birth process of my son I thought of Jesus' birth but more importantly, His rebirth through the resurrection. On that first Easter morn, Jesus escaped the cold clutches of the grave. Jesus is not only the Conquering King of His death but also of all our deaths. What a miraculous and supernal gift! All who ever lived on the earth will be given the gift of immortality. All will live again.

There is another rebirth to which all are entitled should they follow the Lord's commands. This is a spiritual rebirth, a shuffling off of the old man of sin into a new creature in Christ. When we are born we are born through water (amniotic fluid), blood, and the spirit. When we are spiritually reborn, we are buried in the waters of baptism, sanctified by the blood of Christ, and justified by the Holy Ghost. A spiritual rebirth really is just that - a rebirth; we become completely new spiritual beings. Just as birth is merely one stage in our development - and quite early at that - so is our spiritual rebirth merely one stage in our development. It is just a start to our new lives in Christ. Our spiritual rebirth is not the end, it is the beginning to a glorious new life!

In honor of this Easter season, I hope we all take more time to think about our Lord's sacrifice - His blameless life, His agonizing Atonement, His painful death, and His glorious resurrection! Many of you might have seen this video before but it is worth watching again in order to ponder its message.


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