A temple for Russia!

For nearly six years, I have watched General Conference with bated breath. As President Monson announced temple after temple, I waited but the words never came. I was happy for all of the incredible places in the world getting temples, but came away from each conference disappointed.

I served in Novosibirsk Russia under a visionary Mission President- who not coincidentally had been set apart by President Nelson. President Gibbons came to Russia with a single and divinely inspired goal – to help build a district and eventually a stake in Siberia. He promised the members that if they remained faithful, one day they would see stakes and temple dot Russia and specially in Siberia.

After six years, I had lost hope. After years of progress in constructing stakes and districts, the government crackdown was savage. First came anti-Mormon propaganda on TV. Next came an effort to label members of the church tratiors to the national fabric. An aggressive ban on proselytizing followed. And within just the past year, family history centers were shut down and meeting houses raided after evidence of criminal conduct was manufactured and planted.

With each unfulfilled conference prayer, I began to doubt whether God would truly be faithful to the promises he made through his divinely called servant. Today, President Nelson, a true Prophet of God, showed that it is not God that is unfaithful to his promises.

It is so appropriate that President Nelson would be the one to announce the building of a temple in Russia. He was the apostle instrumental in the opening up of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union territories to missionary work in the late 80s and early 90s. One of his many granddaughters served in Russia. He has spoken to the saints there on many occasions and has used their stories in conference.

I can’t begin to express how much this announcement means to me personally and to the saints in Russia. My Siberian Brothers and Sisters are probably currently as far from an operating temple as anywhere in the world. In 2010, the Church dedicated the Kiev Ukraine Temple which somewhat eased the burdens of travel. But worsening socio-political circumstances have dashed that dream. And even with a temple in Kiev, the distance is over 4,000 miles from the center of my mission. Those faithful members ride the trains for days and spend a week at the temple doing work night and day. Their faith and example resembles the early pioneers. It will truly be a glorious day to have a temple in Russia.

There will likely be opposition to the building of the temple. When a temple is built, a portion of the world is sanctified and set apart for the holiest purpose imaginable. Satan rages. But God will triumph.

I also celebrate the announcement of new temples to be built in Argentina, Nicaragua, the Philippines, the USA (UT and VA), and India, but for me the temple announced in Russia makes all the difference!

O Jerusalem

Yesterday’s announcement that the United States will officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is controversial to say the least. Indeed, of all the contentious claims in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the status of Jerusalem is the ultimate landmine. Having spent quite a bit of time studying the conflict, I am well aware of how complicated the final status of Jerusalem ultimately is. And having lived for several months with a Muslim Bedouin family in the Negev, I also know how sacred Jerusalem is for the Palestinians and I long for a peace that recognized their shared claim to the holy sites of Jerusalem.

With all of that being said, I felt prompted to share my personal reaction to the decision. I frankly didn’t expect it to resonate as deeply with me as it did. Though I was born in Israel, I have not lived there for more than several months at a time since childhood. But reading about the decision nevertheless brought tears to my eyes.

As I read about Trump’s decision, I thought about the generations of my ancestors who longed to return to their ancestral homeland. Their souls hungered for home. They prayed and sang of Jerusalem. They ended their worship with the eternal hope that next year they would be in Jerusalem once more. And with the Psalmist they declared “if I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand whither.” (Jewish Study Bible). Some of my ancestors were able to fulfill their dream and make Aliyah to Israel. Others were brutally murdered because of their Jewish heritage and faith.

For the Jewish people, the land of Israel is not merely a nicety. It is a matter of spiritual and temporal salvation. It is a refuge from the storm of anti-Semitism. It is a place where the connection to the past and to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is particularly strong. It is the land promised by God. And Jerusalem is at the center of that ancestral claim.

Yet despite that ancient connection, there is a concerted effort to deny Israel’s historic claim to Israel. UNESCO, an arm of the UN that recognizes sites of historic and cultural significance, recently attempted to whitewash the Jewish history of Jerusalem completely away. And so as I read about Trump’s announcement tears unexpectedly came to my eyes. The United States was declaring that it recognized the historic claim of the Jewish people. It was pushing back against a false narrative that would wide away Jewish history from the land.

There is room to debate and discuss the necessity of such a step, given that it merely acknowledges the reality on the ground for at least 50 years. Whether the decision was wise given the inevitable backlash remains an open question. And whether this will help or injure peace efforts is yet to be seen. But what seem undeniable to me is that the Trump administration has acted in solidarity with the eternal longing of the Jewish people. Although the “nations rage” and the “peoples plot in vain” (Psalms 2:1 NIV), the call of the Jewish soul to Jerusalem will remain forever. No peace deal, no settlement, and no negotiation can proceed that undermines that basic fact.

(Although it is somewhat secondary to the point of this post, as a Latter-day Saint I also see the return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land as a fulfillment of many great and marvelous prophecies from Isaiah to Joseph Smith).

Edit: I want to link to this post by Sahar Qumisiyeh who is a Palestinian Latter-day Saint to offer a counter perspective.

The Nephite Pride Cycle and the Early Saints

Two years ago, I wrote a post on this blog discussing devotional uses of the Book of Mormon by the early Saints. This week, I came across another inspiring example of the usage of the Book of Mormon by early church leaders.

1836 saw the Latter-day Saints in Kirkland enjoy unparalleled prosperity and spiritual outpourings. The newly dedicated temple resulted in incredible manifestations and visions. And a land boom resulted in spiking land prices and financial stability. In those conditions, many members began to grow disaffected by efforts by Joseph Smith and other Church leaders to direct temporal and political affairs. As the murmuring and opposition intensified in the start of 1837, David Whitmer, one of the Book of Mormon witnesses, delivered what appears to have been a powerful sermon. Wilford Woodruf describes the sermon as follows in his journal on January 13, 1837.

“Met at candlelight with the quorums of the Seventies and was
favored with a lecture from President David Whitmer. He warned us to humble ourselves before God lest his hand rest upon us in anger for our pride and many sins, that we were running into in our days of prosperity as the ancient
Nephites did. It does now appear evident that a scourge awaits this stake of Zion, even Kirtland, if there is not great repentance immediate and almost every countenance indicates the above expectation, especially the heads of the Church. (See Dec. 11th, 1836.) May the Lord in mercy enable us to meet every
event with resignation.”

I find this to be a remarkable example of how the Book of Mormon had taken moral and spiritual significance in the life of the Saints. The reference to the Nephite pride cycle is dependent on the listener having read and internalized the narrative arc of the Book of Mormon. And Whitmer expressly invokes that story to call his people to repent and to cast off pride and dissension. And it is clear from Woodruf’s account that he (Woodruf) fully understood the point of Whitmer’s message. In this critical period, Whitmer called upon the power of the Book of Mormon to invite repentance and draw us closer to Christ.

What also struck me was how consistent this usage of the Book of Mormon is with one of the more prominent contemporary uses of the Book of Mormon. For instance just last month Elder Wilford Andersen delivered a penetrating sermon on the Pride Cycle.

Elder Andersen described with great clarity the traps of the Pride Cycle, and perhaps more significantly he described how we can escape from that Cycle:

“Brothers and sisters, let’s be honest. Most of us, like the Nephites of old, have ourselves taken a few laps around the pride cycle. I used to wonder how the Nephite nation could run the entire cycle in a period of as short as five years. I have since come to believe that we can run the cycle in five years and we can run it in five minutes. It is a pernicious pattern of thinking and behavior that permeates our society. It is so common that it sometimes becomes hard to recognize.

Are we consigned to continue forever in this endless do-loop of despair? Is there no way to get off the pride cycle? There is. In fact, there are two points on the pride cycle where we can exit—one to our eternal destruction and the other to our everlasting happiness.

At four o’clock, when we are facing failure or affliction and feel like all is lost, if instead of becoming humble we become angry; if we lose hope or give in to self-pity; or if we begin to blame others—including God—for our misfortune, then we will exit the pride cycle. But we will exit downward to destruction, as did the Nephites of old.

But at ten o’clock, when it seems like we can do no wrong, when all is going well, if instead of becoming proud we become thankful, then we will exit the pride cycle. But this time we will exit upward toward God. To exit the pride cycle at ten o’clock, we must recognize that every blessing we receive comes from Heavenly Father. He is the source of all that is good in our lives—the fount of every blessing.“

Just like Wilford Woodruff, David Whitmer, and the early saints, we can learn much from the Nephite Pride Cycle of the Book of Mormon. May we like Wilford Woodruff he humbled and allow our prosperity to bring us to gratitude rather than pride.

Mormons have peculiar views on religious freedom

Recently, a devout member of another confession that I deeply admire (whom I have chosen not to identify) gave a talk about religious freedom. In that talk, he described a battle between believers and invidious government bureaucrats who are seeking to exercise total control over ever aspect of the believer’s life. His remarks were substantially similar to conservative blogger Erick Erickson who in a wide-spread post entitled “You Will Be Made to Care” wrote that “[t]he secular left in America has its own religion — the state. Worship of the state and the self cannot tolerate dissent or competition, and therefore is moving aggressively to shut down, silence, and drive from the town square any competing ideas.”

Having spent the past several weeks preparing to teach a lesson on religious freedom at Church, it struck me how that rhetoric and perspective differed from the teachings of leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are often seen as fellow travelers in the battle for religious freedom. But while we often fight the same battles, we Mormons truly have a peculiar take on religious freedom.

Ending the Culture War

So often, when members of other faiths speak of religious freedom, it is described as a war launched against believers by non-believers. Hence, the well-renowned Catholic lawyer Phyllis Schlafly titled her book criticizing the Obama Administration “No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom.” Such martial rhetoric is pervasive.

To be sure, leaders of the LDS Church will often use sharp rhetoric. For instance, Elder Cook explained that “[t]here has always been an ongoing battle between people of faith and those who would purge religion and God from public life.” And the Church’s site on religious freedom speaks of an “assault” on people of faith.

Yet, our leaders have called for a “case-fire” in the culture wars over religious freedom. And along with that “cease-fire” has come a very deliberate and pronounced effort to avoid demonizing and creating false caricatures of those we disagree with.

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Book Review: The Encore: A Memoir in Three Parts

If you have heard nothing about Charity Tilemann Dick and her remarkable story, stop right now and listen to the song below. I promise it is worth it.

Charity truly has an angelic voice and a powerful spirit when she sings. But her story is unlike that of any other opera singer I know of. When Charity was a student at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, Hungary, she was diagnosed with Pulminary Hypertension, a rare lung disorder. A few years later, her lungs began to fail and she underwent a double-lung transplant which she miraculously survived. She began the grueling process of relearning to sing. But after a few years her body began to reject her new lungs. She then underwent a second double-lung transplant. She once again learned to sing and the song you listened to was recorded with her third set of lungs.

With that riveting summary I could simply recommend that you check out Charity’s incredible memoir “The Encore: A Memoir in Three Acts.” I could also recommend that you look at all of the incredible press coverage the book has received. But I want to explain why this book was one of the most poignant and life affirming books I have ever read.

Or I should say listened to. Although I am partial to reading, in this case the audiobook may be the superior format for the book. It is read by the author which helps to convey the emotion far more powerfully. But more importantly, each chapter of the audiobook is accompanied by Charity’s incredible singing. For each chapter, Charity has selected music that fits with the story and hearing her sing conveys the miraculous nature of the story in an indelible fashion. The audiobook is worth the price of admission simply for a stunning version of Amazing Grace, inspired by a moment when Charity sang it to a nurse at the Cleveland Clinic while awaiting her second lung transplant. It will bring you to tears.

One might expect the recipient of two lung transplants to be depressed or pessimistic. But Charity’s deep faith and incredible optimism are what will stick with you long after the book finishes. Throughout her long ordeal, Charity never relinquishes her deeply rooted testimony that there is a loving Heavenly Father and that he is in charge of her life’s direction. For a book written for a secular and primarily non-LDS audience, this book is also remarkably full of Charity’s testimony of the restored gospel. Throughout the book, Charity intersperses moving prayers to her heavenly father, and her belief in the eternal nature of her family. She does this in a wholly natural fashion. She simply cannot help but share the faith that brought her through her illness. One moment stands out in particular. At one of her darkest moments when she had to decide whether to press forward with her second lung transplant, Charity received a Priesthood blessing promising her that she would live. Her willingness to rely on the promises of the Lord were inspiring and deeply faith promoting

For a book on such a serious subject, The Encore is also remarkably funny. I laughed almost constantly. For instance, at point when first in the hospital, Charity describes the guilty pleasure of sneaking a burrito after dieting and avoiding salty foods for months. And you will never look at Diet Sprite the same way after hearing how she longed for it after her first transplant. And her various travails as she prepared for her wedding hit close to home and was hilarious. You will find yourself laughing far more than you expected.

The book is also a remarkable love story. Charity falls in love with Yonatan Doron, even though the two at first glance have little in common. She at first resists his advances because she is certain she is dying and does not want to burden him. But he stands by her side unrelentingly. Their love is moving and inspiring. I especially loved how the book handled their mixed faith relationship. Charity is LDS (though she comes from a very well known Jewish-American line, as her grandfather was Holocaust survivor and Congressman Tom Lantos), and Yonatan is Jewish. Cultural differences and differences of understanding nearly tear them apart. Yet, despite their various trials, the two overcome their differences and share an eternal and enduring bond.

Finally, this book is not a whitewashed story. Charity describes in vivid detail her own imperfections, doubts, and struggles as well as those around her. For instance, her mother heroically stood by her side for years, but Charity also describes how difficult that process was for her mother and how they vociferously disagreed about the best course of care. Another portion of the book at struck me involved Charity’s relationship with one of her first doctors. That doctor offered her very negative advice and urged her never to sing again. At first, Charity had bitter feelings towards that doctor. In her widely watched TEDMED talk after her first transplant, Charity criticized that doctor’s attitude. But after that doctor soon suffered from her own lung defect. Charity came to know her and realized that the doctor was acting our of a loving over protectiveness rather than pessimism. And in turn Charity gave that doctor hope. That story exemplifies Charity’s growth throughout her story, as she comes to deeply appreciate the love and efforts of others in her care even though they do so imperfectly.

On a personal note, I met Charity in the summer of 2015 as I was living in the Washington D.C. because some of her siblings were in my ward. Even though it was brief, our encounter left a deep impression on me. You cannot interact with Charity for any length of time without coming away edified and strengthened. She is one of those rare individuals with the faith to be healed, and not to be healed. But more importantly, she understands that how we live is much more important than whether we survive. This book will similarly edify you and strengthen your belief in the beauty of life and in God’s power to work miracles in your life. I cannot recommend this book any more highly.