Making America Great Again

There is much to like about Donald Trump’s campaign theme, “Make America Great Again.” That America is great has been observed since the very beginning, and only the wretched leadership and constitutional apostasy of the past decade or two have brought us to the point of needing to make it great again. The question then becomes, “How?”

Reinvigorating our economy by lowering taxes and reducing regulations, improving education by getting the federal government off the backs of state and local schools, rebuilding our military, supporting our police by enforcing the laws, protecting our culture by regulating and assimilating immigrants, protecting the integrity of our nation by properly guarding the borders, and renewing legitimacy of the central government by strictly adhering to the Constitution and appointing like-minded judges—these are all important steps that a new administration can take. But isn’t “greatness” more than that?

Although incorrectly attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, the thought remains poignant that “America is great because America is good. If America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to great.” That goodness is not in the federal or even the state and local governments; it is in the hearts and thoughts and words and daily actions of the people. In other words, restoring American greatness requires humility, repentance, and renewal of faith.

Again, all of the above measures and more will be important to bring back under control a bloated and tyrannical federal government, but making America great again is fundamentally a religious project, a revival, a conversion. As correctly attributed to John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Best Wishes.

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Imitating Christ

We will soon commemorate the Atonement and Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, by celebrating Easter. As Christians, we recognize Him not only as “God the Son”, but also as “The Perfect Man” and are committed to trying to be more like Him. Because we did not live with Him in mortality, our view of what it means to be like Him is limited by the accounts we have. My favorite summary of His life is the scripture that says, “He went about doing good.” And that is what we aim to do, as best we can. Often our best efforts at becoming more like Christ are when we try to imitate others we know who exemplify Christ-like traits.

It has been a great blessing to serve in the Church with many who have exemplified righteous leadership, men such as President Almond and President McCoy in the Graham Stake, Bishop Orgill in Orting Ward, and now Bishop Cain and Brother Lee in Sequim. I think, too, of great men I have known earlier in life: Bishop Waddell and President Don Wood in the old Portland 15th Ward, who tutored me as I came into church activity as a teenager; Brother Kent Duke, who was one of my fine missionary companions in Austria; and Bishop Giacalone of the Gateway Ward in Portland East Stake and Bishop Adams of the Pullman Ward in Moscow Idaho Stake, who mentored me as their councilor. I am thankful for each of them, and for many others who have touched my life.

But the best man I ever knew was my father, Edward Saxey. The army trained Dad as an x-ray tech, which enriched his education as a biochemist; he spent most of his professional life running a large medical laboratory. He loved living things, working the soil of his garden or raising sheep and dogs and cats and horses and cattle and geese and chickens on our farm in Sunnyside, Washington. He always had sheep, from when he was a young child until he died, but he didn’t herd them. He made a trilling sound in the back of the throat, very Germanic, and they came running.

Similarly with the dogs—he and Mom bred beautiful German Shepherds back when the breed was large and noble looking. They had the top-winning kennels in the Northwest in the late 1950s and early 60s. He would look deeply into the dog’s eyes and talk to it softly, then reward its good behavior, and they loved to obey him. He used to say that any dog could be trained if only it will look you in the eye.

Dad was a soft spoken man, which is not to say there was not a fair amount of “whoopin’ and hollerin’”, as he would have said, when we were little. But he usually had few words, carefully chosen, not wasted.

I only recall one spanking, though no doubt I deserved more. The whole family had gotten up early, before the sun, to harvest asparagus, a dusty, back-breaking business. We had a nice cup of postum to warm us before going into the cold. My parents and brothers filed out to the field, but I lingered in the kitchen, enjoying the warmth of the big coal stove. After a half hour or so, Dad came back in, dirty and dripping sweat. As he put me over his knee he said, “you’re not going to just sit around doing nothing while the whole family is out working.” Then he gave me a good spanking and I ran out to the field while my older brothers laughed. They stopped laughing when Dad caught up.

Dad did not need to spank us much because all he had to do was say a few words about how disappointed he was at our bad behavior, or worse yet, say nothing at all and shake his head. I love him so. To disappoint him was worse than any punishment could be.

He and Mom served in a variety of callings in the Church including many years as workers in the Portland Temple. Dad exemplified righteous, Christ-like behavior characterized by patience, persuasion, gentleness, and love. Whether calling sheep or training dogs or disciplining children, Dad obtained obedience not through force or fear, but through love: obedience was a choice.

It is no coincidence that the War in Heaven hinged on this principle of coercion versus agency. It is no coincidence that the continuation of that conflict in mortal life hinges on the same principle, and we see it over and over again in the conflicts of nations, in politics at all levels, in our families, and in our personal lives. To return to Him and receive His greatest blessings, our Father in Heaven requires complete obedience, but it must not be based on fear, but obedience based on our growing love for Him, mirroring His infinite love for us.

Let’s go back over a few things we know about the character of God, both Father and Son:

1. God works through councils; He is not arbitrary or secretive;
2. He is patient and long-suffering;
3. He is self-sacrificing on behalf of His loved ones;
4. He can speak in thundering tones if necessary, but His voice is usually soft, still, and small;
5. He is generous and kind, sending both rain and sun on the just and the unjust, for we are all His children;
6. He always keeps His objective in focus, namely, preparing His children to return to Him and inherit eternal life.

May we emulate the best examples around us and strive to incorporate principles of Christ-like behavior into our daily lives. As we do so, we will, little by little, become more like our Beloved Savior, and our Easter celebrations will become increasingly meaningful.

How the Great Father Created Happiness for His Children

My undergraduate major at BYU was Anthropolology; one of my favorite topics was folklore, which for our purposes here means simply “oral history.” If the religious doctrine known as the Plan of Salvation were retold in traditional society, it might have the title cited above. These are a few notes about that plan.

Eliza R. Snow wrote, “I had learned to call thee Father, thru thy Spirit from on high, but until the key of knowledge was restored, I knew not why.” One of the most important of the “plain and precious” keys of knowledge that have been restored is the Plan of Salvation, also called the Plan of Happiness. Bits and pieces are scattered all through the scriptures and especially the apocrypha, but they are brought together into a coherent whole through Joseph Smith. As described anciently, they form a sort of Three Act Play:

Act I–Pre-mortal life, Pre-existence (Abr 3:18, gnolaum)
The Grand Council
Two Plans—the War in Heaven (Abr 3:27 and Moses 4:1-3)
Agency—“sons of god shouted for joy” (Job 38:7)

Act II–Mortal life—central role of the Savior (Alma 11:38-43)
Creation (Abr 3:22-26)
The Fall (2 Ne 2:25-27)
The Resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-22)
The Atonement (D&C 19:15-20, chiasm center on v17)

Act III–Post-mortal life, The Next Life
The Spirit World (Eccl 12:7)
An Anapausis (intermission) (D&C 138, esp 57)
Temple work (D&C 138:48 and 58)
Judgment (Alma 41:2-6 and Alma 12:14—words, works, thoughts)
The Degrees of Glory (1 Cor 15:40-42—sun, moon, stars—D&C 76)

One key to understanding The Plan is to better understand the nature of God. What is it that makes our Spirit Father, God?
All power? (might makes right?)
All knowledge? (a giant hard drive in the sky?)
Immortality? (He just keeps going like the Eveready bunny?)
Surely not!

He is a god of body, parts, and passions—Enoch, for instance, was puzzled to see that God weeps (Moses 7:28-40). Therein lies a clue.

John wrote:
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might alive through him.
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.
(1 John 4:7-11)

So what was it that caused God to weep in front of Enoch—that His children did not love one another or Him. It is that quality of love that gives meaning and purpose to everything else, and accounts for His Great Plan of Happiness. (Moses 1:39) God wants us to freely love one another and Him as He loves us. I wrote earlier that “It’s all about liberty.” True enough, but the principle that underlies that principle is another sweeping statement: “It’s all about love.”

The Parable of The Talents, Living in a Material World

Talents: Mechanism of the Mortal Experience

Roderick Saxey, MD

In the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30) the Lord describes a man leaving his servants with responsibility for varying amounts of wealth. Upon his return, the servants are judged on how well they managed that wealth and increased it, or in one case, hid it away and did not do anything with it at all. It should be pointed out that the parable was given to describe “The Kingdom of Heaven” and therefore most clearly corresponds to our various responsibilities and callings in the Church, but we can derive a more generalized interpretation as well.

That more general interpretation is related to an important problem of philosophy and religion, namely, why bad things happen to good people. When that question is posed by a 16 year old, most fathers will answer something like, “That’s life, son. Get used to it.” That short answer, though harsh, contains considerable truth, but to understand why, we need to start by understanding the nature of mortal life.

Matter matters. “For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy.” (D&C 93:33) The life we lead and all that we perceive around us are composed of temporal elements, of which the Lord says, “Behold, all these (sun, moon, stars, etc.) are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.”  (D&C 88:47) Joseph Smith went on to teach in the King Follett discourse, “God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory.”

So, “all the glory” is in the elements. Glory as used here is much more than credit or honor, and is commonly described as bright light or fire (in one account of the First Vision Joseph said he was afraid that the trees would catch fire from the glory) or power (recall that Moses could endure the presence of God only because His glory enwrapped him and had power to preserve him).

Not only is matter important, it is universal—everything is matter. Joseph taught, “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; we cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (D&C 131:7) It may be more than coincidental that the astrophysicists, in order to account for the behavior of the visible universe, say at least ninety percent of all matter must be invisible; some theorize that that “invisible” matter consists of multitudes of particles so tiny our instruments cannot detect them directly.

We may view God as the Master Scientist. He knows all the principles of matter, all the laws of the universe, applies them perfectly, and through His faith and knowledge can accomplish His purposes, even performing miracles, which are the application of higher laws to overcome or circumvent lesser ones. There is no magic; nothing is supernatural. This brings us back to the question, “what is life?” The Lord told Moses that His purpose, His work and glory, is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39) Remember too, the glory is in the matter, and life is material. “Eternal Life” is life as God lives it.

Understanding that God creates by organizing eternal elements gives added significance to the phrasing of the creation account in Moses Chapter 2: “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life. . .” and “Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind . . . and it was so.” Similarly in Abraham Chapter 4: “. . . Let us prepare the earth to bring forth grass . . .” Then there is this interesting statement, “And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until the obeyed.” Likewise in verses 20 and 21, “Let us prepare the waters to bring forth abundantly . . . And the Gods saw that they would be obeyed, and that their plan was good.” So when matter has been organized properly, it brings forth life, living creatures. When God places a spirit matter body into temporal matter which has been so organized it becomes a “living soul” which is more than the sum of the parts. Joseph implied this when he said, “All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 1976, page 181)

There is one person who hates all of this. Lucifer was cast out of heaven along with his followers because they wanted to upend the whole structure of the universe, deny our agency, and seize the power and glory—remember what that is—of Heavenly Father. He hates Jesus for being chosen as the Creator and Savior, he hates us for choosing Jesus, and he hates all living souls because he cannot become one. So he labors with all his might to destroy all things good, true, and beautiful. He specially strives to prevent mortal souls from obtaining eternal life by tempting them to commit sin, that is, to think or act contrary to the commandments of God.

Not only are we subject to temptation and sin, any temporal matter organized into living creatures is subject to the natural laws of biology, chemistry, and physics; our bodies are subject to all manner of illnesses and failings, seen and unseen. These are the limitations of mortality and they account for most of the “bad things that happen to good people”. Our faith teaches us that through the resurrection and the atonement all these will be corrected and we will rise triumphant and perfected from the dust. In the meantime, however, here we are.

With that as background, let’s turn to the Parable of the Talents. Our word, talent, is derived from the Latin, talentum, which itself comes from Greek, talanton, which means a scale or balance. A talent is a measure of weight, about 71 pounds for a Roman, 57 pounds for a Greek, or 67 pounds for a Babylonian or Hebrew. The parable does not say whether the talent was of gold or silver, but in any case it was a substantial sum: a Greek talent of silver was 9 years wages for a skilled worker.

We tend to think of talents in terms of our modern English sense of “skills and abilities”, especially in terms of the arts, but it may be useful for understanding the parable in its broader application to mortality to think of a talent in the original sense as a weight, a burden. Thus, those “skills and abilities” are burdens, positive and exciting though they may be; just ask the parent whose spare income and free time are consumed by children’s dancing lessons, singing lessons, and athletic camps. We have a responsibility to develop skill and expand ability by applying and working with them, otherwise they can fade away; fulfilling that responsibility is not always easy.

Similarly, the limitations we have are also talents in the sense of weights, negative burdens we have to overcome. And by some wonderful cosmic economy, the overcoming of those limitations becomes a source of growth for us—our weaknesses can be made into strengths. While we may scratch our heads trying to decide what special abilities we have, each of us can come up with a list of limitations, for they are usually very much in our consciousness.

These limitations come in many forms, most of them inherent in our flesh—the misregistrations of our RNA and DNA, the errors of development of our tissues, the inherited mutations and results of infections and trauma and chance, the imbalance of our hormones, the aging and decay of our normal functions, the predispositions to one sin or weakness or another. Some are obvious, like the child with phocomyelia, whose deformed limbs anyone can see; except for the blind, whose burden is likewise easily discerned.

But most are not obvious—they are limitations in our ability to learn, or to understand, or to feel. They are the many forms of mental and emotional illness, ranging from mild personality disorders to bipolar disease to schizophrenia, all the way to psychosis and delirium. There is not one of us whose life is not touched by these diseases in ourselves, our family, or our friends and co-workers. Our physical limitations may include a predisposition to homosexuality, or to hypersexuality, or to laziness, or to violence, or to swearing. One of the occasional findings in the inherited condition called Tourette’s Syndrome, for instance, is extreme difficulty refraining from profanity and other inappropriate language.

Much of our behavior originates deep within the brain where we experience emotions; regulation and control are based in the frontal cortex, where our consciousness is located. Errors of development can cause the frontal lobes of our brains to not grow as fully as they should, or those limited fibers controlling the deeper brain functions may be smaller or weaker than normal, a common finding in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Individuals with that condition often have great difficulty controlling their impulses. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and other recent research techniques have shown anatomic or biochemical abnormalities in patients with a variety of behavioral abnormalities including such common problems as dyslexia and difficulty controlling anger.

It used to be taught in medical school that the number of brain cells and their complex connections did not increase after maturity—it was only downhill from there.  Modern research has demonstrated that this is not the case. Neural tissue remains adaptable, trainable, and capable of further growth throughout life, a condition known as “plasticity”. Plasticity is greatest during periods of rapid growth such as infancy; a similar rapid growth of grey matter in adolescence partially explains the dramatic improvement in cooperation and understanding we see in teenagers between late adolescence and maturity. Plasticity is still present, but less when growth is completed, so even though we really can teach old dogs new tricks, it requires more effort and time. Like a muscle that becomes stronger with exercise, the brain becomes more effective through use, hence the importance of our habits and thoughts and the subjects of our personal studies. In spiritual terms, the often admonished lifelong scripture study comes to mind.

Brain function depends on more than how much we use it. The way it is used and how it is nourished are equally vital. Avoiding sin, living prudently, following the Word of Wisdom—all these help us to avoid turning biochemical “switches” that can increase the inner burdens and limitations of our physical bodies. Addictions of all sorts are dangerous for more reasons than their immediate effects, they influence and limit our behavior and decisions and all the consequences that flow from them.

The predisposition of our bodies to weakness, error, and sin is referred to in the scriptures as “the natural man”. King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon quoted an angel who said, “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him. . .” (Mosiah 3:19)

Recognizing a physical counterpart to behavior is not to excuse sin. Just as muscles become stronger with exercise and brains become smarter and more insightful with use, so our minds and bodies adapt to the thoughts and habits we choose to fill them with. Plasticity can be for good and ill, as we choose, even if the choice is ever so difficult, and it is not always clear biologically what is cause and what is effect. Nevertheless, we have the assurance of heaven that we can handle it. Paul wrote, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Cor 10:13)

Knowing the limitations of the flesh reinforces the importance of not judging, that is to say, not condemning others. We do not know what burdens our brothers and sisters labor under. Understanding, forgiving, and helping others deal with the limitations of their lives are a vital part of the testing and learning in our own. That bring us to another story that Christ told about talents. In response to the question about how often we should forgive others, the Lord told (Matt 18:21-35) of a servant with who owed his master 10,000 talents, was forgiven when he begged it, but prosecuted a fellow servant who owed him a trivial sum. (It may help to know that the  annual budget of ancient Athens was less than 2,000 talents.) Forgiveness of his debt should have taught the servant great mercy and understanding.

There are other burdens, negative talents we carry around such as ignorance, incorrect traditions, emotional and psychological conflicts in our families, guilt for unrepented sin or repented sin we have not ourselves forgiven, limitations of social status, prejudices of other people, and the endless temptations of the adversary. Such are the trials of earth-life.

Alma taught (Alma 12) that we are judged on our words, our works, and our thoughts, which include the “secret intents of the heart”. We are not mind readers and we cannot know another’s “secret intents” unless they are revealed by God, for He does know them. The Lord reassures us, “Yea, I tell thee, that thou mayest know that there is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and the intents of thy heart.” (D&C 6:16)

It turns out that those limitations of mortal life, the negative burdens or talents we carry are of great importance in making our experience here work to our benefit. They are an essential part of the mechanism that makes life both a test and a learning experience. The Lord told Moroni, “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27)

Our weaknesses, including the “bad things that happen to good people”, the limitations of our flesh, the natural consequences and chance occurrences of being part of a physical universe, are to help us turn to Christ; the understanding and forgiveness we extend to others in their limitations and trials help us to become more like Christ. Or in other words, our limitations and the limitations of others enable us to take full advantage of the Atonement.

Concerning the Atonement the Lord said, “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.” (D&C 19:16-19)

I am grateful that our judge, our great and good judge, is also our creator and has a perfect knowledge of all our talents, both the positive ones that we are responsible for developing, and the negative ones that we have to overcome and that are responsible for developing us. He sees the inner hormonal balance or imbalance, the correct or incorrect neural pathways, the biochemical errors, the genetic flaws, the shortcomings of our culture or social circumstances. And it all will be taken into consideration.

It’s all about Liberty.

The key feature of human history, once we look past all the details of names and dates and temporal worries, is the matter of individual choice. Shall the individual be free to choose for himself how and where he lives? Shall he be able to select and mold and edit the details of his own life? Or shall these be imposed to greater or lesser degree by others who are supposedly more wise or learned or insightful, or in an earlier age, of a “better” lineage?

Some things, of course, cannot be changed: DNA, where and when we are born, the circumstances of surrounding society, the natural environment. But these are imposed by a higher than human power, one whose ultimate benevolence, justice, and mercy are matters of faith. They are our “lot in life.” And children by definition need the care of parents until they are mature enough to manage themselves. It’s everything else that is in question, and time and time again the answer by some is, “do what I say, or else.” To which many of us answer, “No”. (That is, incidentally, the second most important word in any language, the first being “love”, but that is a topic for another day.)

This is the underlying theme of my recent book, All Enlisted, A Mormon Missionary in Austria During the Vietnam Era, available at Amazon. Wars are about force; missionary work about free agency–in each case it is a matter of choice. Shall people be forced to obey or be free to govern themselves? Shall people be free to choose to obey God? God desires that we obey Him, but that obedience must be freely given. Since He is the Creator, our willing obedience is all we can give Him because everything else is already His.

It really is all about Liberty.