Author: Nathaniel Givens

Wherefore Should Not the Heavens Weep?

Photo of the statue "Jesus Wept" at the Oklahoma City Memorial by Crimsonedge34.

Jacob Baker began a long, public Facebook post this way: I’m willing to bet that there are many people out there right now feeling conflicted about the mass murder that happened yesterday. I’m not talking about the outspoken blatant homophobes and bigots, but essentially good people who find themselves somewhat confused by this tragic event. He went on to allege that such people have less empathy for the victims of the horrific mass shooting in Orlando because of a “feeling of disapproval or discomfort” that is “cultivated within your religion.” Thus, such people feel “both compassion and disgust.” An early commenter replied that this “mirrors some of my own experience” and explained that his views on the LGBT community changed as a result of “realizing that they are very honest, genuine people who want many of the same things I want and who struggle in life just as I do.” In a similar vein, Lindsay Hansen Park publicly shared her…

Zion as Superorganism

Organisms in your Organism

Earlier this month, I visited Utah to give back-to-back presentations at conferences by Mormon Scholars in the Humanities and the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Today, I’m going to recap my presentation from the MTA conference, “Zion as Superorganism.” In subsequent blog posts, I’ll share some thoughts about Mormon transhumanism and the rest of the MTA conference (including some of the other talks I thought were particularly interesting), and then also my talk from the MSH. The most well-known description of Zion in our scriptures is of course Moses 7:18: And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. Another implicit description is found in D&C 38, although you have to pull from disparate verses to make the connection to Zion. Here, I start in vs 4 and then skip to 27: I am the same which have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom……

Introducing Rachael Givens Johnson

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I’m pleased to introduce Rachael Givens Johnson as a guest blogger here at Times And Seasons. Rachael will be doing a series of posts on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Rachael is a PhD candidate in the history department of the University of Virginia. She studies Baroque Catholicism in the Iberian Enlightenment and is writing a dissertation on how marginal social groups preserved corporeal, communal religious practices. She’s blogged at Peculiar People and Juvenile Instructor, and lives in Charlottesville with her hubs, Bryce, and their two cats until archival research takes them to fun and exotic places (gods of the grants be willing). Rachael is the daughter of Terryl and Fiona Givens (which also makes her my sister.) Her first post will be up shortly!

Policy, Doctrine, and Revelation

Three angels hosted by Abraham, Ludovico Carracci (1555–1619), Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale. (Wikimedia Commons)

These three concepts exist, for most Mormons, in a tangled web. This has become especially evident in recent months as members have reacted to the Church’s new policies regarding same-sex married couples and their children that were announced in November. This discussion was stoked again following Elder Nelson’s recent remarks, leading to Dave’s post last week pondering: Policy or Revelation? The subtext to this question seems pretty clear: doctrine (often used synonymously with revelation in this discussions) doesn’t change. (For example, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism states that doctrine is “fixed and unchanging.”) And that’s the subtext that dominates all of these discussions: many members are deeply uncomfortable with the Church’s stance in relation to homosexuality in general and long for a change that would, in their view, follow the precedent of the Church’s 1978 Declaration (which followed after President Kimball “had received… revelation.”) by ending discriminatory policies that were never based in unchanging doctrine. Now, obviously the policy changes that…

Introducing Gerald Smith

Schooling the Prophet

I’m pleased to introduce Dr. Gerald Smith for a round of guest posts here at Times & Seasons. He will be sharing a series of posts about his new book, Schooling the Prophet, How the Book of Mormon Influenced Joseph Smith and the Early Restoration (published by BYU Press and the Maxwell Institute.) I was lucky enough to be an early reader for the project, and was really struck by his unique approach to studying the Book of Mormon and how it had shaped the views and beliefs of Joseph Smith. Outside of Mormon studies, Dr. Smith is a business professor at Boston College in the Carroll School of Management, advisor to American and European business leaders, and advisor to leaders and administrators in education. He is an award-winning teacher and has been featured in leading executive programs at corporations and universities throughout the world. In business his latest book, The Opt-Out Effect: Marketing Strategies that Empower Consumers and Win…

The Expanse: Mormons in Space

The Expanse Mormon Poster - Detail

The Expanse is an acclaimed novel series by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck writing under the pen-name James S. A. Corey. The first novel, Leviathan Wakes, was released in 2011 and nominated for both the Hugo Award for Best Novel and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Abraham and Franck have released a book a year since then, with Caliban’s War in 2012, Abaddon’s Gate in 2013, Cibola Burn in 2014, and Nemesis Games in 2015. Babylon’s Ashes is slated for June 2016, and three more untitled sequels are scheduled for 2017-2019. The SyFy channel, in an attempt to relive the glory of its Battlestar Galactica  days, is adapting the novels for television. The first four episodes were released online, and the fifth episode airs tomorrow evening. I’ve read all the novels and enjoyed them a lot (especially the fourth and fifth) and I’ve seen each of the first four episodes twice (and find them promising.) But that’s not…

In Their Own Language

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“For it shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the fullness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language.” D&C 90:11 Introduction This post begins with a simple question: does the Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS) publish scholarship that treats the Book of Mormon as an ancient text? Or, in the words of Bill Hamblin, has the new leadership at MI “undermin[ed] ancient Book of Mormon studies” in favor of “modern Mormon Studies in its broadest sense” to the point where the Maxwell Institute today is “Sunstone South”? It’s a sensitive question, so let me get some caveats out of the way. I’m not an expert in ancient studies of any kind (Book of Mormon, Mesoamerican, Biblical, or other). Additionally, I’m not trying to wade into the larger controversy surrounding the change in leadership, a controversy that involves people I know and respect on both sides. I’m not passing judgment on MI…

The Assurance of Love

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About a week ago, I came across an interesting quote from a talk President Hinckley gave during the October 1981 General Conference (Faith: The Essence of True Religion). He quoted a journalist who had recently given a speech during which the journalist had said that “Certitude is the enemy of religion.” (I’d be fascinated to see the full text of this journalist’s remarks, or even just learn his name.) President Hinckley’s response is challenging for someone like me. After all, I started out blogging at Times and Seasons with a series of posts about epistemic humility. (1, 2, 3, 4) I do not believe uncertainty is a worthy end in itself, but I do believe that accepting the limits of our ability to know is an essential aspect of healthy faith because it enables us to grow and change. A belief that is certain is cemented. This is a good thing when you’re right, but a bad thing when you’re…

Every Scar is a Bridge to Someone’s Broken Heart

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Perhaps we literally need to feel our own pain in order to feel the pain of others. From a scientific perspective: The ability to feel the pain of others is based on neurobiological processes which underlie pain experience in oneself. Using innovative methods, an international research team headed by psychologist Claus Lamm from the University of Vienna could show that a reduction of self-experienced pain leads to a reduction in empathy for pain in others as well. From an aesthetic perspective (I realize screamo is not everyone’s idea of a pleasant Monday morning. Lyrics are below the video clip):   I know one day, all our scars will disappear, like the stars at dawn All of our pain will fade away when morning comes And on that day when we look backwards we will see that everything is changed And all of our trials will be as milestones on the way But as long as we live, every scar is a…

Reading the Book of Mormon for the First Time Again

The giant, angry pterodactyl makes sense at the end. Wait for it.

I read the Book of Mormon all the way through several times as a teenager. Between multiple readings and a knack for remembering anything that comes in the form of a story, by the time I was 19 I knew the Book of Mormon as well as any other 19 year old I met. Now I’m 34, and I routinely meet people whose familiarity with the text far, far outstrips my own. Sure, some of that comes from the fact that I know more Mormon studies folks now than I did as a teenager, but I’m not talking about the pro’s and the semi-pro’s out there who are doing great devotional and scholarly work. I mean just in terms of your average member: my command of the text is just nothing to get excited about. This isn’t surprising, because in the past 13 years since I came home from my mission, I don’t think I’ve completed a single cover-to-cover reading of…

“A woman is a woman no matter what, but manhood can be lost.”

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The title of today’s post (“A woman is a woman no matter what, but manhood can be lost,”) is a quote comes from a long and interesting article from the Pacific Standard: Why Men Kill Themselves. There’s a lot that is interesting in the article, especially about some of the gender differences that lead to a much higher suicide rate for men as compared to women. Although there are certainly wide variations between cultures in the overall rate of suicide, it turns out that “In every country in the world, male suicides outnumber female.” The article reminded me of Valerie Hudson Cassler’s article for Square Two: Plato’s Son, Augustine’s Heir: “A Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology.” The article, a response to Taylor Petrey’s attempt to show how Mormon theology could be retrofitted to be compatible with eternal homosexual relationships, had a tremendous impact on how I view gender and religion. In the article, Cassler allows that “No doubt Petrey would argue that what he is advocating…

Introducing Meg Conley

Utah wedding and portrait photography

I am excited to introduce Meg Conley as our newest guest-blogger here at Times and Seasons! Meg Conley is a freelance writer and blogger specializing in topics of womanhood and motherhood. Her website, megconley.com, is quickly becoming a nationally recognized platform for women’s issues and day to day inspiration. She has appeared on Good Morning America, Nightline and The Steve Harvey Show. Her writing regularly appears on The Huffington Post. She is also, as she puts it, “the mother of two sparkling girls and married to the kind of man that lights the days.” I’ve been a big fan of Meg’s writing for a long time now, and I’ve been consistently nagging her to write for Times and Seasons. She will be joining us for two posts a month over the next two months. I’ve already read her first post, and it’s great. I hope y’all enjoy her pieces as much as I do.

Do Mormons Have a Duty to Vote?

We'll get back to Trump towards the end.

You might think that this is a strange question, and that of course everyone has a duty to vote. That’s part of being a good citizen, isn’t it? Well, there’s a growing body of opinion that says this isn’t so. It all starts widespread agreement that voting doesn’t make a lot of sense from the perspective of an individual voter. Your chance of swaying a national election—of being the decisive vote—is for all practical purposes zero. So there’s no benefit to voting. But there are costs. There’s the gas you pay for the drive to the polling place and the value of the time you spend waiting in line, for instance. This makes voting sort of like buying a lottery ticket when the jackpot is $0.00. It doesn’t matter how cheap the ticket is, no one would buy it at any price. Of course, there are some folks that think voting might be worthwhile because it’s not just who wins…

Introducing Walker Wright

After citing him on multiple occasions here at Times and Seasons (for example here and here), I’m very pleased to announce that Walker Wright will be joining us for a guest blogging stint. Walker is an MBA student at the University of North Texas, and his primary interests are in the theology of work and sacralizing the mundane. Walker has written for Square Two, presented at Sunstone, Mormon Transhumanist Association, Faith & Knowledge, and Mormon Scholars in the Humanities, and is contributing a chapter to Julie Smith’s forthcoming Come, Let Us Reason Together: Dialogues with Scripture. He also blogs at Difficult Run, Worlds Without End, and at his own blog The Slow Hunch.

Privilege and the Family

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In a post at By Common Consent over the weekend (What has two thumbs and doesn’t give a crap about the Family?), Rebecca J writes that “If I’m not currently standing up for the Family, it’s… really just that I don’t care enough about the Family. I don’t think I care at all.” She goes on to write: I’m really not sure what they [Church leaders] mean. I mean, it can’t mean that I’m supposed to be speaking out against divorce or same-sex marriage or unwed parenthood because if it did, they would just come out and say that, right? I mean, I know that church leaders rarely just come out and say anything, but if I were to raise my hand and ask for clarification by saying, “Hey, does this mean I should be speaking out against divorce and/or same-sex marriage and/or unwed parenthood?” they would definitely not respond in the affirmative but would probably say something that had…

When Symbolism isn’t Symbolic

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A few weeks ago I listened to an episode of This American Life with an unfortunate title: Batman.[1] The title, which really doesn’t set the right tone for the episode to follow, refers to Daniel Kish, a blind man who taught himself to echolocate as a child. He gets around the world relatively unaided (including, for example, riding a bike) by clicking and then listening to the echoes. This ability has made him world famous, but it really shouldn’t be so unusual. And perhaps the most chilling thing is the fact that most blind kids will intuitively start clicking or snapping or stamping to test out their environment with sound. But they are so often discouraged that they never get the chance to develop their skill to the level Daniel did. They are discouraged, of course, because clicking or snapping repetitively isn’t conducive with normal social expectations. Thus far the tale is sad, but it is not unusual. The idea that social conventions can be…

On Reading Scripture and Being Human

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About three weeks ago, David Bokovoy wrote an interesting blog post on historicity in the scripture in which he argued that questions of historicity are unhelpful anachronisms that tend to miss the point of scripture: It’s important for modern readers of the Bible to recognize that biblical historians were not motivated to write their accounts out of antiquarian interest. The past was far too important a tool for these authors to simply recount what really happened. Instead, biblical authors used history as a tool to convey themes concerning the God of Israel and his relationship to his chosen people. Bokovoy’s primary target in the article was an essay written by Paul Hoskisson. The main point of Hoskisson’s article was that Mormons are correct to “intuit the strong bond that exists between our faith and historical events,” and that “everything depends upon the historicity of what Elder Bruce R. McConkie called the three pillars of eternity—the Creation, the Fall, and the…

Announcing the 2nd Annual Wheatley “Faith Seeking Understanding” Summer Seminar

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The 2nd Annual Wheatley “Faith Seeking Understanding” Summer Seminar will be held from June 22 – July 10, 2015 under the direction of Professor Terryl Givens. Here’s the seminar description: What are the general contours of Christianity’s efforts to find a marriage of belief and intellect? Does Mormonism face the same challenges as the broader Christian tradition? What are the contributions of Mormon theology to current debates in the political and cultural realms? How reasonable are LDS positions on the family, marriage, pro-life and end of life issues? Is the Mormon theological tradition an asset or a handicap in the public sphere?  With what mix of revealed truth and rational discourse can Mormons best address these issues in public debate? Students in the seminar will spend three weeks addressing these and related questions. Along the way they will survey illustrative moments in Christianity’s engagement with secularism, and examine pivotal Mormon theological understanding of such concepts as agency, the eternal soul,…

Reconciling Shame and Guilt

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Last year was my first year teaching the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine, and I benefited a ton from Ben Spackman’s Patheos blog. So I’m starting off this year by reading some of his recommended books for teaching the New Testament (list continues here and here). First up? Misreading the Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. The point of Misreading the Scripture is that the Biblical authors left certain cultural assumptions unspoken because they took them for granted. When we read the Bible today, we fill in those gaps with our own cultural assumptions. This process is often unconscious because, using the metaphor of an iceberg, most cultural assumptions lurk below the surface. So we don’t even realize that we’re imposing our own cultural paradigm on the scripture when we do it. Problems arise when the cultural context provided by a 21st century American deviates significantly from that provided by (for example) a 1st…

Hypersensitivity and Trolls: A Codependent Dysfunction

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Introduction My first posts at Times and Seasons were about epistemic humility, which is the awareness of the limits of knowledge. One of the common responses I got at the time was to ask how conviction was compatible with such an emphasis on uncertainty. The quote I led with (“The wise man doubts often, and changes his mind.”) seemed like a perfect setup for the ominous lines from Yeats’ The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The answer is that even if one accepts the adage that “all models are wrong,” one ought to go all in and accept the entire adage: “essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful” [emphasis added]. Copernicus’ model of the solar system was wrong because he believed the orbits are circular. They are not; they are elliptical. But he still got heliocentrism right, and later on Kepler[1] added in the elliptical orbits. Newton’s theory…

When to Disobey

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I’ve been having some interesting conversations about the high cost of membership in the Church. We believe, in general, that the cost of being a Mormon is high and that this is a good thing. Sacrifice leads to faith. We pour a lot of time and a lot of energy into the Church, and this helps us value our membership more than if the Church asked less of us. But it can be taken to extremes. There are reasons to say “no” to something our leaders ask of us, and foremost among those is the sake of our families. The Church exists to serve the family. Families do not exist for the purpose of serving or repopulating the Church. My bishop—a man I admire greatly—made this point explicitly at the start of priesthood opening exercises last week. He enumerated the very large number of activities planned for the ward between now and the end of the year, and then he…

Announcing the BYU & Maxwell Institute 2015 Summer Seminar

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UPDATED: The original version of this post didn’t include the link to the application form. That link was added on Dec 10, 2014. In the summer of 2015, the Neal A Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University, with support from the Mormon Scholars Foundation, will sponsor a summer seminar for graduate students, CES educators,  and other qualified individuals, on “ORGANIZING THE KINGDOM: PRIESTHOOD, CHURCH GOVERNMENT, AND THE FORMS OF LDS WORSHIP.” The seminar continues the series of seminars on Mormon culture begun in the summer of 1997. This iteration will be conducted by Terryl Givens, Professor of Literature and Religion and James A. Bostwick Chair of English at the University of Richmond. Givens writes: This particular seminar will continue a series begun five years ago on the history of Mormon thought. More specifically, we will study LDS ecclesiology, focusing on the origin and development of church organization, the evolution of public worship services and practices, and related topics. We will…

I Need My Kids

Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter in "Raising Arizona".

Last month, my friend Betsy VanDenBerghe wrote a piece for Real Clear Religion inspired alternately by Pope Francis and the Coen brothers’ 1987 comedy Raising Arizona about Why Children Are Better Than Pets. Her central question was: What would a society of adults skewed toward childlessness, like the perpetually barren Time magazine beach couple, look and act like without having acquired the altruism, personal growth, and wisdom that bringing up children generally bequeaths on those who undergo parenthood? Her piece really resonated with me. My life has not gone at all as planned over the last several years. Without going into any gory details, I started a new job in 2008 and the training materials bragged about inventing the mortgage backed security. A couple of months later the housing bubble burst, and a couple of months later I was part of company-wide layoffs. In the years since then, I’ve worked hard, helped to launch and run a startup, earned a second master’s…

Our Prayers and God’s Messy Plans

The Council of Gods, Giovanni Lanfranco (From Wikimedia Commons)

I taught lesson 35 today, which covers Amos and Joel. As usual, I benefitted a great deal from Ben Spackman’s Patheos posts, and in particular his discussion of Amos 3:6 and Amos 3:7. The latter, of course, is the famous scripture we all learn in seminary: “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” Ben included a short paper about the meaning of the word “sod” (“secret”) and its relation to the idea of a divine council. The word refers to both private discussion and the product of such discussions. The Old Testament is certainly rife with examples of the Lord involving mere mortals in His planning process and accepting their input. 30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?” He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” 31 Abraham said, “Now that I…

Magic and Mechanisms

2014-09-29 Magic and Mechanisms

In her talk “The Evolutionary Roots of Religious Adaptation” for the Mormon Transhumanist Association, Chelsea Strayer hit on one of the fundamental sources of tension between devout and academic perspectives on faith: the distinction between process and purpose. She gave the example of evolution, emphasizing that when she teaches evolution it is fundamentally a discussion of process rather than purpose. Despite this, however, she recounts that: Every time I teach an evolution class… I have one student walk away and say, “Hey, you just told me that God doesn’t exist. You just proved that.” And I’ll have [another] student say, “You just proved that God is the smartest person ever.” I’ll have two students, same lecture, walk away with both of those [impressions]. The whole talk is fascinating—and definitely worth watching in its entirety—but it’s the tension between process and purpose that I want to focus on. Let me give another example of this. Walter van Beek’s excellent piece A…

Temple and Observatory Group Event in Minnesota

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The Temple and Observatory Group, which has sponsored other events in Utah, Virginia and New York, is offering a seminar for those in the midst of a faith transition or crisis in the Minnesota area. The event features Terryl and Fiona Givens and Spencer Fluhman. Come listen to the three speak about negotiating LDS history, faith challenges and transitions on Saturday, September 27th from 10:30am – 3:30pm at 6125 Shingle Creek Pkwy, Brooklyn Center, MN 55430 (library). Lunch will be provided. Please sign up on the Facebook page as seating is limited. Note: there are no tickets for this event and registering on the Facebook page is not required to attend. It just helps the organizers estimate the number of people who will be attending.

My Experiment with Five Minute Prayers

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For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been setting a timer every time I say my evening prayers. This might sound like an absolutely terrible idea and, in some ways I guess it is. So before I tell you how that has worked out for me, let me explain why I would even consider such an idea in the first place. It starts with the idea of the curse of success. I first encountered this concept in Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose. They wrote that when a policy or technology becomes successful, it can be known more for the hardships it illuminates by contrast rather than for the good it accomplishes. When everyone’s situation is universally awful, no one complains. When an imperfect solution makes the situation better for most but not all, it risks being vilified for the resulting disparity. In some sense, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints suffers from the curse of success…

Truth and Contradiction in Religious Communities

Guru Nanak with Bhai Bala and Bhai Mardana and Sikh Gurus. (Wikimedia)

A couple of weeks ago I listened to the audiobook of Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction. As that was the first thing I’ve read on the topic (other than a multitude of Wikipedia entries) I by no means consider myself some kind of expert, but I was struck by several parallels and differences between Sikhism and Mormonism. The little I have learned has already helped me to see my own faith in new ways. In terms of similarities, Mormonism and Sikhism are both relatively new religions that arguably constitute a culture or a people (in addition to a religion) and that both have fraught historical relationships with larger faith traditions. Sikhs, for their part, have historically worked hard to stress their distinctiveness from Hinduism. Mormons, in contrast, have recently stressed our desire to be included within Christianity. In both cases, however, the exact nature of the relationship is complex and subject to change and controversy. The contrast that stood out…

We Are Made to Suffer

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In centuries gone by the best you could hope for in the case of an aching tooth would be that someone would yank it out, but thanks to modern medicine we can detect cavities and fill them before they start to cause any pain at all. Of course, the drilling of the tooth itself is painful, so you can have your tooth numbed with an injection. Someone jabbing a sharp needle into your gums isn’t a walk in the park either, so you can have some topical gel applied before the shot. Just to recap: you get a numbing gel to take away the pain of the injection which in turn numbs the tooth to avoid the pain of the drill which in turn fixes the tooth before it can start to seriously ache. That’s a triple-layer pain-mitigation strategy. Of course I took the topical gel and the shot. All else being equal, I’m definitely a fan of less pain…

Comfort Those That Stand in Need

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Behold, here are the waters of Mormon and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort… Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord? (Mosiah 18:8-10) This passage has been on my mind a lot over the past couple of weeks, and I wanted to share some thoughts on what it means to mourn with those who mourn in the context of recent events. I do so acutely aware that due to my skepticism of OW I am something of an outsider. And that’s my first thought: the call bear one another’s burdens is a call to cross the lines…