The fig tree and cleansing the Temple

This is going to be one of my more speculative thoughts. I am by no means a scriptorian, nor am I even conversant in Old Testament sacrificial practices. This is just something that connected in my mind.

In Mark chapter 11, verses 12-26 (and Matthew 21), Jesus and his disciples walk by a fig tree, which He condemns for producing no fruit and curses it. When they return by it, the tree has withered.

12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:

13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.

14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.
. . .
21 And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.

22 And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God.

. . . then goes on to talk about the power that can do seemingly impossible things.

In the middle of this, verses 15-19, Jesus clears the moneychangers and those who sell animals to be sacrificed out of the Temple grounds:

15 ¶And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves;

16 And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.

17 And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.

It seems to me that the miracle of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple must be related, one surrounding the other, so it got me to thinking. What do fig trees have to do with the commanded practice of animal sacrifice?

One of the most remarkable uses of fig leaves in the Scriptures is in the Garden of Eden. In trying to cover their mistakes, Eve and Adam fashion aprons out of fig leaves (Genesis 3:7). They did not yet know that there would be a Savior who would cover us all, that they didn’t need to try to cover themselves but only needed to repent of what they had done.

What does this have to do with animal sacrifice? The details of what animals should be sacrificed for what sins is well detailed in Leviticus 1-7. It’s been law for many hundreds of years. This, I believe, results in two problems by the time of Christ.

The business of selling animals for sacrifice and changing money to money that is acceptable for use in the Temple has become a lucrative trade. This oppressive trade was at least tolerated by the Priests whose job it was to perform the sacrifices and keep the Temple grounds free of commercial traffic.

More importantly, the commandments for animal sacrifice (well beyond the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb foreshadowing the sacrifice of The Lamb of God exampled by Adam and Abel) were an attempt by the Israelites to cover their own sins. Like Adam and Eve, this was an attempt to cover their own sins rather than look forward to Christ. Animal sacrifice had become the Israelites’ fig leaves.

But weren’t these details given by God? Why would He give them something wrong? I believe this is another instance where the Israelites didn’t want to live the higher laws and asked for something more specific. A single sacrifice for everything doesn’t seem like enough? Fine, here’s something more complicated to help you feel better.

To me, this is the importance of the withering of the fig tree. No more trying to cover yourselves with your fig leaves of animal sacrifice. Get back to the basic, higher laws. Look to Christ and live.

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The Apostle Peter having a really bad day

While recently reading in Luke, chapter 22, I was particularly struck by verse 40, where Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples, about to begin the process of taking upon Himself the sins of the world:

And when he was at the place, he said unto them, Pray that ye enter not into temptation.

Temptation? They are in a garden at night; what temptation do they need to work so hard to fight?

Then I remembered what was happening. Jesus was about to embark on the hardest journey anyone can go on, the one absolutely necessary to allow us to return home to our Heavenly Parents. What happened the last time Jesus told his disciples what was going to happen (Mark 8:31-33)?

31 And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

32 And he spake that saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.

33 But when he had turned about and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.

Peter was there to witness the thing he feared most, the thing he most wanted to deny could ever happen. Peter had to witness his Savior, his God, take on the sins of the world, suffer, and die.

The temptation was to try and stop it from happening.

This certainly would be the greatest temptation Peter and those with him would face. This wasn’t a simple, “help us with some vague temptation”, this was a “He’s right over there, suffering, soon to go to his death, and I need to let it happen.” What an impossible task!

I’ve had prayers in the pit of despair, praying with such energy that you are physically drained. I can’t imagine how much effort it would have taken to stay there and pray that you will not interfere in this case. I find it no wonder that they fell asleep, not from boredom, but from exhaustion.

Even then, Peter couldn’t completely escape from the temptation. Remember, Jesus had already told them what would happen, even dropping the bombshell earlier in the evening that one of their own they had trusted, worked with, and loved would be the betrayer. Yet when the mob comes for Jesus, Peter lashes out and cuts off an ear (John 18:10). Jesus calms the situation, but Peter knows he succumbed to temptation.

Unfortunately, Peter’s bad day only gets worse. While he is witnessing the trials and accusations, he is accused, three times, of being His disciple. Instead of being able to boldly give his own life, as he said he would, Peter denies he knew Jesus each time, at the end being reminded of the prophecy he’d just passed off as impossible earlier in the evening.

I’ve often heard people wonder how could Peter do such things, when he’d been the strongest of the Twelve. How could “The Rock” the Church would be built upon when Jesus was gone be so weak? I don’t know of anyone who could have done as well as Peter did. He didn’t just have a witness of Jesus as we may have, he knew Him personally, worked, prayed, cried, laughed with Him. I don’t know how many hours of weeping it took for Peter to be able to get back on his feet and try to continue with life, but there is no doubt; Peter had a bad day.

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On the Nature of God

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as a Mormon, I have some of my own views on the nature of God derived from the general theology. These include the belief that He is literally the Father of our spirits, that we also have a spiritual Mother, and that we have the potential to become like them. Aside from that, we don’t have a great deal of set theology, and we tend to be left on our own to work out the details. It can be fun to theorize, but in the end, we’re all just trying to work out what we can with our limited knowledge.

For me, this has brought out thoughts on what is meant by “God”. To me, “God” is a job title, the same as “Father” and “Mother” are. This can be relational, but it doesn’t have to be. God, the Father, will always be our God. However, we have referred to others as “God” at one point or another. Jesus Christ is “God” in that He was the principal actor in creating the Earth, acting under the direction of “God”, the Father. Adam, then known as Michael, was also “God” when he (and others unspecified) were helping in the creation of Earth, under the direction of “God”, Jesus, who took his orders from “God”, the Father.

The confusion comes from giving that title to whomever is doing work beyond what we can imagine possible by humans. It’s the same as calling the ability to cure sickness through antibiotics a “miracle”. We have many, many things in our everyday lives that would have been called a “miracle” in previous eras. The use of Flint and Steel to make fire would once have been considered a miracle.

In this same way, if we make it through the process of becoming like God, God the Father (and Mother) will always be our God. This does not reduce Him in any way, just as my being a father does not make my own father any less a father.

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The Difficulties in Looking to the Future

I have five children. All of them have some sort of learning disability on the medium to low range of the Autism spectrum or having the not so simple attention deficit disorder, much like I, their father, probably has. I have hope that they can overcome it somewhat as they grow, since I was able to (at least some), and I hope they can do it sooner than I managed.

Being optimistic can be hard. I see them having a hard time keeping their attention where it needs to be. I see them having a hard time fitting in because they have a hard time controlling their emotions. I see them having a hard time when they just don’t understand what others are trying to get through to them. I hurt for them, even in the times they don’t see a problem. It’s hard to stay optimistic when you can’t always see the progress they make day to day.

Looking to the future can be even worse. What if they don’t get over these behaviors? What if they don’t find good friends who can love the things that make them different? What happens if, as they grow to adulthood, they can’t learn to control their tempers, or concentrate long enough to take an exam?

But I do have reason to hope. As I said, I came through many of these things through my own childhood and teenage years. I know what it’s like to go through depression, anxiety, not fitting in, not being able to communicate your thoughts clearly, and not being able to concentrate on the work that you need to get done. I won’t be able to help them with my experience all the time, as part of feeling like you don’t fit in means no one else could have had the same problems, but I can help some.

So in general I’m optimistic. I see each of them as growing to be strong, intelligent, and capable men and women, despite the difficulties they’ve been born with. I can share joy with them in each of their successes, from deciding they’d rather use the toilet to exceeding in their school work.

There are days, but I think overall there is hope.

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On depression and suicide

A little over a year ago now, I was seriously thinking of suicide. It was well beyond any bout of depression or panic attack I’d ever felt before. There was no perceived misdeed or responsibility I was trying to escape. I was working with my doctor to change medications, as depression medicines tend to lose effectiveness the longer you are on them. I ended up deep, deep in a panic state, barely able to move and shaking uncontrollably, my mind unable to focus on anything but how I could make that panic feeling stop. I also knew, amidst all this, that I had to be sure whatever I did would actually kill me. No cutting, no car wrecks. Pills were too hit and miss. It’s partially due to that need for surety that I managed to get through it at all.

That and my wife.

No, I don’t mean that thoughts of my family and what would happen to them had saved me. As I said, I couldn’t make myself even think about anything but the pain and panic, praying that it would just end. I mean that even though she was struggling to care for three small children and has always had as one of her major fears that I would die, she made sure I was not alone. She did her best to help get what aid we could get, helping me through it, even though an end didn’t seem in sight. Through a combination of support, counseling, and medication, we made it through.

As a society, if we talk about suicide at all, we treat it as if it’s one monolithic thing. We don’t want to talk about it, we know it’s there, and so we don’t like to put any more thought into it than we have to. From my experience, suicide comes from one of two sources.

The first is like this episode I had, where there may not be particular reason, just an overriding need. This tends to need medication to help, with counseling to watch to make sure the medication is doing what it should without creating side effects it shouldn’t. Suicide here tends to leave more questions than answers, as people wonder what they could have done, what burden they could have helped lift, what they might have said without thinking. The problem is that there is very little they could have done. There is no “choose to think positive” or “just snap out of it” that would help. The person was sick, and needed medical help. They may have had shades of this illness before, or it may have been the first time, but it is still an illness. Unfortunately, it’s an illness we don’t like to think about (or sometimes even believe), so we’ve let go the resources we have for treatment. There is no support for getting a debilitating disease that requires weeks or months away from work and life to try and get in control.

The other is from a build up of problems where it feels like the world and everyone you care about would be better off without you there. This type needs more counseling than medication, working through the problems to help remove or mitigate the issues weighing life down. Unfortunately, support for this is just as poor. Some believe that you just need to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “not take the cowards way out” without even thinking about the reasons that might be involved.

I’m very grateful I had my wife and resources to help, including a job that had the flexibility to work with me during that time. I worry for those who do not have these resources and mourn with those who have been left behind through this. No amount of platitudes will help. It’s hard. It hurts. If it (or anything else) has triggered your own feelings of despair and thoughts of suicide, get help in any way you can. There is no right way in getting help for this. Grasp onto whatever slim reed you can manage, be it family, friend, coworker, or even a stranger on a help line. You don’t have to do this alone.

In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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Genealogy, the ultimate “Missed Connections” board

Since much of the family history/genealogy work for my forebears has been done (and continues to be done) by my parents, much of my concentration has been on finding cousins, the other descendants of my ancestors. It’s been interesting to see how their lives have developed, even if it’s just through the glimpses left in the records left behind. There’s the widow left by a rail road worker cousin who marries his brother, also a rail worker. The couples who had just a few or many children who saw either all children live and grow or saw all their children go into early graves. The cousin whose wife died, leaving him with two small children he had to leave in an orphanage until he could reclaim them again. There are just so many stories, and we, too often, barely get a one sentence summary.

I’ve particularly been gratified at finding the cousins whose lines have ended. These are those who never married or never had any children. There’s no one to remember them. I wish I’d posted about it nearer Memorial Day, but I wonder how many of those who died in the past wars are simply forgotten?

In any case, the most difficult part I find in this research isn’t the heartbreaking stories, but in finding cousins that have just recently died. You finally get down to people that you could conceivably talk to and get firsthand information from, and they’ve already passed on. Most of the time you don’t even know who their next-of-kin are. So here’s my “Missed connection”:

To my 6th cousins, once removed, children of Inez Pellett-Cavin-Rounds-Bevroot-Linley. I know your mother passed 25 years ago, but I’m hoping to make a connection to learn what you know of your family. Do you know anything about your father or where in Central America he came from? Hope I can find some way to connect with you soon.

—————-
Of course, now that I check again, one of them died just 6 months ago. Blast it all.

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Self selection in Church attendance and membership

Spend any amount of time reading the various Mormon themed blogs and you will see any number of reasons people are dissatisfied with and/or have been hurt by the Church and its members. There have been a few attempts to understand the reasons for these things, but mostly there have been unfeeling lists of simple points, trying to codify “why people leave”. To me, aside from the excommunication or removal of those who have shown themselves to be physically or spiritually dangerous to others in the community, coming to Church and being part of the community are mostly a matter of self selection.

People join the Church and attend their meetings because they feel that they have learned the truth of how this life, the next life, and the previous life fit together, want to learn more on how to progress, and want to join with others who have the same goal. There is both power and safety in numbers, and it helps our own growth to work with others with the same goals. Those who fall away do so because the community is no longer a place of peace, but has become, for one reason or another, a place of pain, confusion, or distaste.

This is where self selection comes in. Ultimately, it is that persons choice to stay or go, no matter how deep the dissatisfaction or pain. The question then becomes, what can we do to help them stay, heal, and grow together with us?

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