Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Baptism -- Guest Post

I think it is very fitting that the anniversary when I became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is near Thanksgiving.   November 21st,  2012, marks the 25th anniversary of my baptism.  I remember anticipating that day with such excitement. I was 19 and that is an age when people like to forge identities. Yet, I did not take such a decision casually. 

I originally resisted attempts by my friend in my Composition class at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to give me a copy of the Book of Mormon during my first semester. I was just barely 18 and the warnings about people out in the world trying to convert Catholics by the nun who taught my last religion class at my Catholic high school were very vivid in my mind. 

A history teacher had also made me fully cognizant of any cult activity where groups of people would try to gain my favor, show me love, and fill me lots of carbs and little protein making me wary of my over-zealous friend. Many members are not nearly so zealous. I later learned that he felt prompted to share the Gospel with me. However, many may have made just a feeble, half-hearted attempt while he continued to share. As we sat in the classroom, he shared about the persecution of the Saints in Missouri. I replied that they would have persecuted Donnie and Marie. I knew a few adults who were members but did not know anything about their religion other their abstaining from alcohol and members giving money to their Church.

As disinterested as I was, I do recall opening the encyclopedia to review the First Vision by Joseph Smith after my friend shared this story with me.  Still, I would not accept a copy of the Book of Mormon. I was a good conformist growing up and was at that point a very content Catholic. While I wasn’t the best on observing Holy Days of Obligation, I was faithfully attending the nearby Catholic Church on a weekly basis. 

I was no longer in class with my friend when I shared a religious dream with with him when I crossed paths on campus  because I thought of him as someone that I could discuss religion.  He was very animated as he marched to his car and offered me a copy of the Book of Mormon again. I accepted with the intention of waiting until finals were over to read from the work. How surprised my friend was when I called him that Summer letting him know that I had received an answer to my prayers.  I started attending the scripture study program known as Institute prior to starting my missionary lessons

 During the period that I took the lessons, I felt the influence of the Holy Spirit quite often. As I became more aware of what the Holy Spirit felt like, I could recall times in my youth when I had felt the Holy Spirit. Latter Day Saint Doctrine does believe that all people are born with the light of Christ and that people may have the influence of the Holy Spirit at times. 

To have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, a person needs to be confirmed by someone who holds the proper Priesthood and live worthily. I have had a Bishop who I think was using the gift of discernment when he said that I was receptive to recognizing the presence of the Holy Spirit. However, this was not during my most spiritual period, which was prior to my mission. I felt very prepared to serve a mission and felt the love of God  so much at that time that I knew I could never repay the debt. My nonmember family was protective and concerned about my going on a mission. Fortunate for them and their peace of mind, I was called to serve in the United States in the Pennsylvania Harrisburg Mission. 

I have reexamined my convictions from time to time and have had periods of renewal such as reading the Book of Mormon during the period that President Gordon B. Hinckley, one of the Prophets of the Latter Day Saint  Church told members that there would be special blessings if we finished by the end of the year. 

At times, I have longed to be more connected with my roots in the Catholic Faith and also the roots with the Lutheran Faith on my mother’s side of the family. I am connected to many people from my Catholic Schools and have appreciated their support. Latter Day Saints do not believe you have to be a Latter Day Saint during this life to be in Heaven.  We also respect all major religions, which raise the moral compass of the people. While we encourage people to learn about our religion, we respect people to worship according to the dictates of their conscience.  

I have become increasingly interested in learning more about all religions through the years. Latter Day Saints do not feel we have a corner on righteousness and I am continually humbled by good examples of other faiths.  I do feel the faith of my youth has prepared me in many ways to be a good Latter Day Saints.   President Hinckley encouraged people to bring the good with them from other religions. I have done that. I have not been without my trials. And I don’t know what blessings would have been mine if I took a different path. 

Even the blessings we have are often beyond our comprehension. I do know that I have had many blessings in my 44 years of life and the 25 years as a Latter Day Saint have been particularly rich in so many ways even when times were hard.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


My biography makes for bad fiction.

My paternal grandfather, Robert Henry Marsh finished his career as a cultural attaché transitioning from the Austria to the Jordan desk. My maternal grandfather, George Emmanuel Mylonas, was an archeologist.

My father finished his career as a tech sergeant in the USAF. My mother, who dropped out of college to marry him, is currently a widow and between missions. Before his death from advanced Parkinson’s, they served missions in Kenya, Washington, D.C., the Philippines and Korea. The stories about people he knew on my blog are really about him, drawn from his personnel file which someone in the military was gracious enough to let my family have brief access to before it was redacted. I miss him still.

I grew up moving around, mostly in trailer parks. I graduated in applied economics from Cal. State Los Angeles and then from law school at BYU’s law school. I’m married to Winifred Lenora Wallace-Marsh (she goes by “Win”), we’ve been through eight pregnancies, five children, three funerals and have two surviving children. Win is a CRNA and an inspiring speaker.

I began blogging (as in journaling and essays, chronologically arrayed) in 1997. I was a supporter of FARMS when it was a desk in Dr Welch’s office and I was on the founding board of FAIR. I’ve spoken (once) at Sunstone, and a number of times at conferences and conventions that would bore most people, including myself.

You can find me at where you can learn more about me than even I would care to know. I’m also on Facebook. Currently I serve as assistant ward librarian and as a home teacher.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Understanding commandments (rough draft)

A rough draft of a submission to Real Intent

Too often commandments look like a crazy quilt of random historical accidents with a few that make sense to us. This essay is about the different types of commandments, how they fit together and how they make sense, even if it doesn’t seem that they make sense to us right now as we look at them.
Commandments do not exist in isolation and they are almost always a sub-set of available commandments that would accomplish much of the same thing.


I am going to start with a list of types of commandments, and then revisit the list with explanations.

  • Boundary marker commandments. Sewing blue threads into the hem of your clothing is a good example of this type of commandments.
  • Message commandments. These exist to send us a message and help us with reminders.
  • Negative boundary marker commandments (avoiding the other side's boundary markers -- in our culture, not wearing a gang's colors when you are not part of a gang might be one of those).
  • Sacrificial thresholds -- commitment commandments.
  • Improvement commandments -- ones aimed at having someone do better than the culture they start with, such as rules about slaves.
  • Guidance commandments -- the changed emphasis on not using tobacco that began to be emphasized by the Church at about the time cigarettes were dramatically changed is a good example.
  • Core commandments, but not immediately essential ones (e.g. any ordinance you can receive vicariously).
  • Core which you can not avoid (e.g. not blaspheming against the Holy Ghost).

Before I begin with more I need to note that many commandments overlap. Not eating pork is a boundary marker as eating pork at one time connected a person with the worship of particular gods. Not eating pork was also a guidance commandment as certain pork born diseases were common, dangerous and incurable at one time. Circumcision is both a boundary marker (a sign of the Abrahamic covenant) and a sacrifice threshold (a cost to belong) when applied to grown men.

Boundary marker commandments.
These exist to allow a group to identify who is a part of it, who is not, to mark the boundary between a group and those outside of the group. Cultures create these if they do not have other rules, because in order to be a group, a group needs some sort of marker of who belongs and who does not. The blue thread commandment I started with, above, is a good example.

The commandment comes as a part of the law of Moses. The Torah states in Numbers 15:38: "Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and they shall put on the corner fringe a blue (tekhelet) thread." Wearing the tzitzit is also commanded in Deuteronomy 22:12: "You shall make yourself twisted threads, on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself." --

Formal clothing, the showing of respect, often is a part of a boundary marker, and the marker changes across cultures. Our culture and the modern LDS Church does not use blue thread to allow people to easily determine who is a member and who is not. It uses other markers instead.

Message commandments.

These are often also combined with boundary markers. They are commandments that send a message or help us to remember things. "Do this to remember that" is often the pattern such a commandment has. or phylacteries are a good example from the law of Moses. Wearing Tefillin or binding them on the door posts marks your person or your home as a part of the group. In addition, they are commanded to be worn as a sign or a reminder of things God has done. They send a message of things to remember.

Negative boundary marker commandments.

These are often part of admonitions not to send the wrong message, but they are commandments to avoid marking yourself as part of another group. I've given the example of not wearing gang colors when you do not belong to a gang as the sort of thing that we might have for our day. The New Testament issue of "meat sacrificed to idols" was another one of these commandments that they debated. All of the discussion about modesty is tied up, in part, with the issue of communicating which group you belong to as well. These commandments exist to keep us from marking ourselves as part of the wrong group just as boundary marker commandments to help us mark ourselves as belonging to God.

Sacrificial thresholds.

When people sacrifice or have a price for commitment, they have a greater level of commitment and a greater satisfaction in the commitments they make. It is one of the reasons that people who do not live together before marriage tend to be happier in marriage. Some commandments appear to have, among other purposes, creating a threshold that improves our satisfaction in life and our commitment to God. They usually have other meanings as well.
Circumcision in the Old Testament was a sacrifice, a price for entry. It also was intended to remind people that they were part of a covenant. It combined both purposes.

Another good example of an overlapping sacrifice and other commandment is the one of premarital chastity. Couples who do not have sex before marriage are more committed, happier and less likely to be divorced than those who do not, and one of the reasons is that the level of sacrifice is increased. Sacrifice and commitment has the psychological effect of making people happier and more committed to the choices they make. I believe chastiy has other benefits as well, but it makes a good example because of the amount of statistical evidence that supports pre-marital chastity in spite of all the arguments for the contrary positions.

Improvement commandments.

The easiest example of these are the laws on slavery in the Old Testament. For example, if a slave escaped and reached one of the forty cities in Israel, they were entitled to live free and not be forced back into bondage or discriminated against because they were escaped slaves. The net effect was that almost every slave in Israel was only ten miles or so from freedom. Rather than endorsing slavery, such commandments appear to be aimed at improving the way the culture interacted with slaves.

Christ was clear about some of these commandments, for example when he said ".It was said unto you of old times, thou shalt not kill, but I say unto you that he who is angry" or "...thou shalt not commit adultery, but I say unto you he that lusts in his heart" he is pointing out that the earlier commandment is an improvement commandment, not the final resting place of the disciple of Christ.

“Thou shall not kill” is an improvement over the current status. Looking back, it seems like an awfully low bar. But many, many commandments and rules are that sort of rule that exist to raise the bar, not to set the target.
Indeed, it seems that much of what Christ addressed was the mistake of improvement commandments for privilege or the final goal. Any time the Lord starts with "because of the hardness of your hearts ..." that is not a good sign in terms of seeing the commandment given as anything but an improvement commandment.

Guidance commandments.

In the ancient world, wine was generally about as strong as weak beer. The guidance in the Old Testament is just to not drink wine all day. Why, well, to quote:
To consume the amount of alcohol that is in two martinis by drinking wine containing three parts water to one part wine, one would have to drink over twenty-two glasses. That is, in the Old Testament world, drinking wine as they drank it, you would have to drink a lot (twenty-two glasses) to get the effect a modern person might experience in a couple of modern drinks.

More recent guidance, in an environment where wine is both cheap and much stronger, and not needed to make drinking water safe, is to just avoid it as the opportunity for addiction and other problems. With stronger wine, the incidence of such problems is so much greater and the need for wine (in order to make drinking water safe) is much less. The guidance for our times is different than the guidance for other times.

Another good example of a guidance commandment is the Word of Wisdom. It became much more important and focused on as a commandment when the way tobacco was cured changed, in a way that made it much more addictive -- especially as to cigarettes (the acidity change meant that nicotine could be absorbed through the lungs rather than having to be dissolved in the saliva).

Guidance commandments give us guidance that is appropriate to our times, and generally move us towards where we should be. They may or may not also be improvement commandments.

Core, but not essential.

Belief in Christ is essential to salvation. Baptism is essential to salvation. Yet if someone dies without ever hearing of Christ or without being baptized, they can be saved. Proxy ordinances (e.g., baptism for the dead) allow vicarious compliance with such commandments.

These commandments are core to the gospel, but not essential in this life. Think about the implications for the laws and commandments God might give some people in some times. There are commandments and rules that are core to salvation, but not essential for this life.


It is important to realize that many commandments have their value in that they are a commandment. A boundary marker is useful only if it marks a boundary because all believers obey it. Which boundary marker God commands is not so important as the existence of the marker and obedience. If a boundary marker is ignored by enough people, it ceases to mark a boundary, and everyone is hurt, even if the specific boundary marker is not that significant.

The tzitzit (the blue thread in the hem of the garment in the Old Testament) -- ask yourself: what if God had commanded red thread instead? The tzitzit in red would not have been any less useful than it was with blue thread or it would have been with brown thread -- as long as everyone still followed the commandment. The color choice is not as important as that there was a choice of colors and that everyone obeyed it.

Not wearing wool mixed with linen clothing loses its effectiveness as a boundary marker if only those who can not afford such clothes do not wear them. It also loses its value as a reminder if people are not reminded of its meaning. The flip side, of negative boundary markers, is also important. Consider men who quit wearing their wedding rings. They send a message about which group they belong to. On the other hand, avoiding a pagan butcher has no meaning at all for us in our time.

When Paul writes of the law as a "schoolmaster to lead us to Christ" he is also referring to the value of the law of Moses in keeping the Jewish people from assimilation so that the beliefs could be preserved in order to have the right community for the Christ to be born into. He is speaking of laws that created and helped them maintain a community.

The importance of commandments qua commandments is hard to overstate sometimes. It doesn’t matter that much if you drive on the right side of the road or the left. What matters is that we have picked a side of the road to drive on and that everyone has the same side. Does it matter if we worship on Sunday (as we do in the United States) or on Thursday (as members do in Saudia)? No, but it does matter that we all pick the same day to gather together. If we all show up, willy-nilly at the chapel, on different days of the week, we are much less likely to be able to all worship together.
Message commandments are important as well, especially the message part of them (otherwise they become good luck charms or affectations). We have our own reminders that are easily forgotten as reminders. After all, how many people remember to think of Christ during the sacrament and how many spend the time thinking about other things?

Thresholds and sacrifice are significant, both for the sacrifice and as a marker of who is truly part of the group. Avoiding them causes us to avoid commitment. Avoiding commitment distances us from God. Often these commandments are tied other things or important life events (being faithful in marriage is a threshold, it also has a host of other factors as a part of it). Seeing only one part of them causes us to miss the broader meaning.
The Word of Wisdom is a good example. It has costs and it causes us to give things up. It is a boundary marker. It is guidance for our times. It has broader meanings and purposes than just one part or just another.

All commandments are important, and each has reasons -- and most could be replaced by a different set of commandments -- if everyone made the same change at the same time -- and each loses value for all of us for each person who does not abide by them.

The bottom line is that commandments gain importance from obeying them as part of a group that obeys them and they gain in importance in the context of the commandments given in this time and place to us for our good. They gain in value as they are obeyed, for everyone in the Church, as a group as well as individually.

Next time you see a commandment, or even a social more in the church, ask yourself what category it fits into and what is weakened by a lack of obedience to that commandment. Ask yourself, if you like Paul, keep the commandment if for no other reason so as to avoid offending others because of your love for them through Christ. As yourself also the following questions:

  • What commandments have proven useful to you?
  • Which commandments seem to make no sense?
  • How often have you looked at something in the Old Testament and wondered how could God tell someone to do that -- but if you look back you realize that it was an improvement on what they had been doing before?
  • How fast do you think commandments and rules can change?
  • When Nephi talks about the Iron Rod and the Mists of Darkness, do you think he really means that each of us will have times when we do not understand what good the commandments we have are doing for us?


I was at a child's funeral yesterday, at least as long as my heart could take it.  Just part of the crowd.  Like many I had hoped and prayed the child would be one of the very, very survivors of his condition.  After over a thousand medical procedures, just short of two years old, we were at his funeral.

Today was the day after.  I know one of the grandfathers, I still feel for him and expect to for some time.