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Mourning With Those That Mourn: A Homily on the Lord’s Supper

Mourning With Those That Mourn: A Homily on the Lord’s Supper

The following is adapted from a message I presented as a Sacrament Meeting talk in two wards of the Sugar Hill Georgia Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In one of the earliest of our New Testament Scriptures, the Apostle Paul writes to the Christian community in Corinth. It appears they had taken the tradition of the Lord’s Supper, and simply merged it as part of a regularly scheduled raucous feasting (see 1 Corinthians 11:18–34 ). In fact, part of the spirit of these large social feasts that took the place of thoughtful worship had contributed to feelings of social division and contempt among the believing community – it was the transformation of something holy into a meaningless parody of “eat, drink and be merry.” (see Luke 12:16–21, 2 Nephi 28-7).

After a brief yet sharp condemnation of their practices, Paul, with apostolic authority and experience, explains the simple and sacred nature of what was known as the ritual, ordinance, or Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

This is still a common theme with modern Church General Authorities to make such corrections when deemed necessary. In 2001, Elder Vaughn J Featherstone presented a modern day epistle to the Church inviting each of us to reassess how we might approach and contribute to the experience of our Sacrament Meetings in the Church today. (see “Sacrament Meeting and the Sacrament” Ensign, September 2001 – http://www.lds.org/ensign/2001/09/sacrament-meeting-and-the-sacrament?lang=eng )

“Throughout the Church each week”, he wrote, “members gather for the opportunity to partake of the sacrament. This is a deep and meaningful privilege, an expression of God’s love for His children. Among those who gather may be people who are suffering deeply, perhaps due to wayward children, financial stress, debilitating illness, death, depression, loneliness, despair, sin, or sorrow. It is important, therefore, that sacrament meetings accomplish their purpose. What we do in them may be more important to someone there than we would ever know. Sacrament meeting is often the primary means for rescuing the troubled soul.”

Sometimes, I like to recall and consider the circumstances of the attendants of that First Sacrament Meeting, in the event known to us traditionally as the Last Supper. As Paul explained in his letter, It was carried out by “[t]he Lord Jesus” himself, “the same night in which he was betrayed,” (1 Corinthians 11:23)

The last week of the mortal life of Jesus of Nazareth was filled with confusion and anticipation for his disciples. Jesus had entered Jerusalem amidst pomp and circumstance, with disciples and oppressed faithful alike hailing the entrance of their King.

Passover was coming, and the deeper meaning of the entrance of one who was whispered about as the Lord’s Anointed into the Holy City was not lost. Jesus had been compared with Moses and Elijah, two holy and revered prophets known for their bold ministry to the children of Israel during times of oppression.

Ttriumphal-entry-jesus-1078565-wallpaperhis particular Passover week, the Judeans would have looked around and seen their Roman governors as being a new variation of the Egyptian oppressors of old. And now this Prophet, like Moses, like Elijah, had come to town.

Would the events of old be relived? Would, as the writings of the Prophet Isaiah had been interpreted, the Roman Oppressors truly be cut down by the acts of this so-called Anointed King? Jesus of Nazareth was growing a larger and closer knit group of devoted followers. Would they be confronting the Lord’s enemies like Elijah did with the Priests of Baal?

Would the champions of Rome fall as did the Goliath facing their youthful Davidic King walking into Battle?

It was towards the end of the week, that the special and sacred evening meal was held. Some of the Gospel writers suggest we see it as a Passover meal. Another gives the impression that it was earlier and distinct. Paul doesn’t signify, but in any case, it was a sacred, yet somber Royal Meal, with the Messiah and his most devoted servants

Today, prior to the blessing of the elements of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, a hymn was sung, recalling the death of the Lord. Prior to that ancient event, hymns also were sung, likely songs of deliverance and praise to the God of Israel, the deliverer.

At some point during or following the meal Proper, Jesus “took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new [covenant] in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” (1 Corinthians 11:24–26)

Imagine with me how the disciples, hoping for some sort of triumphant victory in the coming days, would have received this message. After all, we, as the congregation receiving the elements stand today in their place.

But… Remember The Lord’s death? Broken body? Spilled blood?

Perhaps they recalled a particularly divisive message Jesus had delivered recently where Jesus had compared himself to the Manna – the Miracle Bread – that God had provided the Israelites in the wilderness during Moses’ leadership (see John 6). His own life, Jesus proclaimed, was a gift even greater than that announced by Moses. He was the Bread of Life, in Flesh and Blood, he proclaimed, sent down from Heaven from the Father. And while those who feasted on the manna of old were sustained for a time and then died, only those willing to feast on the living Banquet He was bringing to the Table should know and experience true everlasting life.

A promise of Abundant Life through the Savior was given. As the bread representing the body of the Lord was dispersed and received by each disciple present, what could they have been thinking?

What do you think about?

The Apostle Paul was not present at the meeting, but in time, he had come to intimately know those who were. Perhaps his message to the Corinthians Saints pondered the meaning of dispersing a symbol of the Lord’s one body among all the Disciples of Christ, dividing the body as it were. (see 1 Corinithans 12)

For as the body is one, “wrote Paul, “and hath many [parts, or] members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.”

Have you thought about the fact that when you refer to yourself as a ‘member’ of the Church, the word ‘member’ is in reference is to being, in essence, a body part?

Paul begins with the Unity of the actual Body of the Christ, which he then uses symbolically as a powerful image of the individuals that make up the Church. He then goes on to express the blessings and responsibilities that come as accepting our role as part of the unified Whole through Baptism, and as renewed and re-affirmed when we partake of the emblems of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper:

For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body… and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” For the body is not one member, but many.”

It ihands-making-a-circle-200ws a beautiful call to unity. I find this symbol added upon when you think of the symbol of the Resurrection – if the Resurrection is the corruptible body coming together and becoming perfected, think of how that might correspond to the imagery of each of us being considered one part of the symbolic Body of Christ.

Every time we meet together, work together, worship together, after being dispersed, it is a symbol of the parts coming together in Restoration and Resurrection.

I find in this a beautiful parallel to the pre-baptismal Covenant found administered by Alma in the Book of Mormon.

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, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God… that ye may have eternal life— 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, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?” (Mosiah 18:8–10)

Think about that willingness to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. This is a powerful charge and calling extended to all of those who desire to be united in the Church of Christ.

It is inspiring. If you can have but the desire to show love and kindness to another who is suffering, you have a place. This doesn’t require you to know the depths of what the suffering individual is going through, nor does it require you to try to convince them that you understand them. It is an invitation to emulate the savior, and recognize suffering.

In the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price, we have an account of the almighty God looking around and seeing suffering all aroujesusweepingnd – and what does he do? He weeps! It is shocking – and paradigm shattering – to the observant prophet Enoch that one as great and powerful as God can be affected by the sorrow and ills of mankind.

“Yet,” he says, with dawning understanding, “You are there.” (see Moses 7:28–33)

Sometimes, it is just being there that matters, and acknowledging to the suffering individual that things indeed are bad – but that you’re there if needed. We do not need to – and in most cases should not attempt to– try and craft a theological justification or explanation for the cause of someone’s pain [1].

To explain why something is not as bad as it may seem. Especially if it comes as a result of illness, natural disaster, or results of another’s poor or even wicked decisions. Making up a reason why you feel it’s okay that God allowed something terrible to happen is rarely comforting, and, while well intended, often can do more damage than healing. There also have been many cases where it has served more to comfort the person giving the explanation than the person actually suffering.

Just be available. Be there. Make your love known. Be willing to grieve even if no other type of service is desired or welcome. Although you may not feel you are actually doing anything, I promise you and give my witness that you are.

If you are willing – partakers of the emblems of the Lord’s Supper today have affirmed again today that they are – The Lord will find a use for you. He will find people and lives for you to bless, both within the Church, and without. Likewise, he is even now working with and preparing others to lift you, support you, to bless you, and to comfort you.

Nobody is useless in the Lord’s Church. Nobody is useless, period. No calling or responsibility enhances one’s standing in the Kingdom of God more than the expression of true charity to another. It is the most basic element of our baptismal covenant.

If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?” and in fact, Paul goes on to say, “Nay, much more those members of the body, which [may] seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we [may tend to] think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; … that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.”

Another way of saying this was famously and clearly articulated by the Book of Mormon’s King Benjamin, “And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” (Mosiah 2:17)

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When we partake of the emblems or symbols of the Lord’s Body in the Sacrament, we are renewing a pledge of allegiance to the Lord, and by extension, His people.

The disciples on the day these symbols were first extended to them were given a foretaste or vision of the Heavenly Victory Banquet, when it was promised they would unitedly dine with the King in his Kingdom at the Last Day (see Mark 14:25, Revelation 19:7–9). A great and beautiful Eternal Family Meal where all were welcome as Heirs and Children of the King. (see Luke 15:20–24)

Dark days would come before that vision was realized. Within a day, one of the Lord’s own servants had betrayed him, and Jesus of Nazareth was killed. A more devastating blow could not have come to Jesus’ disciples. It was if on the eve of the Exodus, Pharaoh had executed Moses. It was if the Priests of Baal had called down fire, and killed Elijah. Their David had just been speared by the Roman Goliath. It was a dark night of unmet expectations.

With Joy and Rejoicing we rightfully celebrate and remember the following Sunday, the day the reports came that the Stone in front of the Savior’s Tomb had been rolled away, the day when the news of the Resurrection of the Savior came to and inspired the Apostles. We rejoice in the spreading of this message of the new understanding of the Good News following the blessing of New Life. We smile in the story of the Two sorrowing disciples on the road to Emmaus who dined with the risen Lord, unawares, and only recognized Him as the bread was broken and blessed by him. (see Luke 24:13–32)

*

The participants of the First Sacrament Meeting were faithful individuals wracked by uneasiness, discomfort, doubt, and sorrow. And yet the Lord promised them a reunion, comfort, abundance, and peace as he gave them a charge.

Indeed, immediately following this event, Jesus let Peter know of the struggles that would yet be faced by him, even expressing that he knew that in the chaos to come, Peter would do the unthinkable, and even deny knowing the Lord. This is immediately followed up with – not condemnation – easter5but words of trust, hope, pre-emptive forgiveness, and peace.

“[Peter],” the Lord said, “[Even knowing that I know this, ] Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” (see John 13:37–38, 14:1-30 – it is best if we ignore the chapter division between Chapter 13 and 14 when we read! See note [2])

Brothers and Sisters, I believe this message to Peter sums up a key message we should take home with us as we partake of and participate in the Sacrament.

Those partaking of the first Sacrament were worried, hurting, and confused. The Lord let them know that, yes, final victory was further out than they had hoped, and difficult times would indeed still come ahead – but still, to remember this day.

Remember that even before the worst of the challenges manifested themselves, the Lord himself told them they would happen – but that he also promised ultimate victory. He affirmed that He loved them. That even though he knew they would make mistakes and at times lose sight of their faith, that he still loved them, would love them, and trusted them, and was even then preparing the way for their ultimate happiness, joy, and comfort… and that yes, they would indeed be reunited. And it would be joyous.

As much as many of us might wish that the end of sorrow and final victory over Evil would occur tomorrow, in all likelihood it will not.

For many of us, difficult times are ahead, in many different aspects of our lives. But the key message is to remember that the Lord is already ahead of us. That he knows we’re not perfect. That even though we may misstep and be the cause of some of our own sorrows, “Let not your heart be troubled.”

When we partake of the Sacrament and remember that night, we can feel, along with Peter, the assurance that the Lord is merciful and forgiving.

As we review and renew our standing covenant to lovingly remember and serve our Master, we can again have and be reminded of that assurance we have already been given that the Lord has already forgiven us, and we can be at peace when the hard times come. This ability to have this assurance and this peace is the heart of Atonement.

[1] Doctrine and Covenants 89:21 is often used as justification that God causes all things, and that he is offended when we fail to realize all this. It is important to note that the scripture does not equate God’s hand with God’s causing of the event. I see this as a call to recognize that in all that are occurring, his hand is there offering all the comfort he has to offer, and in many cases, is then prompting someone else to come bring their experiences to the table to help comfort. I see this as suggested that God is saddened and offended when people suggest that God does not care, and that he is not “there”.

[2] Thanks to Ardis E. Parshall for this beautiful perspective on this passage: http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2011/06/26/an-extraordinary-gospel-doctrine-moment/

REVIEW: War and Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives

REVIEW: War and Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives

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Title: “War & Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives”

Editors: Patrick Q. Mason, J. Davis Pulspher, Richard L. Bushman

Publisher: Greg Kofford Books

Year: 2012

Price: $29.95 (Paperback),  or in a two-part Kindle edition, priced at $9.95 each: Part 1, Part 2.

If you’re looking for a sign that Mormon Studies is not only maturing, but has significant practical, political and theological relevance, I’ve found your book.

If you’re looking for evidence that smart, faithful, and creative Latter-day Saints can express diverging perspectives on sensitive hot-button issues while refraining from creating straw-man caricatures of the opposing position, I’ve found your book.

If you’re new to Mormon Studies, and are looking for a helpful overview or sampler of different fields-within-the-field, whether it be history, Book of Mormon/Scriptural narrative deconstruction, theology, or simply personal lived experience narratives, (and more, in addition to combinations of the above), I’ve found your book.

*

From an LDS perspective, I see War & Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives as being an exemplar in constructing bridges between inhabitants of opposing schools of thought within the Wide World of Mormonism.

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New Youth Curriculum, and the Digital Facilitation of New Revelation

New Youth Curriculum, and the Digital Facilitation of New Revelation

 

[Cross posted over at Worlds Without End: A Mormon Studies Roundtable, a wonderful group blog where I have recently become a contributor]

joseph_phoneI have often considered the massive practical difficulties in regards to promulgation that would be involved if the Church today were to present a radical, paradigm-, policy- or doctrinal-shifting revelation, the likes of 1978’s Official Declaration 2. This difficulty can be seen on a smaller scale, with relatively minor decisions to subtly update the presentation of the modern scriptural canon and normative manuals, such as “Gospel Principles”.

For example, in the recent past, there have been some well-documented updates to some of the introductory material and chapter headers in the Book of Mormon. While some of these changes appeared in some printings of the Doubleday Mass Market edition of the Book of Mormon in 2007, the official church print editions as of yet remain unaltered.

However, these changes are to be found in the current official electronic text, found on lds.org, and all of the mobile apps, such as LDS Gospel Library. Which, at least in the wards I’ve attended in the United States, is becoming more and more the standard edition referenced in Church meetings.

This can create confusion. For example, during a recent Gospel Principles class, I was asked to read from the introduction to the Book of Mormon. I read aloud from my official Gospel Library app on my smartphone that the Lamanites  are “among the ancestors of the American Indians.

BM_Electronic

My wife nudged me, and pointed to her print edition, hinting that I left out the word “principal” as found in her newly purchased leather-bound mini quad.

BM_Print

Both are current and authorized editions of Church documents. While this example can validly be seen as a minor detail , it still raises the question of which is to be institutionally preferred? As far as I am aware, the changes to the explanatory introductory material, footnotes, and section headers [1] have never been officially announced or presented to Church members. My experience is that, five years after they have been altered, most Church members do not even know that these changes exist.

Similarly, while the publication and existence of the new 2010 edition of Gospel Principles was well known, no official attention was called to the individual changes in wording and emphasis, and what their significance may have been. When the new edition was first released in July 2009, I personally went line by line and documented each and every change, no matter how minor, and documented my discoveries on an LDS Message board. The reason and significance for individual changes was at times heatedly debated. [2] Since the manual’s implementation as an official replacement in 2010, I have seen teachers still content to use the old print edition, thinking any changes were only in form of format and shifting of some chapter orders. They had no significant reason to believe otherwise.

***

The coming of a new and completely revamped curriculum for youth has been rumored and whispered  about (and clamored for) throughout the web in the past year. Well, it’s finally here, and will most likely be announced and explained in this weekend’s General Conference.

While I’m sure there will be much more to be said about the new curriculum in the coming months before its implementation in January 2013, both by Church Leaders and throughout the bloggernacle, there is one key element about its presentation – and very existence – that I find fascinating, and worth exploring.

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REVIEW and MUSINGS – Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

REVIEW and MUSINGS – Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

Brigham-Young-Pioneer-Prophet-1John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet is an excellent book. An important book. And a deeply inconvenient book.

Brigham Young holds an interesting place in the lives of Latter-day Saints. At the same time we celebrate his leadership of the Twelve following Joseph’s death, his leading of the Exodus West, and the firm establishment of the building blocks undeniably leading to the longevity and survival of the Church, it is quite generally understood that, doctrinally, quotes by Brigham Young should often be taken ‘with a grain of salt’. That he was very opinionated, liked to speculate, and often was very confusing. Mixed with some wince-worthy quotes about race, and the role of Adam, this is generally all that most members know about Brigham Young. The larger than life epic high points make it easy to digest that he ‘said some weird things’, and then we move on.

John Turner’s biography does for Brigham Young what Richard Bushman did for Joseph Smith in his groundbreaking Rough Stone Rolling. Turner presents everything you’d heard about the Prophet, adds a lot more details you probably didn’t know, and nuances both with necessary context often removed from isolated antagonistic anecdotes or hagiographic prooftexts.

While I  completed the Joseph Smith volume with some new and surprising (to me) information, I also found stirred within myself a powerful and strong respect for Joseph as an individual. A new world  – a new paradigm – was opened up to me, and I began a roller-coaster journey of exploring the nature of scripture and revelation. The Joseph Smith papers has greatly helped flesh this out, as has additional volumes such as Staker’s Hearken O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations, and Sam Brown’s In Heaven As It Is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. These have broached very difficult questions concerning the nature of prophets, revelation, and scripture, and have been helpful friends on a journey of discovery, introspection, and a renewed – and in some ways readjusted – commitment to my Faith.

I expected the same sort of reaction while reading Turner’s Brigham Young book, but, initially, something else happened.

One of the review blurbs on the cover is this quote by Richard Bushman, which I think is a precisely accurate expression as to how I would explain this book:

“The story Turner tells in this elegantly written biography will startle and shock many readers. He reveals a Brigham Young more violent and coarse than the man Mormons have known. While lauding his achievements as pioneer, politician, and church leader, the book will require a reassessment of Brigham Young the man.”

Turner, who unlike Bushman is not LDS, is nevertheless extremely and somewhat surprisingly generous to Joseph, and to Brigham. I noted several occasions where my experience has shown that many other authors would have taken easy potshots, and illustrated less than generous conclusions. Turner is very quick to refer to other works of scholarship on more nuanced figures and persons and events rather than to make strong value judgments on his own.  (In the afterward, he thanks, among others, accomplished LDS scholars Jonathan Stapley and Sam Brown as being cultural guides of sorts. I’m familiar with their work, and their influence is very apparent in the text.)

It is Turner’s very clear generosity that makes many of the more uncomfortable and explicit aspects of Brigham Young’s life (foul language, politics, death threats, racial views, apparent apathy to murder) when presented, even more discomfiting than they may have been otherwise.

Brigham Young, by necessity, went beyond Joseph. Elements that Joseph only envisioned and began, Brigham brought to pass – Namely the in-the-open living of the concepts of Dynastic Family Chains, and a completely independent Kingdom of God in the West. Not only was Brigham a designated and authoritative spiritual guide, but he was also a temporal King in very deed. He had an earthly Kingdom he felt a duty and obligation to protect as his stewardship at all costs. In the context of frontier America, especially on the cusp of the Civil War, this was not an easy, nor a ‘clean’ job.

Turner did a fantastic job contextualizing – and to the degree possible, normalizing – the rough and tumble, harsh and bloody nature of the Antebellum West, and its related politics. Such a milieu can be extremely difficult for us 21st Century Americans to really and truly grasp. I’m still working at grasping it. It truly was a different world – and Brigham Young was not only a firm resident in this world, he was viewed as particularly radical within it.

If you’re seeking to ‘like’ Brigham more, I don’t think this book will be the best tool to accomplish that. As Bushman said, you will see a more violent, course, and angry individual than most have come to expect.

What I do think I beneficially gleamed is understanding. Understanding – it is important to stress – is very different than justification. Without feeling the need to support or condone all that Brigham did, I feel that perhaps I understand more clearly this powerful leader’s perspective, why he felt he needed to do and say the things he did, and perhaps see more clearly the goals he felt were the ends by which nearly all means were justified.

Brigham was fiercely loyal to his people, and to what he understood as his stewardship and responsibility for the survival of a literal and divinely appointed Kingdom of God. While we may find his broad ideals admirable, we can – and most, I believe, will – still find many aspects of his approaches to life’s challenges deeply troubling. And certainly not as things they could see being said and done by, for example, Thomas S. Monson.

As I neared the end of the book, what I found most fascinating was not the details of the life of Brigham himself, but what our reactions to him and his life reveal about our deeply held views of God’s personality and character. Many of the attributes we may find naturally repugnant in Brigham Young’s doings are attributes and actions that have traditionally been ascribed to God for millennia, and are found in our scriptures.

God, as presented throughout the scriptural records, was understood and presented as being willing to deceive (1 Kings 22:23), condoning extrajudicial killing and massacres (Numbers 31:17–18) , being inconsistent in his sometimes subjugating (see nearly all laws in Leviticus treating women as property)/sometimes exalting positions on women (see praise of Deborah, Esther), being discriminatory by lineage, employing fiery and harsh rhetoric (see Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), etc. These were popular divine attributes part and parcel of admitting the Ultimate Sovereignty of God.

An encounter with an undiluted Brigham Young is a powerful reality check for our understanding and approach to the scriptural records of God.

Joseph Smith took the once-upon-a-time nature and views of Ancient Prophets and Living Scripture, and demanded that we confront them and wrestle with them as a present and practical reality. I see Brigham Young doing much of the same for traditional – and scriptural – expressions of the deeds and sayings of God. If confronted with the Old Testament’s Yahweh in our present reality, as he was literally presented in that record – in broad strokes, would we see him as a Loving Fatherly King, or a Deviant Tyrant? Would we respect him out of love, or out of the Fear of Retribution? Just as there were some who saw God through both lenses, it is fascinating that the same can be applied to Brother Brigham. The relationship between the Saints and Brigham was just as complicated as the relationship between ancient Israel and their God.

To me, Brigham fulfilled his role as revelator, not in telling us about God, but by revealing how we all truly do feel about the actual ancient, traditional, scriptural expression of God.

While Jesus was sent as a presentation and revelation of the God Who Is, I suggest that Brigham presented a contrasting revelation of the God who the religious world actually claimed to love and worship and adore. While providing extraordinary, necessary, and perhaps miraculous temporal and practical services to the Church and its members, I find the strength in the broad strokes of Brigham’s spiritual ministry to be that he created a sharp contrast which made the ministry of Jesus shine even brighter. His life, most likely unknown to him, was a living parable. In a fascinating way, Brigham’s life and theology paved the way in later years for a strong and lasting reformation of the LDS relationship with and view of the attributes of God.

We can read the Old Testament and declare, authentically and rightfully,  “God did great and wonderful things,” note some inspiring tender moments, and still be incredibly disturbed at the implications of God’s nature based on his actions, leading it to be hard to love and have Faith in God as he is presented there. While I do believe in God, I believe that a progression of light and knowledge that has come into the world has revealed the inaccuracies, misunderstandings , and misrepresentations of key aspects of His personality and attributes as understood and expressed by the ancients.

I believe that Scriptures and Prophets are inconvenient by design. I believe what we learn from our interaction and confrontation with their lives and teachings is generally far more beneficial and conducive to growth and coming to know God than the correlated sum of their words and teachings alone.

The existence and daily lives of the first pair of true Modern Prophets – Joseph and Brigham – messily and inconveniently demand that we – Mormons as well as those who are not – confront and revisit our perceptions and paradigms of the Divine.

Book of Mormon, Joseph Spencer, and Collective Salvation

Book of Mormon, Joseph Spencer, and Collective Salvation

I think we’re finally being to see the fruits of what President Benson was really talking about, in regards to taking the Book of Mormon seriously.

On the heels of Brant Gardner’s Second Witness Book of Mormon Commentary Series, published by Kofford Books, and Grant Hardy’s groundbreaking Understanding the Book of Mormon, published by Oxford, the wonderful Salt Press just released an absolutely fantastic book, called “An Other Testament: On Typology”, by Joseph M. Spencer.

This book has already been reviewed magnificently by BHodges over at By Common Consent. I can only echo what he has said there.

The entire book is available for free as a PDF download here, but also as a hardbound purchase here. While I initially read this in its electronic edition, I’m going to want a hardbound edition for my library.

Before I express my thoughts, I want to reproduce most of the book’s Epilogue. If this doesn’t get you interested in reading the rest of the book to see how some of the assumed positions stated in this piece were argued, I’m not sure what will. Following this are some of my thoughts on one key aspect of its implications:

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Tithing, Malachi, Jesus, and the Book of Mormon

Tithing, Malachi, Jesus, and the Book of Mormon

colbert-christianity-atheism-novel-apologetics

I presented a form of the following as a Sacrament Meeting talk in our Stake this past Sunday, February 19, 2012. My assigned topic by our Stake President was Malachi 3:8–10.

Our Stake President has taught that it is regularly the case that the stories found in the scriptures can contain greater lessons when viewed as an illustrative whole, than when viewed as simply the sum of its individual quotes and verses.

In the spirit of this counsel by our Stake President, my message comes from exploring Malachi 3:8–10.

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Michael Heiser, Myth, and My Evolving Approaches to Study of Ancient Scripture

Michael Heiser, Myth, and My Evolving Approaches to Study of Ancient Scripture

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Recently, Michael Heiser placed online (temporarily) a first draft of his book, “The Myth That Is True”. Among Biblical Studies circles, Heiser is well known for his scholarship concerning the Divine Council in the Bible. He was made more well known in Mormon academic communities by his somewhat lengthy exchanges/debates with LDS Scholar David Bokovoy.

Having a bit of interest in the development and interconnection of OT theology, myth, and history, I excitedly placed the digital draft of Heiser’s book on my Kindle, and began to read.

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No, God didn’t give my wife Cancer.

No, God didn’t give my wife Cancer.

spockIn this past Sunday’s Gospel Doctrine lesson on the Johanine Epistles, there was a discussion about God’s love, and how we all should all be able to not just know about it, but truly feel it. It was suggested that one thing that can cause one to be unable to feel the full effects of that love is sinful behavior. A further conclusion was stated that if someone is unable to feel God’s love, they should take a look at their life, and find out what they need to repent of in order to get right with God.

I quickly voiced an, umm,  clarified perspective.

While it is true that there is sinful behavior that can perhaps dull one’s spiritual and emotional sensitivity, that should never be the first assumption one makes if someone shares that they are having difficulty feeling God’s love.

I have known individuals who have suffered from clinical depression. One of the effects of this can be the deep inability to feel  any pleasant emotion. Our class teacher was quick to acknowledge this, relating an example of  a family member who suffered depression who confided that while they knew intellectually at that time that they loved their children, they just couldn’t feel it at that time. That alone was devastating.

To tell someone who is already depressed that they are depressed and unfeeling because they are a sinner is horrible, destructive, and completely insulting not only to the suffering individual, but to God as well.

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Jesus’ First Vision

Jesus’ First Vision

jesus-baptismI want to begin this post by plugging the fantastic series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus by John Meier. In unexpected ways, it  has been a wonderful companion to my study of early LDS Church history. The series, written by a believing Catholic scholar, sets out to present all that is knowable about the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth from purely a scholastic perspective, a set of data that could be agreed upon by a theoretical ‘unpapal conclave’ made up of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Atheists, and others. It deeply analyzes the culture of the time, and asks many provocative questions I had not even considered asking.

The second volume in the series ( Volume 2: Mentor, Message, and Miracles) opens with an exploration of John the Baptist, and what we can understand concerning Jesus’ relationship to him. In the course of this, the question was raised as to why Jesus actually went to John to be baptized.

LDS generally have a quick answer to that question, an interpretation coming from the Book of Mormon’s  meditative take on the subject in 2 Nephi 31:6–8:

6 And now, I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfil all righteousness in being baptized by water?

7 Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments.

8 Wherefore, after he was baptized with water the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove.

This is generally simplified and summed up to express, “Jesus was baptized because baptism was a commandment, and he did it to set an example.”

The assumption generally comes that when Christ was baptized, and the sign of the dove appeared with the concurrent voice declaring his Sonship, that this was nothing new to Jesus, but was rather meant for the benefit of others.

While I had earlier been turned to think of this experience as being a first apocalyptic-esque vision experience for Jesus ( inspired by a reading of Margaret Barker’s The Revelation of Jesus Christ), Meir’s book substantially added to the power of this concept for me.

Meier asks about Jesus’ motivations for receiving John’s baptism, a baptism that was presented as a unique means of declaring one’s allegiance to God, and as a sign of protection and one’s freedom of sin, against the coming fiery Eschaton.

The question is first raised, “Was Jesus baptized by John because he was a sinner?” – it is immediately pointed out that, from a historical and scholastic perspective,  this is an impossible question. Since Sin is by definition that which is unpleasing to God and separates one from him, one cannot historically and scholastically determine if anyone has done anything that is ‘unpleasing to God and separates one from him’.

The relevant question, however, is, “”Was Jesus baptized because he thought he could have been a sinner?”

This question blew me away. I had never even considered it before.

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REVIEW: “The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon”, by Brant Gardner

REVIEW: “The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon”, by Brant Gardner

giftandpower

Title: "The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon”

Author: Brant Gardner

Publisher: Greg Kofford Books

Year: 2011

Price: $34.95 (Available at Amazon.com for 23.07),  or in a two-part Kindle edition, priced at $9.95 each: Part 1, Part 2.

There are three key things that, if a book or paper can accomplish at least one, will instantly endear a book  to my heart forever – completely aside from whether or not I agree with the author’s main or final conclusions:

  1. Cause me to reassess and legitimately question (or even change) a current firmly held position or belief.
  2. Cohesively articulate a concept I had already been independently working on, but in a manner far better and more comprehensive than I could possibly have done.
  3. Help me to re-evaluate my own life, and clarify my own understanding of my own personal lived experience.

As much as #1 and #2 seem to be of necessity mutually exclusive, Brant Gardner’s new book “The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon” , which I was grateful to receive as an Advanced Reading Copy from the publisher, happened to do both. And, perhaps more meaningful to me, also accomplished #3.

As a convert to the LDS Church in my early twenties, I have an interesting relationship with the Book of Mormon. Since my first encounter with the Book, as a skeptical and cynical critic, my opinions and theories pertaining to its origin have changed in dramatic ways.

I have run the gamut from viewing it as being a completely uninspired hoax, to being a literal word-for-word divine dictation, from expanded modernized interpretation of an ancient record to an inspired 19th century pseudepigraphon.

Following my first recognition of Something Good inherent in the Book, I have never since regarded the motivations and source of the text as anything but benevolent, and inspired in one way or another.

But everything around its production – especially the more I studied the historical background of Biblical texts, as well as the modern details of Joseph’s youth and the circumstances surrounding the production of the English text of the Book – kept me thinking, and puzzled, wondering how it all ‘worked’. What about the anachronisms? What about the language? What about the revisions?

While not answering every single possible question one might think of, Gardner, in this physically slim tome, still covers an unprecedented amount of material ranging all over the scope of Mormon Studies, even creeping into realms of cognitive science(!).

Gardner writes like a gifted diplomat. He finds value in nearly all that has been published on the subjects under discussion, believing apologist and unbelieving critic alike. You will find favorable use of the works of Dan Vogel and D. Michael Quinn right next to the findings of Richard Bushman, Royal Skousen and Blake Ostler. This book does not invalidate or denigrate any of their valuable work, but rather builds upon it, validating much of their efforts, and yet weaving it together in innovative and clarifying ways I didn’t think could be possible.

Many other prominent scholars who are not specifically writing on the texts of Mormonism are also utilized, and not simply as proof-texts to confirm an already decided point of view.

In fact, Gardner states several times throughout the book itself that what he found through the process of his writing of this book was not completely in tune to what he expected to find.

Make no mistake, the book is certainly written from a faithful perspective. That is, it begins with the assumption that the Book of Mormon is in fact a legitimate translation of an ancient record. The Book does not attempt to explain why he holds this conclusion – as much of that discussion can be found throughout Gardner’s master multi-volume Second Witness: An Analytical Commentary on the Book of Mormon.

This book focuses on not the “if” of it being a translation, but rather the “how”, or process of transmission.

The process by which Gardner presents his theory is a masterful layering of material, that at times may initially appear unrelated to the issue at hand. However, in the final chapter, every skillful layer is brought together in a way more impactful than I could have imagined it. The book is a journey – and it’s a fun one to travel though.

A key theme that gets hammered home pretty well in the early chapters is the importance of removing from our mindset a “religion vs. magic” dichotomy.

The history – and importance – of the exploring the so-called“Magic World View” of Mormon origins is given an important contextualizing survey, from Mark Hoffman to Quinn to the review of Quinn by Stephen Ricks and Daniel C. Peterson, to Dan Vogel.  This is not just some attempt to “normalize” or “inoculate” against the strange view of Joseph Smith the scryer sitting with his head in a hat staring into a seer stone.

While at times presenting repetitive themes that are then seemingly tossed aside, the concept Gardner hammers home – about those actions which we might classify as “magic” being in many cases simply  primitive attempts to scientifically explain otherwise unexplainable actual lived and observed results and experiences -  is in fact an essential part of understanding Gardner’s closing argument.

Now… what exactly is Gardner’s ultimate theory or argument?

There’s a reason Gardner presented it all in a full-length book. I find it extremely difficult to do it justice here.

But to put it very briefly, Gardner argues that the meaning of the content of the historic Book of Mormon was, for all intents and purposes, ‘deposited’ or revealed as pre-language ‘mentalese’, or the brain’s native Language of Thought, which Joseph’s brain was then able to ‘translate’ or work out into his own written and spoken language.

He argues that some of the way this was manifest to Joseph’s consciousness was through his eidetic memory, the scientific term for the documented means of visually recalling information and memories. It was not a matter of Joseph seeing with his eyes, but seeing with his brain – like we all do when we dream. And, technically, how we see in general. The eyes provide information, the brain interprets that information – and sometimes plays tricks on us, and adds its own ideas – and creatively removes other actual data. The interpretation of the light images by the brain is really what we see with. In this case, Joseph’s brain was getting images from the Divine Deposit – not his eyes, and not a random dream.

The seer stone was simply a dark object used as a focusing device, which Joseph had been comfortable using during his youthful time as a scryer, or seer – it was his own way of understanding and describing and projecting his eidetic experiences. Gardner explains in modern scientific terms what Joseph understood with a “folk” explanation, that we today generally write off as “magic”.

So yes, Gardner explains, Joseph did translate, but he wasn’t translating directly from Reformed Egyptian, or even use the plates at all. He was translating from the divinely deposited raw meaning of the text, and working it out into his own language.

Concepts were expressed as concepts, while maintaining structure. Names and proper nouns were transmitted the same way our brains record them – as specific literal data, and not simply as a ‘meaning’. While this sacrifices some of the popular attempts and needs of some to classify certain terms and phases as Hebraisms, it still does quite strongly allow for ancient structural and poetic patterns to come through, although not always perfectly.

This is admittedly just a very crude summation of the ideas expressed in the book, and I almost feel I need to apologize for it. It doesn’t do this work justice by far.

Yet these observations not only potentially explain in a very cohesive and coherent way the process of revelation for the Book of Mormon that accounts for many of the idiosyncrasies of the text, but also has implications for all Revelations – especially when taking into consideration Joseph’s tendency to revise them, and understand them better as time went on.

In fact, at risk of sounding hyperbolic, I like to refer to it as Gardner’s Grand Unifying Theory of Revelation.

If the initial Revelation was in and of itself a physical experiential deposit in Joseph’s brain/memory, as he gained more understanding, returning to that Deposit would allow greater understanding and meaning and significance to that event. He would have had a wider vocabulary and context with which to express that embedded Experience.

It has particularly interesting implications for Joseph’s adapting understanding and expressions of the First Vision experience, as well as other Divine Manifestations, including, as I see it, the experiences of commissioning to what was later understood as the reception of Priesthood Authority.

On a far more personal note, it also has some fascinating explanatory implication – and resonates quite eerily – with my early experience I wrote about previously , where, as a young teenager, before having learned anything about Mormonism,  I somehow worked out the story of the Restoration (along with VERY similar significant pronouns) in the context of exploring thoughts and concepts that came to my mind as a result of pondering relevant concepts and questions.

When all is said and done, I see this as one of the most important and groundbreaking books to come out in the field of Mormon Studies, at a time where there are many important and groundbreaking books coming out in this very rich and expanding field.

Do not miss this one.

Available at Amazon.com in hardcopy for $23.07, or in a two-part Kindle edition, priced at $9.95 each: Part 1, Part 2.