Sunday, September 28, 2008

3 Nephi 17-19

At the beginning of chapter 17, Jesus tells the people that it's time for him to leave them: "my time is at hand" (17:1). But then he looks around, and he sees that "they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them" (v.5). Then his own "bowels are filled with compassion" (v. 6)—which I take to mean that he was seized with a visceral love for them (a feeling I first experienced, apart from my childhood feelings for my parents, as a missionary). And so he changes his plans, postpones his departure, stays a while longer. He wants to be with them, just as they want to be with him. They desire each other's company. They like each other, which is actually a horribly understated way to put it but has the virtue of being very concrete. "Christ loves us" is a facile thing to say, and it's said so often that it can easily become bereft of any real emotional texture. It's quite a different matter to say: Christ likes being with us so much that when it was time for him to leave, he stopped at the door and turned around and said, "Oh what the hey, the Father and the lost tribes can wait! I'm staying a little longer!"

And then it turns out that the people Jesus is most interested in spending more time with are the sick, the disabled, and the children—which is to say, the people who are most likely to be on the margins. As I write that sentence, I suddenly have the uncomfortable awareness that one could this read as being like a politician's photo-op: okay, Senator, let's put in an appearance in the cancer ward; let's go kiss some babies. But of course, I assume that what I'm meant to take from this is that Jesus reaches out to the sick and the disabled and the children because he wants to be with them; he likes being with them; he enjoys their company as much as anyone else's. By contrast, I'm don't particularly look forward to being with sick or disabled people (it's awkward) nor with children (they're trying). I can do it—I've been a medical interpreter; I have disabled relatives; I've been told I'm actually pretty good with kids. But my bowels are not filled with the kind of compassion that would make me want to be in the company of a sick person, a disabled person, or a child so much that I would turn around at the door as I was about to leave and say, "Oh what the hey, I'm going to stay a little longer!" It hasn't happened yet, anyway.

Well... wait. I feel like I'm being too flippantly self-deprecating here. Okay. I feel moved to say the following. And let me preface it quickly by saying that this is not where I planned to go with today's reflection: I thought this post was going to be more theologically minded, a reflection on the sacrament and prayer as ways that Jesus manages to go on being with us and ways that we reach out to be with him. But let me follow instead where the Spirit seems to be wanting to take me.

It's not true that I haven't been in situations where I reached out in compassion to someone who was sick. Example: I was once on the phone with someone who had recently been diagnosed with cancer (I don't remember now if I knew that when I was talking with this person, or if I found that out later). And as we were talking about something else entirely—I did not really know this person, we had never met before this phone call, the call was workerly in nature—he suddenly started to cry. And my first impulse was to pull back from this unexpectedness rawness—not that I would have hung up the phone or anything, but I guess my first impulse would be to pretend that this wasn't happening, don't embarrass him, don't call attention to the fact he's crying, don't ask about it, don't pry, I'm not sure I really want to hear it anyway; let him pull himself together, and then move on with our conversation like it hadn't happened.

Fortunately—here's the intervention of grace—I didn't do that. Instead I waited—which I guess sounds like what I said had been my first impulse ("don't say anything"), except that I wasn't pulling back. Literally, the opposite: my mental disposition was that of leaning forward, being open to whatever he might want to say. And then I don't remember exactly what happened. He pulled himself together. I asked him if he was all right—trying to make it clear from my voice that I wasn't saying it in a "You're all right now? So we can move on then?" kind of way, but that I was open to listening to whatever he might want to say. Which turned out not to be much; he wasn't interested in pouring himself out. But that moment passed, and we finished our business, and that was that. Without embarrassment.

I've been in similar situations where someone did start pouring out in a way I hadn't really expected—or that I had expected might happen but knew I was going to find uncomfortable. And I'm grateful for the occasions when I've felt that I received the grace to be more open than is my nature. More present. Listening. Trying to share someone else's burden, I guess would be the "Mosiah 18" way to put it. Now that I've followed the Spirit this far and said all this, I'm feeling very embarrassed about what a ridiculously small grace this is. Ooh, I was able to be a listening ear for someone. Wow. What a burden I took on. I mean, it's not like I've ever taken on long-term responsibility for caring for someone who was sick or disabled. But for what it's worth, there's my little testimony of Christ working in me to reach out to people who are sick or grieving. Small and simple things, right? I'm going to have to trust the Spirit that my having written these words will do good for somebody.



I'm feeling a little humiliated right now, I have to tell you.
Perhaps that was what you had in mind. If so, that's fair.

I know I'm not a compassionate person.
In fact, let's be honest: as I was reading 3 Nephi 17-19 and thinking about how those chapters provide concrete images of your love, I was thinking about that basically in terms of your love for me. Which was a selfish way to read.
Not that that will come as any surprise to you, of course.

I'd like to be more compassionate.
I'd like to be more other-oriented, less stupidly self-absorbed.
I'd like to be more like the way you're described in the chapters I read for today.

That's what I'll be praying for when I take the sacrament today.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Wrestling with the Book of Mormon

Today (September 21) is the anniversary of Joseph Smith's first visions of the angel Moroni, according to the dating given in JS-H 1:27. And as it happens, my reading for today was 3 Nephi 12-15, which consists chiefly of the Book of Mormon's version of the Sermon on the Mount. That coincidence prompts me to reflect on the centrality of the Sermon on the Mount to the Book of Mormon—i.e., the sermon is delivered as part of the christophany that, as I noted last week, constitutes the book's climax—which in turn has me thinking about the Book of Mormon as an "evangelical" document, i.e., as a text that aims to promote Christian revival and that invites us to understand Mormonism as an extended meditation on biblical teachings. So while I've filled the margins of 3 Nephi 12-15 with notes, let me pull back from all that, at least for a bit, and explore the preceding statement more, as a way of reflecting on the Book of Mormon's significance in my life on the occasion of its anniversary.

What does the Book of Mormon mean to me? My relationship with the book is complicated, like my relationship with the LDS tradition generally. I've noticed that the general trend of my reading this year (as reflected in my blogging) has been to read the book resistingly. ("Wrestling" with the text, according to one respondent's post.) Four years ago, the last time I was studying the Book of Mormon along with the Sunday School curriculum, my reading was more focused on reclaiming the book. In other words, four years ago, I tended to focus more on what comes after the "but" in the statement "The Book of Mormon conveys messages I definitely don't believe in, but I also definitely believe that the Spirit teaches me through this book." This year, probably because as I'm blogging I'm trying to offer decidedly liberal reflections on the scriptures and therefore want to make clear where I differ from more orthodox readings, I've found myself underscoring the part before the "but," though I always try to end on what I feel the Spirit is teaching me.

But I do need to make clear that for all my wrestling with the text, I do embrace this text as scripture. Four years ago, as I was reading 1 Nephi 11, I was struck with the idea that the Book of Mormon is a tangible sign of God's love, and for a while that sense prompted me to adopt the custom of kissing the book (a gesture of piety I borrowed from Jewish practice). Four years later, I found myself summing up my feelings about the Book of Mormon last month during a conversation at Sunstone by saying that my reading this year had left me vividly aware of how puerile the Book of Mormon can be, but the mystery of God's grace is that the book is nevertheless an important channel through which I communicate with the Spirit of truth, the Comforter, whom Christ sends to teach us all things.

I fell in love with the Book of Mormon on my mission (as I was supposed to). There were occasions when I would come home after a particular trying incident and the mere act of opening the book would give me a sense of peace. I was frequently copying out verses that spoke to the situation I found myself in right then and taping them to my wall—verses that gave me ideas about how to help investigators, or that inspired me to stay motivated and optimistic and consecrated. I could talk about my love for each of the other standard works, too, but the mission was where the Book of Mormon really began to speak to me—more precisely, when the Spirit began to speak to me through the Book of Mormon—in a powerful way. My engagement with the book hasn't been so powerful since my mission. Partly, I suspect, that's because I'm no longer immersed in the spiritual intensity of mission life. Partly it's because my post-mission liberalization has made it harder work, frankly, to read the book in spiritually meaningful ways, since my reading is a constant act of wresting the book away from the orthodox, who have become adamant in the past few decades that they have sole proprietary rights. And it occurs to me that my relationship with the Book of Mormon may have lost its initial intensity in the same way that the initial excitement dies down as a romance settles into a marriage.

What about that idea I said I wanted to explore of the Book of Mormon as an "evangelical" document? The book is a product of the very early LDS tradition—the first stratum, we could say, in our faith's geologic or archaeological record. Mormonism was still very . . . Methodist, let's say. New Light revivalist. Puritan in certain key ways. Millennialist. Primitivist. The tradition hadn't yet developed in the more radical directions it would take in Nauvoo and pioneer Utah, though you can see the seeds of those developments here. What all this means, practically, is that when I read the Book of Mormon, I'm engaging with a text that's calling me to Christian essentials: conversion and a life of holiness. This is why the Book of Mormon became so important to LDS spirituality during the 1980s as part of the cultivation of an overtly Christ-centered Mormon ethos. Christlike living—that's what the Book of Mormon boils down to, and so it's a particularly effective instrument through which the Spirit calls me to take stock of my Christian discipleship.

At the same time, the Book of Mormon embodies the Mormon faith in continuing revelation, which is key to my spirituality as a liberal. And here's where I can orbit more tightly around the reading for today. The Book of Mormon is a reiteration of the gospel proclaimed in the Christian Bible, but it also seeks to provide new light, clarification, correction even, beyond the biblical text. 3 Nephi 12-15 illustrates that beautifully. These chapters revise the biblical text: some words or phrases are added, others are cut. The Book of Mormon updates the biblical text, as in 12:17-20, and it offers new interpretations of the text, as in 15:16-24. This is not a slavish reading of the Bible: the Book of Mormon is supposed to affirm biblical historicity, but it is at the same time far removed from the notions of biblical infallibility that would eventually become definitive for fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants. Joseph Smith is wrestling with the Bible—as I now wrestle with the Book of Mormon—and as time goes on, his wrestling leads him to new interpretations, new ideas, that take him farther afield from where he began, even as he retains important ties to where he started, until he's espousing religious beliefs and practices that evangelicals denounce as heresy.

I should perhaps clarify that I'm writing all this off the top of my head, as I go along. And I feel that as I've done so, the Spirit has guided me to a valuable insight. It's helped me connect with the book more deeply—to identify with the book more deeply. The Book of Mormon is an evangelical document that nevertheless wrestles with evangelicalism and thus represents the beginning of a process of continuing revelation that leads Mormonism to develop in decidedly un-evangelical directions. Plug in the word "orthodox" for "evangelical," and that statement works pretty well for describing my relationship with the Book of Mormon and LDS tradition more generally. I keep wrestling with this text, this keystone of Mormon orthodoxy, because it calls me to the fundamentals of Christian living that I and the orthodox ought to have in common while at the same time it serves as a sign and instrument of continuing revelation, creative re-interpretation, selective reading by the spirit of inspiration, progressive insight . . . all ultimately leading me away from orthodoxy.


God and Shepherd of all the earth—

I give you thanks for the gift of the Book of Mormon.
I give thanks for the many ways that your Spirit has comforted, guided, and inspired me through this book over the years.

I give thanks for continuing revelation as I have experienced it in my own life, my own spiritual journeying.
I give thanks for the openness to continuing revelation that has enabled Latter-day Saints to make healthy corrections and adaptations in the course of their history.
I pray that the Saints will not close themselves off to your voice when you try to reveal truths that are at odds with their current understanding.
I pray that for myself, too.

I pray that the Book of Mormon will be an instrument for inspiring Christlike living in those who read it.
I pray that it will be, as it promises, an instrument for confounding falsehood, laying down contention, and establishing peace.
I pray the book will be a sign of gathering and of your love for all people.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

3 Nephi 8-11

I feel moved to focus my reflection this week on chapters 8-10, and to leave aside chapter 11 this time around, though 11 is arguably the climax of the entire Book of Mormon. Instead I want to focus on the story leading up to that: the cataclysmic destruction that comes as the sign of Christ's death, and the three days of darkness that follow.

If you've read my reflection on Helaman 13-16, then you can probably guess how I felt about 3 Nephi 8-10, with its representation of God as destroyer. But let me skirt that stumbling block and approach the reading in a more teachable frame of mind. What does the Spirit have to teach me here?

Probably a FARMS paper, maybe even an Ensign article, has already been written on this subject; but during my reading of these chapters this time around, I realized for the first time that the story in 3 Nephi 8-10 reproduces on a social scale a pattern for conversion we've already seen enacted in other stories in the Book of Mormon on a personal scale. Think back to the conversion of Alma the Younger and the conversion of Lamoni. In both those stories, a sinner is smitten so that he falls into a death-like trance, which for Alma is also a hell-like state. (Arguably we're supposed to imagine something similar for Lamoni.) They're in this state for two days and two nights, and then on the third day they rise again, declaring that they have been saved. This trance-and-rebirth is clearly a type of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

3 Nephi 8-10 involves a similar typology. Sinners are smitten—which in this case means cities are destroyed and multitudes are killed. All this is supposed to be happening as a sign of Jesus' death—more or less coinciding with his death—so here the type actually meets the reality to which it points. (I say "more or less" because if you think about the chronology carefully, the three days of darkness can't exactly coincide with the time between Jesus' death and resurrection as narrated in the Gospels unless the "three days" are really one full day plus the afternoon of the day before, ending on the morning of the day after.) The survivors are plunged into a hell-like state in which they howl and bewail the sins that have led them to this doom. Then Christ speaks to them, offering them hope if they repent. And though we're not actually told that the people accept that offer, on the morning after the three days of darkness, the light returns, mourning turns into joy, and the people give "praise and thanksgiving to the Lord Jesus Christ, their Redeemer."

It's a charismatic nineteenth-century revival-type crisis conversion, like those of Alma the Younger and Lamoni, magnified to a society-wide scale.

What does the Spirit want me to take from this?

The story in 3 Nephi 8-10, like the conversion stories of Alma and Lamoni, links conversion typologically to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Shifting toward a Pauline mode of language: we enter the Christian life by participating in Christ's death and resurrection. We die with Christ, and then God raises us to new life with Christ. That's what baptism by immersion symbolizes. Pushing the imagery farther, into an even more mystical direction, it's one of the things the sacrament symbolizes. When I eat the broken bread that is, to my soul, Christ's broken body, and when I drink the wine/water that is, to my soul, Christ's blood shed for me, I am assimilating into myself Christ's suffering and death—I am making myself one with his suffering and death—and by so doing, I am participating in (partaking in!) the new life that comes from always having Christ's Spirit with me, living in me, so that I become part of Christ's living body on earth, carrying out his ministry until the end of the world.

Okay. Yeah. What else?

Let's look back at the text. Coming to Christ, coming into Christ, becoming one with Christ, partaking of Christ's death and resurrection means repenting—adopting a new way of life, committing to standards that demand change in my daily living. It means being healed (9:13)—that is, I suppose, recognizing that I am spiritually unwell, unhealthy, that I'm not functioning at my soul's full capacities, my capacities for Christlikeness; that I'm wounded, that I've been hurt. And Christ wants to work in me to remedy all that. Coming to Christ means becoming one of the "sons of God" (9:17)—that is, I stand in the same intimate relationship with God that Christ does as Son of God, with God in me and me in God (9:15). Coming to Christ means having a broken heart and a contrite spirit (9:20)—which has various meanings, but the one that stands out to me at the moment is that of being vulnerable and sharing others' sorrows.

This is all rather abstract: I'm not applying it yet to my life in a concrete way. But unfortunately, I have to move on to other tasks. I pray that these reflections will continue to work in my mind and heart.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

3 Nephi 1-7

Rather than a sustained reflection today, here are miscellaneous places in this week's readings where I sensed the Spirit was trying to say something to me.

1:13-14 - The nativity of Christ is a sign to the world that God will fulfill all the promises made through the prophets. Christ comes into the world to do the will of the Father and the Son—meaning, to do the will of God, and to do it in the flesh, in the material world.

This is one of the important themes of the Christmas story for me. By retelling and reenacting and reaffirming that story once a year, I reaffirm and strengthen my faith that God will fulfill the millennial promises conveyed through the visions of the prophets. Swords will be beaten into plowshares, exiles will be gathered, waste places will be rebuilt, government will be established that judges with equity for the poor, oppression will be done away, all will dwell in safety, the lion will lie down with the lamb, the desert will blossom like the rose, etc. And these things will happen as material realities—that is, as political, social, economic, cultural, and environmental transformations—not just as symbols for internal spiritual transformations or as promises for a world to come. The will of God will be done in this world, in the flesh.

But it starts small: that's also a message of the nativity story. It's not cataclysmic. It's not immediate. It's not what you expected. The sign that the promises are to be fulfilled is a baby lying in a manger because it was born to dislocated migrants who had nowhere to stay. But I should probably pick up the thread of that reflection in a few months.

3:16, 19; 6:20 - Nephi drops out of the story between chapter 1 and the last half of chapter 7. In their civil war against the rebel government of Giddianhi, the Nephites are led by two other prophets, Lachoneus (who is also governor) and Gidgiddoni (who is also the military commander). We're told in verse 19 that the Nephites' custom is to appoint as their military commander "someone who had the spirit of revelation and prophecy."

Because of the particular kind of Enlightenment political tradition I've been inculcated in, the mingling of religious and political/military authority being depicted here makes me very nervous. But what struck me about these passages was how prophetic authority was being clearly diffused beyond Nephi. There isn't anyone among the Nephites who functions as "the Prophet"—not even Nephi, evidently, though we're told he ministered with especially noteworthy power (7:15-19). I see that same message coming through in 6:20 as well: various individuals, we're told, are "inspired from heaven" and sent forth to preach. As always, my attention is drawn to passages that point to conceptions of prophesy other than the centralized prophetic hierarchy to which LDS ecclesiastical authorities have become wedded.

3:20-21 - The prophet Gidgiddoni forbids the Nephites to go up against their enemies. He insists that unless they wait for their enemies to strike first, God will not deliver them.

I referred to this passage in a speech I gave at a Salt Lake rally in 2003 voicing opposition to the then-immanent war in Iraq. I believed then, and I believe now, that the doctrine of a pre-emptive strike is an immoral one. A nation has a moral obligation to wait for its enemy to strike before it can possibly be justified in launching a military counteroffense. (I suppose I'm obliged to extend the principle to individuals as well, though I find that a bit harder to stomach, frankly; but that's a discussion for another day.) This verse, along with some others in LDS scripture, articulates a similar moral vision.

4:28-33 - We get this grusome object lesson of Zemnarihah being hung on a treetop and then the tree felled, with the people praying that God will similarly fell all their enemies—and then the people start singing God's praise and shouting hosanna, and crying with joy for God's having delivered them.

I'm sure that in similar circumstances I would feel similarly grateful—i.e., I would feel that the death of unprecedented numbers of people in battle (4:11) was God's delivering me and my people from our enemies. But even as I write that, I'm sensitive to the "ick" factor: I'm thinking of Mark Twain's story about the angel who comes down to tell the congregation what their prayer for success in war means for the other side. And I'd like to think that I would have the moral balance to be repelled by the overt violence involved in the people's celebration. This isn't purely hypothetical: my country's at war now, in a campaign that has combined the ubiquitous slogan "God bless America" with the torture of endlessly detained prisoners at Guantanamo.

5:13 - My mission president quoted this verse in the release letter he sent to my stake president when I returned home. "I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I have been called of him to declare his word among his people..." My mission president said I had become that kind of missionary.

When my stake president read that to me, I laughed nervously and said, "Is this a form letter?" "Oh no," the stake president said, very seriously. I was laughing nervously because my mission president's approbation made me feel flattered, and I felt guilty about feeling flattered; but at the same time, this stamp of approbation from my mission president (which I presume was routine for him, however sincere) meant a lot to me because I was always insecure about the acceptability of my service. So when I read that verse now, I feel a wave of nostalgia for my mission and the experience of full-time ministry; I feel gratitude for my mission president and his wife and their love; and I think that while they would no doubt feel disappointed at the way my life has unfolded in the years since then, I can still say that I aspire to be what this verse declares: a disciple of Christ, living out a call to declare his word among his people.