Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Hugo and I attended an Ash Wednesday service this evening to receive the imposition of ashes. It marks the beginning of my preparation for Easter. The priest's sermon had a quite vivid bit near the beginning about how our bodies, and our possessions, and our political world, and everything that now seems so significant to us will eventually end and pass away. From there she worked her way over to Isaiah 58, about the fast the Lord asks of us being to deal our bread to the hungry, etc. Afterward, as he did last year, Hugo took ashes over to our Mexican barber, who may have to move away soon because of the economic crisis. Not to get literal about things, but we also took him a loaf of French bread—we'd bought two for the price of one at the grocery store on the way home.

I've chosen two Lenten disciplines. One is to spend the first 5 minutes of every day with God, even before walking the dog, which is normally the first chore demanding my attention. The second is not to allow myself to throw angry thoughts at people inside my head. I adopted a similar discipline for Advent a few years back—there's a recurring need for it.

Tangential association: Our lives have felt a little bit monastic or Lenten lately by force of circumstance. Because of a complicated water heater failure, we haven't had hot water for a couple days now, and there's no telling when it'll be back. We've been bathing with buckets and stove-heated water. It reminds me of my mission, except Februraries didn't get as frigid in the Dominican Republic. If I weren't so First-World pampered, I really ought to be bathing that way routinely—it saves a lot of water.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Litany for priesthood restoration

Lesson 8 in the D&C/Church history curriculum focuses on the restoration of the priesthood. That doctrine, it seems to me, is the core of LDS orthodoxy. Even historicity, which is what I would most readily cite as the sin qua non of LDS orthodoxy, is important because it undergirds the orthodox claim that the LDS Church hierarchy possesses sole authority to administer saving ordinances.

As a liberal, I don't believe that. Religion is not centrally about authority for me—it's about revelation and mission and grace and the enacting of love. Not authority. I believe that Latter-day Saints are a people commissioned and empowered to do God's work in the world. I don't feel a need to assert that our commission and power are exclusive.

So what do the narratives of priesthood restoration mean to me?

According to LDS tradition, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had visions in which ancient prophets and apostles visited them and conferred upon them various priesthoods or priesthood keys: the Aaronic priesthood, the Melchizedek priesthood, the keys administered in the Kirtland Temple. D&C 128 refers in passing to some other angelic visitations as well, for which we don't actually have narratives—visions of Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and "divers angels" (128:21).

Revisionist historians have argued that Joseph and Oliver's accounts of the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood were fabrications, basically, created a couple years after the fact to bolster their authority within the flegdling LDS community. I'm at least open to that argument. But it doesn't alter for me what fundamentally matters about the narratives: Latter-day Saints have a tradition of looking to these visions of priesthood restoration to tell us what our community's God-given mission is. And I believe that through those narratives, God does in fact communicate to us, giving us a commission and promising to endow us with the spiritual power to carry it out. That conviction is part of my testimony.

Reflecting my “High Church” liturgical tastes, I’ve put together a litany (i.e., a prayer in call-and-response form) that reflects my meditation on God’s commission to the Latter-day Saints as conveyed through scriptures referring to the restoration of ancient priesthood keys. The litany weaves together language from various passages of scripture, but the texts that are most central to this meditation are D&C 13:1; 27:12-13; 110:11-16; and 128:20-22. I'm posting it in the hope that someday, somewhere, there might be a liberal Mormon spiritual community that, whether they worship in this liturgical style or not, will hear in the litany an expression, or at least an approximation, of their faith commitments and prayerful aspirations.


Rock of ages,
you are the same yesterday, today, and forever,
and your course is one eternal round.

God of our forebears,
you call us to your work in this age and generation
as in generations of old.

By a vision of your messenger John the Baptist,
you have commissioned us to proclaim the gospel of repentance
and to make disciples of your Son by baptism.

Endow us with power from on high
that we may perform your work on earth.

By a vision of the apostles Peter, James, and John,
you have commissioned us to bear witness of the risen Christ,
to continue his work and build up his kingdom.

Endow us with power from on high
that we may perform your work on earth.

By a vision of your servant Moses,
you have commissioned us to bring together, from out of every nation,
a people made one in heart and mind.

Endow us with power from on high
that we may perform your work on earth.

By a dispensation of the gospel of Abraham,
you have commissioned us to minister blessings
to all the families of the earth.

Endow us with power from on high
that we may perform your work on earth.

By a vision of Elijah the prophet,
you have commissioned us to unite generations,
turning the hearts of parents to children, and children to parents.

Endow us with power from on high
that we may perform your work on earth.

By visions of Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and diverse angels,
you have shown us that the powers of heaven support us in your work;
you console us and confirm our hope in what is to come.

All-powerful God,
give us courage and strength to press forward in your cause
until we have finished the work you have appointed us.

In Christ’s name, amen.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

First principles of the gospel

This week I did the readings for lesson 7 in the D&C/Church History curriculum, which is dedicated to the theme, "The First Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel." The phrase, of course, refers to the Fourth Article of Faith, which lists the first principles and ordinances as faith, repentance, baptism, and laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

I got to thinking this week about what it means to call those the "first" principles and ordinances. Generally speaking, I sense that Latter-day Saints today understand them to be "first" chronologically, i.e., they're the initiatory ordinances of the gospel (in a literal sense, not the temple sense), the first steps into Christian life. I remember using a visual aid to that effect during a presentation at a baptismal service when I was a missionary, with the first principles and ordinances represented as the first stages along a path that took us from our fallen state back toward the presence of God. (They were followed by a fifth stage, "endure to the end," which stood in generically for all the other ritual and moral requirements the Church has come to prescribe for exaltation.)

There's another way to read it, though. In calling these principles and ordinances "first," Joseph might conceivably have meant to say that they're preeminent, as when we speak of the "First Presidency" or when people speak of obedience as the "first law of heaven." He might, theoretically, have meant that these principles and ordinances are the core of the gospel—the heart from which everything else flows, the essence that everything boils down to.

My purpose in this post isn't to try to decide which reading Joseph had in mind when he wrote the Fourth Article of Faith. But this line of thought got me thinking about how I would articulate the "core" or "essence" of the gospel. What would I identify as its "first principles" in that sense? I can actually think of several different passages of scripture that could make a bid for articulating the first principles of the gospel. And sharing them will be my contribution to the blogosphere for today:
You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
(Matt. 22:37-39)

In all things do to others as you would want others to do to you;
this is the whole Torah and the Prophets.
(Matt. 7:12)

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justly,
and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8; compare D&C 11:12)

I was hungry, and you fed me;
I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.
I was a stranger, and you welcomed me;
naked, and you clothed me.
I was ill, and you took care of me;
in prison, and you came to me.
Every time you did this for the least of my sisters or brothers,
you did it for me.
(Matt. 25:35-36, 40)

There are, in the end, three things that last:
faith, hope, and charity.
But the greatest of these is charity.
(1 Cor. 13:13)

This is my gospel—
the works you have seen me do,
you shall also do.
Therefore, what kind of people should you be?
Even as I am.
(3 Ne. 27:21, 27)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

D&C 6, 8, 11 on personal revelation

To get caught up with the Sunday School curriculum, I'm collapsing the readings for lessons 5 and 6, which are both on the subject of personal revelation. Here's a collection of some of my favorite passages on that subject from the assigned chapters.
If you will inquire,
you will know mysteries that are great and marvelous;
therefore you will exercise your gift . . . ,
that you may bring many to the knowledge of the truth—
to convince them of the error of their ways.
(D&C 6:11)

You have inquired of me,
and see, as often as you have inquired
you have received instruction of my Spirit.
If it had not been so,
you would not have come to the place
where you are at this time.
(D&C 6:14)

You have inquired of me,
and I did enlighten your mind;
and now I tell you these things that you may know
that you have been enlightened by the Spirit of truth.
(D&C 6:15)

Cast your mind upon the night
when you cried out to me in your heart,
that you might know concerning the truth of these things.
Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter?
What greater witness can you have than from God?
(D&C 6:22-23)

I will tell you in your mind and in your heart,
by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you . . .
This is the spirit of revelation.
(D&C 8:2-3)

Put your trust in that Spirit which leads to do good—
to do justly,
to walk humbly,
to judge righteously.
This is my Spirit . . . ,
which will enlighten your mind;
which will fill your soul with joy.
(D&C 11:12-13)

I've received personal revelation in various ways over the years:
  • as an inflowing of ideas while writing out a reflection or lesson plan.
  • as an out-of-the-blue flash of inspiration about what I should say in the middle of a conversation.
  • as an unexpected, insistent, mounting feeling that I needed to speak up or do something, like stand up in testimony meeting or intervene in a tense situation.
  • as a sudden, cathartic "breakthrough," where in the middle of a crisis, I'm siezed by a feeling of calm or release, and it becomes dramatically clear to me what I need to do.
  • as a quiet, even tentative, sense of "Yes, I think X is the better option" in response to prayer for direction.
  • as a gut reaction to something someone else has said: "Yes, of course," or "I absolutely do not believe that."
  • as a feeling of certainty or confidence that builds gradually over the long term as I pray regularly for guidance while studying something out.
  • as a retrospective realization that decisions I've made—decisions which I may later have regretted—have actually led me to good I hadn't expected, giving me the feeling of having been led along in ways I did not recognize at the time.
Of course, sometimes I've had feelings or promptings that I thought at the time were revelation but that in retrospect I've decided weren't really, based on the fact that they resulted in unhappy outcomes. That's the nature of personal revelation. It's always a gamble; a leap of faith; an act of trust in what you believe is the Spirit, combined with the humility of realizing that you may mistake your own fears or desires or limited understanding or wishful thinking for revelation. Living by personal revelation requires a spirit of ongoing discernment, a willingness to be corrected and change course.


In my head, I'm hearing the voice of a skeptic friend, a former Mormon now turned what he would call "humanist" and I would call "positivist." In my mind's eye, he looks over what I've just written, shoots me an "I see through you" look, and says: "So basically, when you have ideas or feelings that seem to have good results, you say those were revelations from God; and when you have ideas or feelings that don't produce good results, you say that you mistook them for revelations from God." And in my mind's eye, I respond by putting on a look of calculated innocence and intoning, "My friend, thou art not far from the kingdom."

In a modern age, religious faith requires chutzpah, which fortunately, I do not lack. They who have ears to ear, let them hear.
Do not say that the Spirit does not really give people revelations. People who say this cannot receive my blessings.   (Easy-to-Read D&C 11:25)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Snowfall and prayer for a neighbor

Earlier tonight as I was walking the dog, it was snowing—soft, giant flakes like feathers falling thick through the air. When you stood under a lightpost, it was like being inside a snow globe. I haven't seen—or, the greater pleasure, walked under—snow like that in years.

Within just a few minutes, it thinned out, like gruel, and the magic was past.
Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of wonders;
you send forth the snows from their treasuries.
Hugo and I went tonight to get our hair cut, as we do every couple of months, at the home of a gay Mexican we know. Normally, there are a few other people waiting, but tonight there was no one else until we were just about to leave, when two young men showed up. The barber explained that business has dropped off because of the economic crisis, which is hitting undocumented Latinos hard. He's thinking he may have to move. Hugo told him we would miss him if it came to that.

As we were walking home, Hugo repeated to me something the barber had told him that struck him. Hugo had asked if it snows in his hometown in Mexico, and the barber said no. "The snow is beautiful," he said, "but we pay a high price to see it."
Blessed are you, Lord God, Father of mercies;
you hold the poor in your hands.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Celebrating the Book of Mormon

The theme of my D&C readings this week was the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. As I reflected on them, I got to thinking: Although it became conventional in the 20th century to start the story of the Restoration with the First Vision, the production of the Book of Mormon is really the founding event of Mormonism, because it's the event around which the first Mormon faith community formed. So what would it look like if Mormons began to annually celebrate that event, the way Christians celebrate foundational events like the Incarnation (Christmas), the Passion and Resurrection (Holy Week and Easter), or the outpouring of the Spirit on the infant church (Pentecost)?

The stories and symbols that have come to be associated with Christmas and Easter have powerful, iconic, mythic resonances: The search for an empty inn, the baby in the manger, the angel appearing to the shepherds, the Magi following a star. The last supper, the washing of feet, the night watch in the garden, the road to Calvary, the empty tomb. Does the story of Moroni's appearances, the unearthing of the golden plates, the miraculous translation—does that story have the same kind of iconic staying power? Could it sustain the kind of devotional reflection and personal/symbolic application and ritual reenactment that the stories around Christmas and Easter do? Could people develop the same kind of intimate, sentimental attachment to this story that people have for the Christmas and Easter stories? Could it sustain the production of local pageants and processions and special family customs and traditional decorations and carols and oratorios and greeting cards, such as have emerged over generations around Christmas and Easter? Christmas and Easter are powerful in part because in the Northern hemisphere they developed seasonal associations: the light in the darkness of mid-winter, the coming of spring. What seasonal associations might develop around an annual celebration that remembers Moroni's appearance on the occasion of the autumn equinox—which in the Southern hemisphere would be the coming of spring?

It seems to me that the closest we have to any of what I'm imagining is the Hill Cumorah pageant, but that isn't a locally reenacted event (not like a ward Christmas pageant, or live Nativity scene, or Passion play, or sunrise service), and it isn't a celebration of a particular date.

I'd like to think that the "Moroni story" (let's call it that for shorthand) has iconic staying power. The unearthing of a lost record. Truth from the earth. A voice from the dust. A message from heaven. The beginning of a marvelous work. A sign of the fulfillment of God's promises. I think, in fact, that Tony Kushner's adaptation of the story in Angels in America demonstrates its iconic staying power, though I'm also sure that most Mormons don't particularly appreciate what he did with the story. But in Kushner's hands, at least, the story has deep emotional, symbolic resonance—the kind of resonance that, in another context, makes people want to set up a Nativity scene year after year and sing "Silent Night" by candlelight. That kind of emotional, symbolic force is largely, perhaps entirely, dissipated when the Moroni story is presented as "evidence" of the prophetic authority of Joseph Smith and the LDS Church (the way the current missionary discussions do) or when intellectuals get bogged down in debates about the story's historicity.

I hope—and I mean that word in a rather fervent sense—that as Mormonism continues to grow internationally, you'll see the emergence of local and regional customs celebrating foundational events like Moroni's story in ways that reflect cultural diversity and grassroots-level devotion. The centralized mechanisms of correlation can't produce that kind of thing. Only the Spirit blowing where it will.


End of soapbox. To finish this week's post, let me transcribe some notes I jotted down during the week's reading—a list of passages that speak of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in terms of themes that express what the Book of Mormon and the Moroni story mean to me.

JS-H 1:39 - The Book of Mormon plants in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers. It teaches us to look to tradition—but also to translate past tradition into the idiom of our own day.

D&C 3:3 - The coming forth of the Book of Mormon is a sign that God's work is not frustrated.

D&C 3:19 - The Book of Mormon comes forth so that the promises of the Lord to his people can be fulfilled.

D&C 5:9 - The Book of Mormon comes forth for certain purposes that will only be made known to future generations.

D&C 5:19-20 - The Book of Mormon comes forth as part of a revelation trying to warn the human family against self-destruction.

D&C 10:48-49 - The Book of Mormon is an instrument for preaching Christ's good news.

D&C 10:52 - The Book of Mormon comes forth not to destroy what people already have, but to build it up.

D&C 10:59-61 - The Book of Mormon teaches us that people we might not have thought of as belonging to God's fold, do; God has been working among them in ways we did not know about.

D&C 10:63, 65 - The Book of Mormon is meant to be an instrument for reducing contention, for bringing people together.

D&C 17:4, 9 - The Book of Mormon comes forth to bring about God's righteous purposes for the human family.

D&C 84:57 - The Book of Mormon teaches us to bring forth fruits meet for God's kingdom.

D&C 84:61 - We should bear testimony of what has been communicated to us through the Book of Mormon.

D&C 128:19-21 - The Book of Mormon's coming forth is a voice of gladness from Cumorah: God reigns! The prophets' visions will be fulfilled! Angels provide consolation and confirm our hope.