Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On Comfort, the Comforter, and Being Uncomfortable

Just before going to Gethsemane, the Lord Jesus Christ reminded his apostles of an uncomfortable truth that they had yet to fully understand and accept. “I go unto my Father” (John 14:12), he said, in one of many warnings that his mortal ministry was fast drawing to a close. But if his disciples were discomfited or shaken by this truth, the Savior offered a compensatory promise, reassuring the eleven, “I will not leave you comfortless” (John 14:18). That promise of comfort in an hour of need and of the Comforter, who “may abide with [us] for ever” is operative here and now, just as it was anciently, so that we never have to endure the olive press alone, as he did that night (John 14:16). 
            Whatever our trials and temptations, we have been assured that the Savior can and will succor the faithful. “Sometimes,” Elder Oaks recently taught, “His power heals an infirmity” or removes a stumbling block, “but the scriptures and our experiences teach that sometimes he succors or helps by giving us the strength or patience to endure our infirmities,” the strength to make stepping stones of our stumbling blocks.
Because we associate the word comfort with its cognate, comfortable, we may misunderstand the Christ’s promise of comfort and a Comforter as an assurance of ease or relaxation, but the English verb comfort means “to strengthen,” and strength is of little use to those reclining in the shade of life. The psalmist thanked God that “thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle” (Psalms 18:39), and the people of Nephi “did all labor, every man according to his strength” (Alma 1:26); strength is for labor and for battle as we serve under the “Sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2). We can do “all things through Christ which strengtheneth” us (Philippians 4:13), but receiving that strength may be discomfitting. The Savior’s promise to Moroni and its conditions apply in our lives as well: “if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27). With that increased capacity comes an expectation that we will do all things, that we will be perfect even as our Father in Heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Our God will never leave us comfortless—but his desire to stretch us “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13) also means that he will never leave us comfortable.
Neither the Christ nor his Comforter ever inspires or sanctions complacency; instead, it is Satan who seeks to make us comfortable in a mortal world increasingly at odds with the doctrines of the gospel. It is Satan who invites us to “Eat, drink, and be merry” (2 Nephi 28:7). It is Satan who would pacify our souls and “lull [us] away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well. . . . Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease Zion! Wo be unto him that crieth: All is well!” (2 Nephi 28:21, 24-25). Wo be unto those of us who are comfortable in our own righteousness. Wo be unto those of us who are comfortable watching degrading movies, listening to profane lyrics, or otherwise ignoring our covenants to always remember the Savior of the world and his selfless sacrifice on our behalf.
            The call to “deny [ourselves] of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross” is not an invitation conducive to comfortable living (3 Nephi 12:30). There was nothing comfortable about the Atonement, when the Savior of the world “fell on his face” in the dirt “and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). There was nothing comfortable about his interrogations before Caiaphas and Pilate, his scourgings, or his eventual crucifixion, when they nailed his body to the cross. There was nothing comfortable about his ministry, when he was “despised and rejected of men” and homeless (Isaiah 53:3); as he told his disciples, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). There was nothing comfortable about his work and grand sacrifice on our behalf, and so there can be nothing comfortable about our discipleship, as we accept our “holy calling” to minister “in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son” (Alma 13:5).
            The devil would lead us “by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth [us] with his strong cords forever” (2 Nephi 26:22). The Savior, by contrast, invites us to “Take my yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:29). Satan’s leadership is, at first, far more comfortable than the Savior’s; his flaxen cord is light and soft and loose. A wooden yoke, by contrast, is relatively weighty and awkward and inconvenient. But the key difference between these two alternatives is that Satan would precede us, sprinting out ahead until his slipknot around our necks is stranglingly tight, while the Savior offers to walk with us, bound to us by the yoke of consecration—both his consecrated service and our own—until we learn strength by his side. The Greek word paraklesis, which is often translated as comfort in our English Bibles, means “to call near, or to call beside,” and so being yoked beside the Savior is quite literally the very definition of comfort; he calls us near so that our fears might be quieted and our efforts magnified by his abundant grace.
            To comfort is to strengthen and console, but I love an alternate and now obscure definition of the word: to make fast, secure, or support. When John Wycliffe first translated the Bible into English, he drew on this definition of the word comfort in translating the forty-first chapter of Isaiah. There, the Savior comforts his people with these reassuring words that are the basis of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation”: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10). In Wycliffe’s translation of Isaiah, the Lord is like a carpenter who fastens the weak and the weary to his side: “He coumfortide hym with nailes that it shulde not be moued” (Wycliffe, Isaiah 41:7). That beautiful phrase, inviting each of us to be comforted with nails, is a reminder of the true source of all strength and consolation, a reminder that only in and through the Atonement can we forgive and be forgiven. Only in and through the Atonement can our salvation be secured, as the keys of his priesthood bind us back to God. Truly we are and ought to be comforted with nails, so that we will never be moved from our faith in God’s goodness, grace, and mercy.
            I also love the words of the twenty-third psalm, that teach us of Christ’s role as our Good Shepherd: “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” (23:4). Like the nails of his cross, his rod and his staff might comfort us, but their application is never comfortable. The crook of a shepherd’s staff is said to have been used to seize the legs ofsheep or goats when they ran away, keeping them with the flock. With the application of this comforting staff we sheep, like the Savior in Gethsemane, are likely to stumble and fall on our faces in the dirt. The “rod of his mouth” is used for reproof (Isaiah 11:4); “a rod is for the back” of children in need of chastening (Proverbs 10:13), for calling a wayward son or daughter to repentance in love (Proverbs 13:24). This chastening, like the crook of a shepherd’s staff, calls us nearer to the good shepherd and draws us to his side.
His rod and his staff comfort, but they are not comfortable. Being comforted with nails and glorying “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world,” will not be comfortable (Galatians 6:14). Taking on the Savior’s yoke will not be comfortable. Becoming perfect, even as our Heavenly Father is perfect, will not be comfortable.
Shortly before the conclusion of his mortal ministry, the Savior offered a final commandment to his disciples: “when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32). Prophets ancient and modern have taught this principle repeatedly: after we have received his comfort or strength, it is our covenantal duty to comfort and strengthen others. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that we worship “the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). When we make baptismal covenants, we promise “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” (Mosiah 18:8-9). Those responsibilities, to mourn, comfort, and witness, are interrelated. President Eyring recently taught, “We lighten the loads of others best by helping the Lord strengthen them. That is why the Lord included in our charge to comfort others the command to be His witnesses at all times and in all places.” As we are comforted and strengthened, we must comfort and strengthen our brothers and sisters: it is what the Savior has asked, and one of the key reasons he has blessed us with the constant companionship of the Comforter.
As we rely on the Comforter to teach us how we can best comfort others, we will learn to see others through the eyes of our Heavenly Father. In his first General Conference address after being called to the apostleship, Elder Dale G.Renlund wrote of a realization that he came to early in his ministry, “that in the Church, to effectively serve others we must see them through a parent’s eyes, through Heavenly Father’s eyes. Only then can we begin to comprehend the true worth of a soul. Only then can we sense the love that Heavenly Father has for all of His children. Only then can we sense the Savior’s caring concern for them. We cannot completely fulfill our covenant obligation to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort unless we see them through God’s eyes. This expanded perspective will open our hearts to the disappointments, fears, and heartaches of others. But Heavenly Father will aid and comfort us.” Learning to see others as our Heavenly Father sees them may not be a comfortable experience; that process might entail acknowledging our own prejudices and pettiness. But we “can and must be an important part of Hisgiving comfort to those who need comfort”; we are his hands and the means by which his purposes are most commonly accomplished. He will not send angels if he can send home teachers; he will not send apostles if he can send neighbors. As we are converted—an uncomfortable process of growing and stretching to the full measure of our potential—we will naturally reach out to strengthen our brothers and sisters because we will see them through his eyes and love them as he loves them.
If strength seems slow in coming, we must not be discouraged. Remember the promise of Isaiah: “the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody” (Isaiah 51:3). Transforming a spiritual desert into a flourishing garden is necessarily a slow process; when heavy rains fall in the desert there is a danger of flash floods that can sweep away young and tender plants, eroding loose soil. Our Father in Heaven would like nothing better than to irrigate our arid souls with the water of life, but his comfort comes line upon line, precept upon precept, as we are able to bear and act upon it. If comfort comes more slowly than we had hoped, we must be patient. If we trust in his timing as well as his strength, someday we will see, as the prophet Joseph has seen, that our afflictions were “but a small moment” (D&C 121:7) and have been “for thy good” (D&C 122:7).

If we will only draw nearer to the Lord Jesus Christ, he will bind up our broken hearts; he will liberate us from the captivity of compulsions and addictions; he will comfort our waste places and give beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:1-3). We will be comforted with his nails, with his yoke, with his staff. That process may be uncomfortable, but it will leave us, like the many Jesus healed during his mortal ministry, whole.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


When angels came to announce the birth of the Savior, they proclaimed “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10), and that spirit of celebration always ought to shape our declaration to the world of hope, peace, and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ, or the good news that he and his prophets have been commissioned to share with us, is a message of joy.

On his deathbed, the ancient prophet Lehi spoke to his children, and he reminded them that the pursuit and attainment of joy is the purpose of our lives here in mortality: “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). We understood this to be the purpose and privilege of mortality from the very beginning: “When [God] laid the foundations of the earth . . . the morning stars sang together, and all the sons [and daughters] of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:4, 7). Lehi describes the Fall of Adam and Eve as a necessary prerequisite for our acquisition of joy because joy is, in the scriptures, closely associated with two consequences of the Fall: 1) the birth and rearing of children in families; and 2) the use and sanctification of our physical bodies.

1. The birth and rearing of children in families

The Beautiful Mrs. Monk is nine months pregnant and is not over-excited to undergo the exertion and agony that will be required to deliver our sixth child into the world. But the Savior reminded his disciples that these periods of pain and patient struggle are, in the end, eclipsed by the eternal happiness that they produce: “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world” (John 16:21). Experiencing travail and struggle is necessary in our mortal sojourn, but these challenges are also, in many cases, the very means by which we come to feel joy—especially as we labor to realize our divine “potential for parenthood” (Proclamation). To paraphrase Elder Bednar, “happiness is [not] the absence of a load.” Happiness is found in relying on the merits and mercy of Jesus Christ as we work to create the spiritual traction that will enable our family units to return to “the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15).

I recently read a wonderful book on parenting with the provocative title All Joy and No Fun. The title of this book perfectly captures one of the most pressing challenges we face in a culture that consistently privileges fun—entertainment, pleasure, and play—as the purpose of life. This misguided view of mortality is evident in the prayers offered by my own children and others of Primary age: “Help us to have fun today” or “Please bless us that we will have fun.” It is reinforced, as Brooke Romney noted in a recent op-ed for the Deseret News, by the language we use to communicate with our children: “As they leave our car, we smile, wave and shout, ‘Have fun!’ After they return home from somewhere (school, practice, play date, church), the question is usually ‘Did you have fun?’ and if they didn’t there is often a decent amount of concern about what might be wrong and how we can remedy this un-fun problem.” The Topical Guide, an inspired scriptural study aid, provides much-needed perspective on the eternal insignificance of fun: if you browse the entries beginning with “f” in the Topical Guide you will find an entry for “fulness” (as in “fulness of joy”) and an entry for “funeral,” but there is no “fun” between the two. Prophets have encouraged us to pursue “wholesome recreational activities” as a key to “happiness in family life” (Proclamation), but not all recreation is fun, and not all fun is wholesome. Joy and fun do occasionally overlap, but they are fundamentally different pursuits, and the world’s persistent prioritization of fun threatens to warp our sense of this life’s true purpose.

The proclamation on the family, President Russell M. Nelson declares, “helps us realize that celestial marriage brings greater possibilities for happiness than does any other relationship,” and the apostle John stated, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 1:4). Family life is our surest pathway to joy, and that eternal truth is the reason that Eve courageously accepted the pains and problems of mortality as the necessary price for her—and our—pursuit of eternal happiness. But family life, and especially parenting, is work! Joy is the outgrowth of sustained and sweaty work far more often than it is the result of pre-packaged and purchased fun.

As we ponder the relationship between joy and work, we will come to appreciate more fully the prophet Isaiah’s encouraging words: “The Lord JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:2-3). Drawing water out of a well is a laborious and sweaty business. Consider the Old Testament example of Rebekah, whose entry into the joys of marriage and family life was only accomplished through hard work. Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, and this servant arrived as
[Rebekah] went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up. And [Abraham’s] servant ran to meet her, and said, Let me, I pray thee, drink a little water of thy pitcher. And she said, Drink my lord: and she hasted, and let down her pitcher upon her hand, and gave him drink. And when she had done giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for thy camels also, until they have done drinking. (Genesis 24:16-19)
This story—hauling water for a train of thirsty camels arriving after a long journey—sounds like all work and no fun. But because it was work in fulfillment of Rebekah’s “premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” (Proclamation), I am sure that she qualified for and received the Lord’s strength.

Before Isaiah calls on us to draw water out of the wells of salvation with joy, he reminds us that the Lord is our strength and our song. When we “are on the Lord’s errand” (D&C 64:29), as we surely are in every endeavor pertaining to our roles as parents or, like Rebekah, our “potential for parenthood” (Proclamation), we are entitled to the Lord’s help. If we will just try to “be not weary in well doing” in the “great work” (D&C 64:33) to which we are called, he will strengthen and lift us.

2. The use and sanctification of our bodies.
The primary purpose of both the Fall and our collective organization into family units during mortality is to provide each of our Heavenly Father’s children—each of our spiritual brothers and sisters—with a physical body. When we experience aches and illness and allergies, and sometimes all three at once, it may seem that the primary purpose of our bodies is to ensure that we are constantly conscious of what Nephi calls “the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh” (1 Nephi 19:6). But the Lord assures us that a physical body is an essential aid in our quest for joy.

Joseph Smith was taught that “man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93:33-34). The fulness of joy that is our eternal destiny comes, not before “funeral,” as in the Topical Guide, but after the separation of our spirits from the mortal bodies in which they are currently housed, when the Lord Jesus Christ will raise each of us in a glorious resurrection that will inseparably connect spirit and element in a perfect and immortal body. We should look forward with joy to the promise of the resurrection. But as we patiently await that foretold bodily perfection, we have been instructed to seek after the fulness of joy that comes when body and spirit are united here and now, in mortality.

Prophets ancient and modern have promised that we will experience a foretaste of that joy as we discipline our bodies and exercise restraint, bringing spirit and element into a unity of purpose. When we faithfully follow Alma’s counsel to Shiblon and “bridle all [our] passions,” we impose a mental or spiritual order on our physical flesh (Alma 38:12), and the late President Packer testified that “[t]hrough the righteous exercise of this power [to create life], as in nothing else, we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fulness of joy.” When we exercise our faith in the law of the fast, we likewise discipline our physical bodies by refraining from food or drink for twenty-four hours so “that [our] fasting might be perfect, or, in other words, that [our] joy may be full. Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer” (D&C 59:13-14). We can only receive a fullness of joy when our spirit and our flesh are in perfect harmony with each other, when they are inseparably connected and united in purpose. Faithfully observing the law of the fast offers us that opportunity and ought to be a joyful experience as we qualify ourselves to receive a greater portion of the Spirit; as the apostle Paul teaches, “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). Currently, the flesh or “natural man is an enemy to God” and our spirits (Mosiah 3:19); we are engaged in a struggle to “not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate” (2 Nephi 2:29). But when we bridle our passions; when we fast; when we exercise faith in Jesus Christ and subject the flesh to the spirit we win that battle and experience—if only briefly—the fullness of joy that will characterize our existence as exalted beings with perfect, immortal bodies inseparably connected to our spirits.

Fasting, like prayer, “is a form of work and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings” as our wills and bodies are aligned more fully with the will of the Father. Elder Holland has borne “witness of the miracles, both spiritual and temporal, that come to those who live the law of the fast. I bear witness of the miracles that have come to me. Truly, as Isaiah recorded, I have cried out in the fast more than once, and truly God has responded, ‘Here I am.’ Cherish that sacred privilege at least monthly, and be as generous as circumstances permit in your fast offering” (October 2014). As we do so, we can come to know for ourselves that fasting brings a fulness of joy and sanctifies our souls. Learning to discipline our physical bodies is one of the primary purposes of mortality, and fasting places our feet more firmly in the path of life, so that we can return to our Father’s presence wherein, the Psalmist says, is fulness of joy (Psalms 16:11).

Enjoying, not Enduring

Mortality is rife with trials and tribulations, with pains and persecutions, but we can and should find joy in the journey back to our Father; he intends for this life to be enjoyed and not merely endured. Even with burdens that seem cumbersome, as we internalize the word of God and act on principles of the gospel, “it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life. And then may God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son” (Alma 33:23). James exhorts us to “Count it all joy when ye fall into [temptations and afflictions]” (James 1:2); Paul urges us to be “exceeding joyful in all our tribulation” (2 Corinthians 7:4); and the Lord Jesus Christ pleads with us to rely on his strength: “If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication, that your souls may be joyful” (D&C 136:29). “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Joy is our destiny and our birthright. That birthright, like Esau’s, can be forfeited but never taken from us; we are “free to choose liberty and eternal life” and joy “or to choose captivity and death” and misery (2 Nephi 2:27). As the Savior instructed his apostles, “Your joy no man taketh from you” (John 16:22). Joy is not some remote, future reality; it is a present possibility, a choice we can make each and every day as we turn to the Lord and rely on his strength in faith.

In considering this glorious truth, we might feel to ask again the question posed by Ammon, “Now have we not reason to rejoice? Yea, I say unto you, there never were men [and women] that had so great reason to rejoice as we, since the world began” (Alma 26:35). “Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel” (Alma 26:16).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Jesus at Harvard, Mormons at Waco?

In reading Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, I can't help recalling the last occasion when I met Jesus for the first time--the last time I saw Jesus of Nazareth with new eyes, as a foreigner, someone I didn't already recognize. Six months ago I finished reading When Jesus Came to Harvard, in which Harvey Cox characterizes the Christ as a political operative. When Jesus teaches his Sermon on the Mount, Cox argues, it is with one eye on heaven and the other eye on Rome.

"Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus teaches, "for they shall be called the kingdom of God" (Matthew 5:9). These words, Cox argues, "were a direct challenge to the ruling Roman ideology. . . . The empire's main claim to fame and legitimacy was that Rome and Rome alone was the peacemaker. It sustained the pax Romana under the magnanimous auspices of Caesar Augustus, a divine ruler. One of the imperial titles of the divine Augustus was that of 'peace-bringer'" (125). Similarly, Cox charges that another section of the Sermon on the Mount, urging disciples to be "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14) "was also a calculated mockery of Rome. In his In Catilinam, Cicero describes Rome as 'the light of the whole world.' Jesus takes bold issue with that claim. Now there was to be another light" (132). Cox reminds us that the word parable is a derivative of the Hebrew mashal, often defined as "story" but also "used at times to refer to taunts" (158). Cox's Jesus taunts when he teaches, and his preaching is explicitly political. The Jesus who came to Harvard valued difference and confrontation more than community.

More, even than in his sermons, Cox suggests that Jesus subverted Roman rule with his actions in "a king of roving street theater" used to "shake people up, to smack them on the head" (159). Cox reads Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem as a sort of coup:

"Seen in the light of a typical Roman military extravaganza, Jesus' entry was both a mockery and an insult, and it is impossible to believe that anyone misunderstood it. He was lampooning imperial authority by bouncing into town, not on a prancing horse--the symbol of the warrior--but on a donkey, the peasant's plodding beast of burden. He was not surrounded by armed legions, but by unarmed civilians. . . . who greeted him [with] an unambiguous political title. They called him Son of David, and therefore the legitimate heir to the throne that had been established in that city five hundred years before. They waved royal palms, the equivalent of 'Jesus for King' placards." (214)

This Jesus, the Jesus who came to Harvard for Cox's seminars on moral reasoning, was a political provocateur who undermined the established political order. He was also a complete stranger to me.

When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speak of Jesus and politics, they tell stories that emphasize Christ's compliance with Roman rules and his obedience even to laws he disagreed with--as when he miraculously procured tax monies from the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:24-27). The Mormon Jesus is a law-abiding citizen who disdains but never flaunts or disregards civil statutes, so Cox came as quite a surprise to me. After all, Mormons "believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law" (Article of Faith 12). The Church and its members don't subvert the state, they support it; even when Brigham Young brought the Church to the brink of battle in the Utah War, he did so believing that he was acting lawfully, in compliance with U.S. statutes. And when he received official orders relieving him of his duties as territorial governor, he abdicated his post and ended the conflict peacefully. Or, at least, this is the story that Mormons tell about themselves.

Mormons tell stories about themselves (including at a big screen near you!) which emphasize that which we have in common with the rest of America. We tell stories that highlight our participation in civil society. I think of Mormons as people who are like the general public in most respects.

Except . . . that's not the way that others view Mormons. And that wasn't the way that 19th century Mormons viewed themselves. In an essay comparing the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas (whose standoff with the FBI resulted in a terrible massacre) to 19th century Mormons, Malcolm Gladwell quotes R. Laurence Moore to remind us that in the nineteenth century,

"Americans thought the Mormons were different from them because the Mormons themselves 'said they were different and because their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree and to treat them as such.' In order to give his followers a sense of identity and resilience, Joseph Smith 'required them to maintain certain fictions of cultural apartness.'"

This story--about Mormons who wanted to emphasize their difference from other Americans--isn't one that the LDS Church has shared in recent years. (Although it would be good to remember, whenever you hear the line "O Babylon, O Babylon, we bid thee farewell" in the Mormon hymn "Ye Elders of Israel," that Babylon was code for the United States that Brigham Young left for unincorporated Utah.) As a result, I don't think of Mormons as civic and social rebels throwing their difference in the teeth of others a la Waco anymore than I think of Jesus as a political provocateur. But . . . that may change.

Even as the LDS Church conducts the "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign to emphasize those occupations, hobbies, and character traits its members share with the general population, messages in its semi-annual General Conference have increasingly acknowledged that church members should brace themselves for ideological confrontation in which Mormon difference is again emphasized, not minimized. In October 2013, Elder Robert D. Hales presaged a return to the social conflicts of the 19th century, when Mormon differences outweighed similarities: "In recent decades the Church has largely been spared the terrible misunderstandings and persecutions experienced by the early Saints. It will not always be so. The world is moving away from the Lord faster and farther than ever before." This is language emphasizing difference and predicting conflict--perhaps not the Waco-level conflict recounted by Gladwell, but conflict nonetheless--as a result. And Elder Jeffrey R. Holland only reinforced that message in April 2014, declaring to church members that "you will one day find yourself called upon to defend your faith or perhaps even endure some personal abuse simply because you are a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Public relations campaigns emphasize members' similarities with the general population, but the most recent internal messages to members have identified differences and stressed that those differences must be defended, even at the cost of personal suffering and social stigma.

It would be an overreach to suggest that this internal emphasis on embattled difference spurred Mormon rancher Cliven Bundy to his armed standoff with federal agents, and he is, after all, only one man. But most Seventh-Day Adventists didn't (don't) live in Waco, Texas; it only takes a few individuals with an exaggerated sense of religious difference to touch off the serial misunderstandings that lead to tragedy.

Meeting Jesus again for the first time, in a Harvard philosophy class, meant seeing the Savior as a political provocateur who valued difference and public confrontation rather than the preservation of community and submission to legal authority. I thought I knew who Jesus was; I thought I knew who Mormons were. But now I wonder whether outside observers see the gauntlet of intentional difference or bridge-spanning commonalities when they look at me and at other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What do you see when you see a Mormon?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Rab-shakeh v. Micah, or We're All Fence-Sitters

Rab-shakeh has long been my favorite Old Testament villain. When he shows up outside Jersualem to  threaten Hezekiah, King of Judah, he delivers a delightfully arrogant speech demanding immediate surrender. And because he speaks for the Assyrian army (which has just taken the kingdom of Israel into captivity), everyone knows that he can walk the walk. In fact, Hezekiah's military leaders are so worried that ordinary Jews within earshot of Rab-shakeh will flee to enemy lines that they plead, "Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and talk not with us in the Jews' language in the ears of the people that are on the wall" (2 Kgs. 18:26). Rab-shakeh is . . . not the sort of man to honor such a request: "Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?" (2 Kgs. 18:27).

Then, speaking in Hebrew so that all can understand, he offers the average Jew a chance to surrender and receive the protection of Assyria: "Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me, and then eat ye every man of his own vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his cistern: until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of oil olive and of honey, that ye may live, and not die: and hearken not unto Hezekiah ,when he persuadeth you, saying, The Lord will deliver us" (2 Kgs. 18:31-32). Throw your lot in with the Assyrians, Rab-shakeh promises, and you'll never go hungry again!
But God provides a prophetic counterpoint to the seductive rhetoric of Rab-shakeh. When Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah who preached during the reign of Hezekiah (Micah 1:1), describes the millennium in what is his most famous prophecy, he speaks in response to Rab-shakeh's threats and promises. Micah describes the Second Coming, when the Messiah "shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not life up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree: and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it" (Micah 4:3-4). These promises, that the Messiah will cow imperial bullies like Assyria, that every man will eat of his own vine and fig tree, that no one will cause God's people to fear: these promises are offered in a direct response to Rab-shakeh in language that recalls Rab-shakeh's promises (especially the vine and fig tree).

Recognizing that Micah and Rab-shakeh are contemporaries, that they are making competing promises to the besieged inhabitants of Judah, completely changes the meaning of both accounts for me. The story of Rab-shakeh is not just that of a blaspheming bully who gets his in the end (although he does, along with 184,999 other Assyrians; just see 2 Kgs. 19:35); rather it's the story of those individual Jews on the wall who can hear Rab-shakeh's promise and have to weigh that promise against the promise of Micah. The story of Rab-shakeh, in other words, is a story of choice: do you trust in the immediate (and seemingly inevitable) victory of Rab-shakeh or do you trust in the divine deliverance and peace promised by Micah--who can't even guarantee that you'll still be alive to sit under your vine and fig tree when the Messiah comes?

It's the same choice that we face on a daily basis, albeit in different forms. What do we rely on for peace and prosperity? On worldly wisdom with a proven track record of delivering worldly wealth or on divine promises that admit we probably won't receive our reward until after this life? Rab-shakeh's offer must have seemed compelling, and I think that's why his blasphemous speech was left in the Bible, unredacted, because it's a reminder that no matter how persuasive and urgent a Rab-shakeh's promises may be, only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob can be depended on to fulfill his promises. Temporal powers fail. Armies--like the Assyrian army--are surprisingly and unpredictably defeated. That's a hard lesson to remember as we--like those Jews--sit on the proverbial wall (fence) and struggle to decide whose side we're on, who to believe.

Just remember: Rab-shakeh's persuasive tongue didn't keep him from the destroying angel, and I imagine that any fence-sitting Jews who threw their lot in with the Assyrians also suffered the consequences. We all sit on the fence every day; the trick is to make sure that we make sure we find our way to the side of Micah and the prophets.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pre-Contact Amerindian Christianities?

As I recently read Eric Andrews's excellent new book, Native Apostles (Harvard UP, 2013), I was struck by his report that Native New England peoples who converted to Christianity identified their new religious beliefs as "a rebirth of spiritual knowledge that the ancestors possessed but had long been forgotten by later generations. An oral tradition taken down in the seventeenth century reminded audiences that far from introducing novel concepts and cosmologies, Christian missionaries were simply picking up where the ancients had left off. . . . Christianity was, according to this narrative, an ancestral Indian religion that needed to be revitalized" (36-37). As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who believes in the Book of Mormon as a largely reliable historical source, this was tremendously exciting, so I checked out Andrews's sources.

Turns out Andrews was relying on the book Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore (UP New England, 1986), by William S. Simmons. The sources that Simmons draws on in compiling his book are accounts of Native Americans converting to Christianity, written by white ministers in the seventeenth century. So: there was more than a little conflict of interest for these Christian missionaries, who naturally wanted to find evidence that Indians were predisposed to accept Christianity or that they were remnants of the lost tribes of Israel and who had considerable interpretive leeway in translating and transcribing Native American oral histories. Nonetheless, a few of these accounts are suggestive for Mormon readers pre-disposed to believe in ancient American Christianities and Book of Mormon prophecy (the following are all from Simmons):

"Fourthly, a fourth and last observation wee took, was the story of an Indian in those parts, telling us of his dream many years since, which he told us of openly before many witnesses when we sate at meat: the dreame is this hee said 'That about two yeers before the English came over into those parts there was a great mortality among the Indians, and one night he could not sleep above half the night, after which hee fell into a dream, in which he did think he saw a great many men come to those parts in cloths, just as the English now are apparelled, and among them there arose up a man all in black, with a thing in his hand which hee now sees was all one English mans book; this black man he said stood upon a higher place then all the rest, and on the one side of him were the English, and on the other a great number of Indians: this man told all the Indians that God was moosquantum or angry with them, and that he would kill them for their sinned, whereupon he said himself stood up, and desired to know of the black man what God would do with him and his Squaw and Papooses, but the black man would not answer him a first time, nor yet a second time, untill he desired the third time, and then he smil'd upon him, and told him that he and his Papooses should be safe, and that God would give unto them Mitcheu, (i.e.) victuals and other good things, and so hee awakened" (66-67).

"These very things which Mr. Eliot [Puritan minister] had taught them as Commandements of God, and concerning God, and the making of the world by one God, that they had heard some old men who were now dead, to say the same things, since whose death there hath been no remembrance or knowledge of them among the Indians untill now they heare of them againe" (67; How ancient are these "old men"?).

"And an Indian said, before the English came, that a white people should come in a great thing of the sea, and their people should be loving to them and receive them; but if they did hurt or wrong the white people, they would be destroyed. And this hath been seen and fulfilled, that when they did wrong the English they never prospered and have been destroyed. So that Indian was a prophet and prophesied truly" (68).

"They had a sixth child (a son) born about the year 1638, which was a a few years before the English first settled on [Martha's] Vineyard. The mother was greatly perplexed with fear that she should lose this child, like the former. . . . musing on the insufficiency of all humane help, she felt it powerfully suggested unto her mind, that there is one Almighty God who is to be pray'd unto: That this God hath created all the things that we see. . . Hereupon this poor blind Pagan resolv'd, that she would seek unto this god for that mercy, and she did accordingly. The issue was, that her child lived. . . . [She] presently concluded, that [English] assemblies were for prayers; and that their prayers were unto that very God, whom she had addressed for the life of her child. She was confirm'd in this, when the gospel was not long after preached by Mr. Mayhew to the Indians there; which gospel she readily, and cheerfully, and heartily embrac'd. And in the confession that she made publickly at her admission into the church, she gave a relation of the preparation for the knowledge of Christ, wherewith God in this wonderful way had favour'd her" (68-69; Shades of Abish?).

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Guest Post: The Mercies of Death

A brother monk shared this with me, and I simply had to share it with you. Enjoy!


Even the smallest nudge can bring back the dead. Life tips easily either way, like the light around dusk. Neither death nor rapture, birth nor resurrection are as irreversible or permanent as we sometimes romanticize—this business of living and dying is infinitely more fluid. While it’s true that the smallest flick of a knife can lay open a whole throat, it’s also true a single centigrade of warmth deep in some winter dirt can trigger the vivification of a seed. I have sustained such a multiplicity of deaths already. I see a white cup on a table or the hood of a car covered in wet petals, and then I am startled to realize I have been dead for days. Dead to miracles, small impossibilities. Awakenings and resurrections may happen in an instant—in prayer, in traffic, while washing a plate. They may happen on the road to Damascus or even feeding Cheerios to a toddler in church. We have such rigid definitions of what it means to be converted. Such intractable parameters for what it means to rise from a grave. Every day of my life is filled with sundry births, rebirths, and deaths. It’s just a matter of pushing through the boredom of these daily miracles. A matter of paying attention, of noticing the hand of God, outstretched at the mouth of our tombs.


He whom thou lovest is sick. Jesus appreciated the utility of death, as well as the strange boundaries of life. To Martha he said: “this sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God”—a reaction which reminds me, at least initially, of the fool-philosopher Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, who believed our world to be the best possible of all worlds because there was no other reality to rival it. In the novel, when an earthquake at Lisbon kills 15,000 people, Pangloss believes it to be a perfect event. Surely Christ did not subscribe to this kind of Panglossian fatalism, in which his dying friend Lazarus was reduced to some kind of cosmic tool, to a self-serving testament of Christ’s own divinity. Destined to die for the best possible reasons….

Nietzsche said that “to live is to suffer.” Is this an equation? To suffer, like Lazarus, is to take one’s place in the world and in reality—the same reality in which 15,000 people perish at Lisbon in an earthquake. To suffer is to have also tasted watermelon or fallen in love. Necessarily, to die is to have lived. For there to be a “here” there must be a “there.” In other words, when Christ gently celebrated Lazarus’s sickness, he was affirming life and God and health—a reciprocating system in which death has made all things beautiful and unsurvivable.


When Jesus arrives too late at the tomb of Lazarus, Martha greets him in sorrow and in faith. To Christ she says, “if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.” Here, we see Martha petitioning Jesus to pray, to intercede with God on behalf of her dead brother. Of course, in any prayer, we find this kind of symbiosis—a set of relations and parties, a mutualism of necessity, with divine and human in interface. However, I might argue that the true prayer of faith cannot be uttered by the lips of the actual petitioner. The realest, most authentic prayer is offered by some other third party, as by Christ in this chapter or by a priesthood holder empowered with authority and oil. These individuals are catalyst sites of sorts. The unknowability of another person and the unknowable shape and size of their faith allows them to function as an imaginary zone of perfect and exquisite communication. To put it another way: I know the texture of all of my weaknesses—my inability to trust, to speak, to mean what I say. The weight of my own reality is infinitely tangible, as my own imperfect existence is the only existence I can possibly know or experience or testify of. I am painfully aware of the limits of my own faith; however, the spirit of another person is massively and usefully mysterious.

The prayer of another is real prayer because it cannot be totally grasped. In much the same way, love for another is real love. Because a lover is inherently unknowable and specially not you, they contain all possibilities, all potentials.

Before my release from the MTC due to anxiety and depression, I was caught up in a steady and self-destructive downward spiral. My lowest point, after having met with psychotherapists and district presidents, was a place void of faith and fogged with darkness. It was at that moment, at lights-out in a dorm room with five other sleeping missionaries-in-training, that I got on my knees and offered a prayer of intercession for my many intercessors. I recognized to the divine that I knew nothing. That I was utterly lost. I could not intuit, I could not feel, I could not interpret or obtain any meaningful answers to my own prayer. Instead, I said to God—please help those praying for me to know what to do. I knew only one thing—that everyone could have infinitely more faith than I did. True or not, because of inherent unknowability, the people around me were imbued with vast spiritual potential.

Perhaps this is why we attend church and associate in groups and believing bodies—because our connective moments with the divine ultimately occur through and in our neighbors. We experience communion as the Other experiences it. Christ, after all, set this ultimate example of mediation.

Perhaps too this is what Keats meant when he spoke of negative capability. In the eighth edition to A Handbook to Literature, negative capability is defined as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats knew the capability that came from half knowing. He knew the power of uncertainty. And so did Martha. She approaches Christ not as the miraculous son of God, but as a fellow human being, who can give a true and unknowable prayer on her behalf and on behalf of her brother.


Some might characterize the raising of Lazarus from the dead as Christ’s most superhuman miracle. Most likely, this is due to the perceived irreversibility of death and the high stakes emotional weight that accompanies loss of life. However, I see this miracle as perhaps Christ’s most typically, exquisitely human. For one, death preoccupies us on a daily level. Death is perhaps the most normal, tedious presence in our lives—it constantly responds to and answers our living. How strange that we have alienated and defamiliarized ourselves from this most basic human invariability! What part of ourselves have we abandoned by beating paths away from this, our one guaranteed mystery? Our most negative capability?

Then it seems only logical that Christ would deal with death miraculously. It is his most sensible miracle. To quote the Bible Dictionary: “Miracles should not be regarded as deviations from the ordinary course of nature so much as manifestations of divine or spiritual power.” Thus, it is almost as if this miracle has been built into death since the beginning—ordinary and natural. According to this dictionary definition, miracles run beside and compliment the natural, revealing within the normal the divine and the wonderful. The dictionary continues: “the miracles of healing also show how the law of love is to deal with the actual facts of life.” By dealing with the actual fact of life in his treatment of death, Christ was able to demonstrate the fluidity of death—its normalcy and humanity, in alignment with laws of love.

By reclaiming death for us through Lazarus, Christ allows us to access our authentic and complete humanity.

This scene also demonstrates Christ’s emotional humanism. Here, in John 11, we find the short scripture verse: “Jesus wept.” Despite its brevity, this verse is replete with affective import. Evident throughout this chapter is Christ’s deep love for the cast of characters all involved. The Jews exclaim upon seeing Jesus’s tears, “behold how he loved him!” and verse five reminds us that Christ loved Martha dearly as well. Obviously, the Lord knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead—his death was impermanent—and yet, here we find him weeping for his friend, and for the palpable sorrow of Martha and Mary. Is this theater, or does it speak to a most poignant facet of the Prince of Peace. It is in this utterly illogical reaction that we see Christ’s true and perfect function—his ultimate empathy. Here Christ suffers along with Martha and Mary. He suffers needlessly. In other words, he suffers, knowing full well the gratuitous nature of the his sorrow and the sorrow of his friends.

However, this single verse—“Jesus wept”—is Christ in action. A diagram for the function of the atonement. Christ weeps with us always—racked by our transient, absurd, and finite pain.


Nor does Christ accomplish this miracle alone. In verse 39, he asks Martha to take away the stone that covers up Lazarus’s tomb. While menial, to be sure, this is a task Christ could have easily accomplished himself. Why does he ask Martha, physically inferior, to do it for him? No doubt for the same reasons that there exists a church welfare system, a bishopric, a relief society, a weekly meeting of communion. We are meant to minister to each other. We are meant to participate in Christ—in his eternal narrative, in his ongoing miracles. As Paul states in 1 Corinthians  12:12, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” In other words, we operate socially and congregationally as the body of Christ. We participate in daily raisings from the dead. We roll aside the tombstones of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, showing light into dark corners, unwrapping bandages from whole hands, whole faces.

We open the way for Jesus to step to the entrance of our caverns and cry with a loud voice to each of us: “Lazarus, come forth.”