Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Righteous Disobedience --Ex. 1: 15-21

"And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah:
And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.
But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.
Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.
And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses." (Ex. 15-17, 20-21)

We often teach that obedience is a virtue without emphasizing that it is obedience to God and goodness we mean.

I think it's important to remember that the scriptures themselves teach the possibility of righteous disobedience in certain contexts.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Seder Thought from a Seven-Year-Old --Ex. 2: 23-25

"And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.
And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them." (Ex.2: 23-25)

Had a seder with my wife's family--including eleven children under the age of twelve--last night. I have a three-and-a-half page cutting of the Haggadah I like to use, but was a little worried about the kids paying attention even through that, so I tried to tell the story of the Exodus, as much as possible, by asking them questions.

For instance, when I asked "What did they people do when they wanted to stop being slaves?," one of my nephews correctly remembered/guessed, "They prayed."

"That's right!" I said. "And what did God do then?"

My seven-year-old niece raised her hand. "He prayed back," she said.

I like that. Here's to a God who prays back.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Thought on Polygamy

No scripture this time, just a thought. I am hardly alone in my occasional discomfort over the historical association between Mormonism and polygamy, and so I think it's worthwhile to share the latest thing I've told myself about it.

Most religious traditions, at key points in their histories, are confronted with questions over the role of marriage and sexuality in spiritual life. Some (Theravada Buddhism, Catholicism, Shakerism, etc.) see sex as leading away from God and treat asceticism and celibacy as an ideal. Other groups (ancient Judaism, Islam, some Reformation-era Anabaptists, etc.) endorse marriage, even in plural forms, as spiritually healthy. A few groups (Tantrism, Jacob Frank's sect, etc.) have gone as far as to teach free love or other forms of extramarital sexuality as having spiritual utility.

Luckily for us, historical forces have shaped the world in such a way that monogamy is a more common moral ideal today than any other system. While their priests still don't marry, for example, the contemporary Catholic Church is extremely supportive of the married couples who form the core of most Catholic communities. Jews in medieval Europe dropped plural marriage so as not to offend their neighbors and have continued to hold to monogamy since; Mormons abandoned our limited practice of plural marriage after less than fifty years of practicing it and are now devoutly monogamous.

Of course, growing up Mormon outside of Utah, you're still going to get ridiculed, probably frequently, over polygamy. And growing up Mormon anywhere, you're going to have to come to terms with the history of polygamy in the Church. Since monogamy is so much nicer, that can be tough.

Lately, though, coming to terms with our plural marriage history seems much easier than coming to terms with a religious heritage/history of idealized celibacy would be. I would rather deal with the legacy of a Joseph Smith, who felt that marriage, sexuality, and family were so spiritually significant that plural marriage deserved restoration than with the legacy of a figure like Buddha who felt compelled, as a part of his search for spiritual answers, to leave his marriage permanently and who preached celibacy for the spiritually serious.

Sure, Buddha's celibacy is a lot less controversial in our culture than Joseph's marriages--but I'd rather agree with Joseph that marriage is part of God's plan and deal with the strange baggage of plural marriage than have to disagree with my religion's history on the question of whether family life (including marital sex) is ideal or not.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Second-Generation Ship --1 Ne 17:17

"And when my brethren saw that I was about to build a ship, they began to murmur against me, saying: Our brother is a fool, for he thinketh that he can build a ship; yea, and he also thinketh that he can cross these great waters."

There was a very specific reason Laman and Lemuel were wary of building a boat.

Before he was a prophet, when his first four sons were still only boys, Lehi had claimed divine inspiration for the first time. He had been doing well trading along the camel routes from Arabia to Egypt--and then one day he came home and announced that God wanted him to build a ship and break into the lucrative trade in cedar from Lebanon.

Lehi threw his energy into the project with a religious intensity, and the boys got excited like they'd never been before. But getting the right permits and finding the right workers was hard; expenses built up fast and Lehi had to take out big loans; the ship almost didn't get built and almost as soon as the ship was built, there was a market collapse in Egypt and not much room for Lehi in the cedar trade anymore; finally, after a bad storm in the harbor, the ship sank.

It was the family's worst disaster. Lehi had to work extra hard and take long trade trips during Laman and Lemuel's early teenage years to bring the family fortunes back again.

So when Nephi told them God wanted another boat, Laman and Lemuel mocked him. To them, memories of the first boat meant that God didn't really get involved in nautical issues.

In Nephi's memory, though, the first boat was associated positively with his father's early faith. And it set a precedent for God's later command.

The difference between the brothers was in how they interpreted their early life experience.

(A variation on this story is also told in which the first shipbuilder is not Lehi, but Joseph Smith, while the brothers are not Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, and Sam but Warren Parrish, David Whitmer, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff. In that version, the ship is not a ship, but rather the Kirtland Bank.)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Volunteering at Bayonet Point --Matt 5: 10

"Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. " (Matt 5: 10)

In 1838, mobs tried to drive all Mormons out of Missouri. When Mormons fought back, the state militia was called in against them. The Mormons soon surrendered, and were ordered to sign over the deeds to their property to the state to pay for the "war." Stephen LeSeur's history on the subject (published by the University of Missouri Press) says:
"After singing the deeds, the Mormons were required to raise their hands and swear that their actions were voluntary. This proved too much for Nathan Tanner, who raised his hand and mockingly waved it over the soldiers' bayonets. 'It looks like a free volantear act and deed at the point of bayenet' he remarked sarcastically. One of the guards knocked Tanner senseless and he was carried from the ground." (183-84)

Only if our personal or inherited memories teach us to use our own power extremely carefully will we be prepared to serve in the kingdom of heaven. Without the memory of earth's lesser power being misused, how can we ever become qualified to use heaven's greater power with the necessary humility and reverence?

And oh, how great a waste it is if we turn the memory of suffering from reverence to anger!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hannah's Prayer --1 Sam 2: 3

"Talk no more so exceeding proudly; let not arrogancy come out of your mouth: for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed." (1 Sam 2: 3)

That Hannah was different had been clear to everyone well before she married Elkanah. Elkanah loved her for it: for her forthrightness, for her honesty before the Lord and men, and for the way that, when she prayed silently--something she was not afraid to do in public--her mouth still moved, as if her body couldn't help but participate in the prayer.

To most people, of course, her fervent prayers just made her look like an intoxicated and possibly schizophrenic bag lady, and they felt it detracted from the spirit of the Temple when she prayed outside of it.

So no one was really surprised when Hannah couldn't have children. In the thinking of the time, which tended to look for the quickest possible explanations, her barrenness was seen as a consequence of her actions. Once she was barren, confirming that her weirdness was not of God, it was much easier for people to publicly voice their concerns about her.

People used to tell Hannah that she was a bad representative of the House of Israel because she couldn't have children. They used to ask Elkanah if she was really committed to the Church. Some speculated that if she'd start acting more normal, she might yet give birth. Most figured, though, that it was already too late.

But Hannah kept praying like a drunk, lips silently moving. Kept saying what she felt instead of what she thought ought to be said. And God heard Hannah--oh yes, God loved few things more in those days than to listen to Hannah's prayers.

It may be of interest to contemporary audiences to know that even before Hannah's son was born, she promised God she'd never cut his hair.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Homogeneity and Heterogeneity -- Mos. 7: 18

"And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them." (Mos. 7: 18)

Drona used to say that to be one is to overcome and surrender our differences, that only when we do so can all our collective energy be harnessed into a single shared goal, creating the strong beats out of Zion's one heart. We should be like the red blood that pumps through the body: of one type and purpose.

But Teancum Singh used to say that most difference ought not be surrendered, but connected, woven into the whole. For as God is one, all good things are one. Zion is built up when its members connect their own insights, heritages, and gifts to the gospel, creating the different synapses that form Zion's one ever-expanding mind.

And the debate between them dances across the face of our church to this day.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Testimony Meeting --D&C 101: 16

"Therefore, let your hearts be comforted concerning Zion; for all flesh is in mine hands; be still and know that I am God." (D&C 101: 16)

In a certain city in a certain country, there was a ward in which no testimony meeting was considered complete without a quiet minute or so sometime between speakers, in which the stillness was allowed to bear its own witness.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Some Personal Reflections -- Matt 5: 44

"But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matt 5: 44)

We've been reading the Gospel of Matthew to our daughter lately. Chapter 4, in which Jesus fasts for forty days, was Friday night--on Saturday, Kira told her grandma that she was "an hungered" just before dinner and when Grandy asked what she meant, Kira told her the whole Jesus fasting story. I am continually impressed by the spiritual hunger of this five-year-old.

From Saturday through last night, we've worked our way piecemeal through Chapter 5, which is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It's a little slower going, since there's no action and almost everything is in old metaphors, which take twice the explaining. It's been a good experience, though.

The verse at the beginning of this post came last night in our reading and back to my mind this morning. It came back because, on the Caucajewmexdian blog, I'm in the middle of a long story about feeling a little persecuted and despitefully used by a few administrators at BYU. My interactions with these people are (God willing) over, but I still harbor resentment towards them. If that does not quite make them "enemies," it at least makes them fall under the spirit of Christ's commandment here.

Nearly four years ago, when my troubles with these people started, I would pray for them. But then I got more frustrated with them and decided to stop and do my best to forget them instead--"forgetting," though, is not what Jesus has asked us to do about those who mistreat us.

On the Caucajewmexdian blog, I'm just getting into the part of the story where I keep getting punished for my 2006 disagreement with these administrators even long after I've dropped the issue. And if someone were to ask me, I'll have to admit that I did not pray for my persecutors then and did not again until today. I stuck mostly to resenting them.

Is it easier, sometimes, to try to forget than to pray for--let alone forgive--those who have offended us? Maybe part of the reason these difficulties have resurfaced for me in the past year is to teach me the difference between how to forget (something I'm willing to try--even if it's impossible) and how to forgive (something I have abstract faith in, but still don't entirely understand).

I think one reason we read scriptures instead of simply remembering them (as I often do) is that remembering tends to take you to the places your mind wants to go, whereas reading can be more effective at bringing your mind back to somewhere it does not naturally want to go, but probably ought to be.

I need turn back again, spiritually, toward those who have offended me. I need to keep Christ's commandment.

Instead of an eye for an eye, perhaps the new law invites us to look eye-to-eye at a person we've been harmed by.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Paradox of Omniscience and Forgetfulness: D&C 58: 42

"Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more." (D&C 58: 42)

When I read this passage, my left hand said to my right: "Here is a paradox that undoes all your scriptures. For if a God must be all-knowing, how can your God forget sins, which make up the greater part of human history? You can have one: omniscience or forgiveness. Not both!"
But my right hand told my left: "God knows everything that has been, that is, and that will be. God can never forget facts and events: never turn his all-seeing eye from what has been done. But what happened alone does not create reality: reality is also created in the meaning God chooses to assign it. When we repent and are healed, it is by reassigning meaning to our sins: they become transformed from rebellion to experience as the thrill and shame of sin (which once tempted us to do wrong and then hide it) are replaced by the awareness and humility of forsaken transgression (which teach us how to love and choose right). Nothing that happened changes, but a tempter becomes a teacher, actions which were wrong become memories which teach us to do right.
God never forgets anything that happens, but he chooses to forget the meaning (sin) our bad actions first had and remember instead the new meaning (experience) created through repentance and healing."
To which my left hand said, "Drat. I thought I had you on that one."

(And my right hand said nothing more to my left hand, but whispered a great mystery to those who could listen, "As it is with God, so it was with us, who carry the seed of Godliness: our greatest power is in how we choose to assign meaning to the actions which take place constantly around us.")


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