Monday, June 29, 2009

The Two Ways -- Matt 7: 13-14

13 ¶ Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

My teacher used to ask: how do we reconcile this passage with our LDS beliefs about the vast number of people who will be exalted, and the vaster number who will be saved?
I answered: Few find the narrow gate on their own, but countless multitudes can follow those few who do. I don't need to find all the principles leading to eternity on my own, because I have the prophets. Having found the wide gate all too quickly on my own, I can still turn to a narrow path which I may never have found, but which has been shown to me.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Maxwell Midrash -- 2 Nephi 31:13

"witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism"

Elder Maxwell used to say, "willing to take the name" refers to the covenant of baptism, but "take the name" is in reference to the subsequent covenants of the temple. And in another place it is written "thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." We may show willingness to take the name by baptism even as children of eight, but the Lord will not suffer that we take his name in our youth, lest we lightly take it in vain, casting aside so great a covenant.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Why Did Nephi Love Isaiah? or What's a Nice Boy from Manasseh Doing in a Place Like This?

On my grandparents' living room wall are portraits of three prophets: Thomas S. Monson, Joseph Smith, and David O. McKay. The first two are probably on many Mormon walls all across the world: it makes a certain amount of sense to give special attention to the current prophet and the first prophet of the Restoration. It also makes a certain amount of sense not to include all the latter-day prophets in one's living room--16 portraits might be a bit overwhelming to visitors. Three is a much more reasonable number of prophets to display to guests, but why choose David O. McKay over, say Lorenzo Snow or Spencer W. Kimball?

The answer in our case is very simple: David O. McKay was the prophet when my grandfather immigrated from Punjab to the United States and joined the LDS church. Joseph Smith may have been the church's first prophet, but David O. McKay was my grandfather's first living prophet, and as such will always carry a special place in his heart, and probably in our family's hearts for generations. My family history and spiritual history are intertwined: my sense of what is spiritually significant may always be colored by my grandparents' experience as well as my own.

While we know that Nephi's family history was important to him, it's hard to be specific about the details, since we don't have them written down. In the books of Nephi, we learn about Nephi's parents and religious identity and get scattered references to Joseph as an ancestor, but that's it. Not until Alma 10: 2 do we learn that Lehi was from the tribe of Manasseh. The Book of Mormon gives us no clues as to what a community of Manasseh's descendants, heirs to the northwest, might have been doing in Jerusalem, a city so associated with the tribes of the south.

For that, you'll have to look in the Bible.

Latter-day Saints don't tend to spend a lot of time in the book of 2 Chronicles: two weeks every four years if you're sticking to the gospel doctrine class member guides, which is a lot better than most of us do. Which is why you're probably not casually acquainted with the story of Hezekiah's Passover in 2 Chr. 30. By the time of this story, the northern kingdom of Israel had long since fallen into apostasy and idolatry, and the southern kingdom of Judah had been just as bad more often than not. Hezekiah, though, was righteous, and had even selected a prophet named Isaiah as his most trusted advisor. After cleaning up his own kingdom, Hezekiah sent messengers to the northern tribes inviting them to come and celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem according to the law, joining in the revival. Many "laughed them to scorn" but "divers of Asher and Manasseh and of Zebulun humbled themselves, and came to Jerusalem."

Could it be that Lehi's own grandfather was among that group? Did Isaiah mean to him and his sons what David O. McKay meant to my grandfather, and through him, to me?

Why these strange stories? -- Joshua 1:8

They wept for thirty days when Moses died, and I am surprised that they found it in themselves to stop. Yes, they'd complained about him. Yes, various attempts had been made, in fits of panic, to assassinate him and go back to Egypt, begging to be slaves again. But in clearer moments, who really doubted Moses? He had staked all their lives on his visions and revelations, again and again, and emerged victorious. He had performed great miracles. He had done what no other prophet in Israel would do for a long, long time and spoken with God face-to-face.

And now he was dead.

And his people? They were stranded in a desert, camped on a hill from which they could view God's impossible promise of a sacred land. For a leader, they had Joshua, a man whose resume was decent enough, but who they were ready to follow mostly because Moses had "laid his hands upon him." (Deut. 34: 9)

How might Joshua have felt in the period just after Moses' death? Was this man, who never doubted Moses, tempted to doubt himself?

The Biblical account implies that he did, because in four verses of admonition (Josh. 1: 6-9), the Lord tells Joshua three times to "be strong and of good courage." Nestled in the injunction to confidence is also this piece of advice:

"This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success."

I love that image: "this book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth"--possibly mostly because I naturally talk a lot, but also because since the days of Moses, strength in the Judeo-Christian tradition has been drawn primarily from our commitment to sacred texts, and our ability to hold them in our mouths and minds, day and night, as a means of living according to their injunctions and ideals.

In an essay, soon to be published in a special issue of Mormon Artist magazine, I discuss the problems of maintaining such memory by sheer repetition, the tendency of the rote to remove itself from our active consciousness. The kinds of discourse and meditation the Lord calls for in Joshua 1:8, I believe, involve finding new ways to think about foundational truths as a means of keeping them alive and active enough in us to be applied in a productive way. Repentance, after all, is hardly a rote process: it demands a certain level of self-awareness that demands that we connect our knowledge, not simply repeat it.

This is perhaps why Jews, for thousands of years, have been interested in Biblical commentary. It's not, I think, out of a desire to add anything to what God has said; it's because the sages have recognized the importance of connecting ideas, of giving fresh perspectives on existing passages and principles, of keeping revelation alive with attention.

The midrashim were a particular form of attention given to Biblical text that focused less on exact interpretation than on providing accompanying information or perspectives. Midrashim aren't necessarily supposed to be authoritative or definitive, they're a way of getting the student to engage with the text in new ways that reach toward deeper, and more broadly applicable, understanding.

In the vague spirit of that tradition, I'd like to begin offering some of my thoughts on scriptures and gospel living. I am, by no means, under the illusion that my ideas are authoritative or even correct, but if they're interesting enough to keep me and a few of you meditating on the scriptures, giving us more to talk about so we hold the law in our mouths, then I will consider these works a success.


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