Of Light, When We Cannot See It

I wrote this for my congregation’s January newsletter.

They say that it’s darkest just before the dawn. Perhaps that’s physically true, but they usually don’t mean a sky without sunlight. They’re saying that rescue, recovery, revelation, or some other relief we seek comes only after – shortly after – we are stretched to our personal limits.

That was Joseph Smith’s experience in the grove, for example. Just as he felt himself on the verge of destruction, the pillar of light appeared (JS-H 1:16). We trust in our own happy outcomes too; in the end our darkness will be just that thing that happened for a while before the lights came back on.

That’s true, but it can be difficult to believe, when all we see and feel is darkness.

“Every Good Thing”

Author’s Note

Peter said that the Savior “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). What if he had said something slightly different: “he went about doing no evil”?

That’s true too, and it’s important for us to avoid sin, with God’s help — and when we fail at that, to remove it from our lives, also with God’s help. But it’s not enough simply to do no evil. We’re to do all the good that we can.

Short Take: Skipped Are the Words of Isaiah?

Author’s Note

I recently baked some fresh Alaska salmon. It practically melted in my mouth. I almost didn’t need teeth.

But I also love steak. Think what I would miss if I avoided it, because it requires a lot more chewing.

Don’t skip the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon.

This may help: remember we’re reading Hebrew poetry. Translation takes its toll, but even in English much of Isaiah’s poetry survives.

Hebrew poetry often repeats the same thought in different words. For example, we may think there will someday be two world capitals, one religious and one secular, because we read, “Out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (2 Nephi 12:3; Isaiah 2:3). Maybe – but he’s probably just saying the same thing twice.

A few verses later, we see more repetition. Isaiah describes Israel’s wealth, saying the land is full of silver and gold, then repeating (in different words), “Neither is there any end of their treasures.” Then he repeats the point – twice – by saying, “The land is full of horses,” (and) “neither is there any end of their chariots.”

The next verse uses this pattern to make and repeat a key point: (1) “Their land is also full of idols; (2) they worship the work of their own hands, [now he repeats that too] that which their own fingers have made” (2 Nephi 12:7-8; Isaiah 2:7-8).

Slow down. Take small bites. Chew your food.

It’s often beautiful. It’s frequently powerful. And – don’t be turned away – it’s poetry.

Short Take: Parallel Experiences

Author’s Note

In 1 Nephi 1 Lehi’s experience resembles Joseph Smith’s later experience with visions and the gold plates (see Joseph Smith – History), and foretells our own experience with the Book of Mormon.

Troubled by prophets’ warnings that Jerusalem must repent or be destroyed, Lehi prays “with all his heart in behalf of his people” (v. 5). Like Joseph, who prayed with a different question and later in penance for his own sins, Lehi sees a pillar of fire and hears much. Like Joseph, he is physically exhausted afterward (v. 6-7).

Another vision follows. In it a heavenly being (perhaps Christ) descends from heaven with twelve others. As Moroni to Joseph, they bring to Lehi a book. (See vv. 9-12.)

Lehi reads and learns of the imminent Babylonian captivity (v. 13) and other things. The book tells of God’s mercy, and “the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world” (v. 19).

Not coincidentally, this happens in the first chapter of a book we are commanded to read – a testament of Christ, and an account of the scattering and gathering of Israel – which was first delivered to our dispensation by an angel responding to earnest prayer.

Like Lehi and Joseph, we’re to teach what we learn from the book. We hope not to be threatened with death, as they were, but we can expect a common blessing with Lehi and Joseph nonetheless: as we read, we too will be “filled with the spirit of the Lord” (v. 12).

Tokens of Thanks

One of my first conscious acts on this Thanksgiving morning was to pull a folder from my file cabinet and thumb through it. It’s a file I started years ago. It’s full of thank-you notes people have sent me. (And yes, thanking me is the reverse of this day’s proper theme, but it leads there in its way.)

Many of them are from my years as an LDS (Mormon) bishop in American Fork, Utah, or from my time in a similar role in Ithaca, New York. This is not because bishops are the least bit more wonderful than anyone else, but because a pastor’s relationship with his or her congregation naturally includes being conspicuously involved in the difficulties of their lives, in both public and private ways — and because we get a lot of credit for splendid things done by others.

Some of my favorite expressions are not written at all. One man with whom I worked, as he endured severe, long-term trials, gave me a four-pound specimen from his petrified wood collection, because he wanted to give something but couldn’t think of anything else he had to give. Another gave me a wool hat which an Afghan tribal leader (I say warlord, to impress people) gave him as token of thanks for service to him and his people.

Short Take: “The Lamb . . . Shall Feed Them”

Author’s Note

Sometimes, when reading the Revelation of John, we come across gems which don’t require us to decode a lot of symbolism. Here’s a personal favorite. It’s half of Revelation 7, and it’s good for times when it’s hard to see a happy ending through the tears and tribulation.

John is seeing in vision our future in the heavenly kingdom of God. A numberless multitude from all nations is before God’s throne, praising him. “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne,” they say (or sing), “and unto the Lamb. . . . Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.”

A being asks John if he knows who these people are and where they came from, but he doesn’t. The being explains: “These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Then he continues, ”He that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more. . . . For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Revelation 7:9-17).

I like to envision that.

Short Take: Paul, Agrippa, Grace

Author’s Note

Paul tells King Agrippa what he did at Jerusalem and elsewhere: “Many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests. And when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them” (Acts 26:10).

He was devout, faithful, zealous. “After the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.” (Acts 26:5). He thought he was doing God’s work.

We want to excuse Paul’s legally-sanctioned murders, because of what he became. But he had Christians killed for believing in Christ – and he thought God wanted that. There’s no way – and Paul didn’t try – to explain or excuse that grave crime down to a mere misdemeanor.

Two thoughts.

First: No wonder Paul speaks so often and so gladly of grace. He knew the limits of Law and works; he knew his own need for “the grace of God that bringeth salvation” (Titus 2:11). The zealous former Pharisee bid his own people, “Come boldly unto the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16). He did not dismiss obedience (see Titus 2:12), but he knew that our best, while necessary, is not even remotely enough. We are saved by grace – by the gift of unearned mercy.

Second: If God could, would, and did make Saul the murderous Pharisee into Paul the apostle, then my own flaws and sins – and yours – are certainly within the scope of God’s grace, love, and power.

Therefore, with Paul: “Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:1).

General Conference and My Obedience

LDS Conference CenterThis weekend, Mormons around the world will receive hours and hours of counsel from their church leaders in general conference, which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints convenes twice a year in Salt Lake City and broadcasts around the world.

I look forward to general conference. I study the instruction given there and use portions of it in my own teaching. I think it’s fair to ask myself, how much of it will I obey?

Some people think obedience is a simple thing, very black and white. I used to think that. But what if it’s not?

How much of what I hear in conference — or in other church meetings, or read in the official writings of Church leaders — am I required to obey, as a committed Latter-day Saint? Am I permitted to employ my own reason and inspiration to choose the counsel which applies to me, adapt it to my circumstances, and ignore the rest, or is that too much like selective obedience, which is a lot like disobedience? How nearly does counsel given by church leaders approach the status of scripture? Is counsel the same as commandment?

We speak here in the context of my faith, where we treat scripture as scripture and openly acknowledge not only the possibility but the actuality of divine communication with mortals, and the calling of otherwise ordinary men and women to act and speak as messengers for God.