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: 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).

Short Take: More Than a Sower

Author’s Note

In Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23) seeds fall in different places. Some are eaten immediately by birds. Some fall in stony places with little soil, where the sprouts cannot endure the heat of the day. Some sprout among thorns and are overwhelmed. Some fall in good soil and bring forth abundant fruit.

These outcomes represent common responses to hearing God’s word. Respectively, some people reject it; some receive it joyfully but cannot endure persecution; some hear it but are diverted by riches and the world’s cares; and some accept and understand it and bring forth fruit.

If we take this valuable parable too far, we might forget that ours is a God of Second Chances.

Having spent my youth on farms, growing grain, alfalfa, potatoes, and cattle – while tending a half-acre vegetable garden at home – I am cannot see the end of this parable as the end of the story.

Consider what the farmer and gardener do. If the soil is weak and shallow, they build it up – with organic matter and sometimes by bringing in more soil. If the soil is rocky, they remove the rocks. If birds steal the seed, they find ways to repel the birds. If weeds intrude, they spray or pull them, so the crop is not choked.

Our Sower returns to plant again and again, working faithfully to improve the soil – harrowing up our souls, when necessary (2 Nephi 9:47; Alma 14:6; 36:12; 39:7) – until he has done everything a God can do to save his children (see Moroni 7:36).

Lenten Reflections

In the Protestant tradition, today is the last day of Lent. (The precise span is different in other traditions.) Unlike most of the rest of the Christian world, Mormons don’t formally observe Lent. Our awareness of it tends to be shallow and cultural, not deep and devotional.

As in: People give things up for Lent, right? Like chocolate and reality television? Just to prove they can? Things they love and to which they intend to return? — because if they were things they should give up anyway, they wouldn’t wait for Lent, and their abstinence wouldn’t end with Lent, would it?

As in: Lent appears from the outside to be a needed respite after the day- or weeks-long bacchanal of Mardi Gras, an orgy of fleshly pleasures so intense that it takes participants six and a half weeks to detoxify (physically and/or spiritually) sufficiently that they can walk into church on Easter in a straight line and with a straight face.

This shallow, ignorant view of Lent makes it difficult to take seriously.

New Perspective

You’ve already guessed that I’ve begun to think more seriously of Lent. A favorite Christian blogger, Kim Hall (at GivenBreath.com) has been helping me, even if she doesn’t know it. In a lesser way, my Mormon bishop (pastor) helped this year, too. So did some people whose names, roles, and troubles I will not mention beyond this sentence, who have turned to me in recent weeks for counsel, comfort, or simply a listening ear.

Short Take: One Parable, Six Roles

Author’s Note

In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), a man is robbed and badly beaten. Some people help him, and some don’t.

The cast of characters includes thieves; their victim, who was probably a Jew; a Jewish religious leader (priest); a Jewish temple worker (Levite); a Samaritan, whom the Jews thought racially and religiously impure; and an innkeeper (called the host).

The thieves leave the victim half dead. The priest and Levite see him but keep their distance; contact with blood or a corpse would make them ceremonially unclean. The Samaritan had compassion and “went to him, and bound up his wounds, . . . and brought him to an inn, and took care of him,” leaving extra money with the innkeeper and promising more, if needed.

We might see ourselves in each of these roles.

One hopes we are never the thieves, wounding people and leaving them half dead. Are we ever the priest or Levite, using our (Christian) religion as an excuse not to be Christian? Sometimes we are the innkeeper, serving others in a supporting role.

We like ourselves in the role of Good Samaritan and aspire to play it often. “Go, and do thou likewise,” said the Lord.

This parable has another level, because we are also the thieves’ victim: damaged, fallen, left for dead. The Savior himself – “despised and rejected of men” (Isaiah 53:3), like a Samaritan – is the Good Samaritan, who rescues us, heals us, engages others to help us, and pays the full price of our redemption.

Short Take: Shepherds and Lambs

Author’s Note

God invited shepherds to visit the manger that night, then bear witness – not religious, civic, or business leaders (Luke 2:8-18). The God and Friend of ancient shepherds – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Abel, Moses – was not just being social. He was continuing a frequent and powerful symbol, declaring both who Jesus is to us – Shepherd and Lamb – and who we are to him. (See Isaiah 53:6-7; 1 Peter 2:25; 1 Nephi 13:41; Helaman 15:13.)

Observers of shepherds’ ancient ways report details which help us understand the symbolism.

Shepherds lead from the front, instead of driving from behind. (“Follow me” – see Matthew 9:9John 1:43.)

A shepherd knows the face, personality, and name of each sheep.

Each shepherd has a unique call, which his sheep recognize. (“My sheep hear my voice . . . and follow me” – John 10:27.)

Sheep generally follow their shepherd, but sometimes bolt. The shepherd knows which sheep is missing and goes to find it. Bringing a sheep back on one’s shoulders is heavy, smelly work.

A proper shepherd doesn’t recoil from an ailing sheep. He ministers.

A shepherd is compassionate. Jewish tradition tells of Moses tending a flock before his prophetic call. One sheep bolts. He pursues it all the way to a familiar watering hole. He is kind and understanding, not angry, and says, “It was because of thirst that you strayed.” He lets it drink, then carries it back to the flock.

Finally – as a prelude to our year’s study of the New Testament – when sheep hear their shepherd’s voice, they raise their heads, turn to him, listen, and gather to him.

Building Our Refuge

Author’s Note

We all have things in life which cause us to seek refuge – either refuge from our troubles, or at least a place where we can endure them in relative safety and find some measure of peace, kindness, and understanding.

There is a refuge for us. Its name is Zion. It is our place of safety, our land of peace, our refuge from the storm. (See D&C 45:66-71; 115:5-6.) In the temple we promise the Lord that we will build Zion – not someday in some other place, but here and now. This place where we live must be a refuge for us and for anyone else who may come here.

You might see a problem here: this place is where our troubles are. How can it also be our refuge?

I suggest four important refuges which together constitute our Zion. It’s important that, when any of the four fails to be a proper refuge for any of us, the others are already built and functioning.