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.

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).

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.  

What Mormons Mean: Translating General Conference (into English)

Every church or religion has its own vocabulary, which can easily make its meetings seem strange to outsiders. The Mormons are no exception.

Oh, boy, are we not an exception. We even think friendship is a verb; the ripples from this barbarous pebble are conspicuous at times. It’s a good thing the Lord is merciful. He gives us excellent, beautiful languages, and we insist on . . . But I digress.

A year or two ago, as I watched the first minutes of a Mormon general conference broadcast, I was struck by how many terms one would have to understand in the way Mormons do, in order to get just ten or fifteen minutes into a two-hour meeting. So this week I went back and watched the first 15 minutes of two previous conferences, making a list as I did so.

Here are some words and phrases you might have wanted to know, if you had been watching with me. The vocabulary will be approximately the same tomorrow, if you watch the first general session of the October 2014 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The definitions are brief, though the temptation is to be expansive.

What Mormons Mean: “The Church Is True”

If you spend any time in church-related settings with Mormons — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — it won’t be long before you hear phrases like this:

  • “I know the Church is true”
  • “the only true church”
  • “the only true and living Church on the face of the earth”

That last one is scripture for us.

What do we mean when we say our Church is true? What don’t we mean? Should you be offended, if you’re not a Mormon?

Short Take: Using the JST

Author’s Note

One purpose of the Book of Mormon is to establish the Bible’s truth (1 Nephi 13:40). Another is to restore “plain and precious things” which were lost from Bible (1 Nephi 13:24-29). After the Book of Mormon’s publication, God set Joseph Smith another large scriptural task: restore the Bible. The Bible is that important.

Under inspiration from heaven, Joseph restored much that was lost and corrected many errors. We usually call the result the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), though it is not a translation between languages. The LDS Church still uses the King James Version (KJV) – a longer story – but many JST excerpts are in footnotes and an appendix to the LDS publication of the KJV. Several whole chapters are included in the Pearl of Great Price. Noticing these enriches our reading and teaching.

For example, the JST version of the early chapters of Genesis is published in the Pearl of Great Price as the Book of Moses; the expansion is dramatic and priceless.

When Moses shows wonders to Pharaoh, beginning in Exodus 7, the KJV says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3, 13). The JST has Pharaoh hardening his own heart.

When John records – according to the KJV – both that Jesus baptized (John 3:22) and did not baptize (4:2), the JST says instead, in the latter case, that Jesus performed baptisms, but not as many as his disciples.

Short Take: “The Most Correct Book”

Author’s Note

The Book of Mormon’s title page suggests the book may contain “mistakes of men.” Joseph Smith called it “the most correct” book but didn’t call it perfect. Though written by God’s prophets and translated by God’s power, it actually cannot be perfect. Here’s why:

  • It is written in human language, which cannot fully describe divine things.
  • Human language constantly evolves. Many words don’t mean precisely what they meant two centuries ago.
  • The prophets could have written more perfectly in Hebrew, but had to use a simpler, more compact language to save space (Mormon 9:31-33).
  • The book is translated from language to language; in translation, any language pair poses challenges. Elsewhere, the Hebrew word describing Mary in Isaiah 7:14 could mean virgin or simply young woman. Other scripture says both apply, but what did Isaiah mean? The Russian word for evil also means angry, so whichever English translation I choose limits the meaning more than the author did.
  • We see the prophets themselves still learning, filling in gaps in knowledge with their opinions (Alma 40:19-21) or clarifying earlier writings after further revelation (3 Nephi 28:36-40).

Knowing all this helps us understand why we need so many accounts of the same gospel, prepares us to discover new meaning in familiar verses, and helps us not to be shaken when we encounter human imperfections in sacred texts. In the end, salvation is in the Word, not the words. (See John 5:39.)

Short Take: A Pattern in 1 Nephi 1

Author’s Note

Here’s something in the first chapter of the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 1) which is probably not a coincidence. Lehi’s experience parallels Joseph Smith’s.

In a time of great religious energy in Jerusalem (v. 4), Lehi goes to pray (v. 5). There comes a pillar of fire (v. 6), and he sees and hears much. He is physically exhausted by the experience (v. 7). Then he sees another vision, which includes the delivery of a book by a heavenly messenger (v. 11). The book is about God’s judgments on and the scattering of the House of Israel, and speaks plainly of the coming of a Messiah and the redemption of the world (vv. 13, 18-19).

Best of all, note that the book’s effects are the same as the Book of Mormon’s effects on us: “As he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord” (v. 12). Lehi’s soul rejoices; his heart is full; he praises God (v. 14-15).