Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Fast I Have Chosen

On the first Sunday of each month, many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints go without food or drink for two consecutive meals as part of a sacred fast. We are taught that fasting is incomplete without prayers of faith to ask the Lord for what we need and offerings to the poor and needy. I've written on these topics in the past. Re-reading some of the scriptures about fasting however, I believe that there is more involved in fasting.

The Lord rebuked ancient Israel for fasting without spiritual motivation. They afflict their souls, he states, but, "in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labors." He continues, "Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness... Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul?" (Isaiah 58:3-4).

Fasting in this way, the Lord tells the Israelites, only engenders discomfort and irritability. The Lord then teaches the Law of the Fast and how we can fast with appropriate intent:

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7).

These popular verses are often read with an emphasis on the power of fasting. Fasting can relieve oppression, lift our burdens and help us break the bonds of addiction and wickedness. Yet, these things don't happen simply because we do not eat or because we've written a check to the bishop for the poor. Fasting is more than that. Unlike the Israelites, who were chastised for working or seeking pleasure while they fasted, the Lord calls for us to follow His example and do His work on our day of fasting. This call echoes through the promised blessings for the faithful.

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.

If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday; And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.

And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in (Isaiah 58:8-12, emphasis added).

In other words, the spirit of fasting means that we not only pray for the oppressed but we spend our day helping to lift their burden and striving for their freedom. We should not only donate a fast offering to the poor, but we should find ways to serve and support those in need. In short, we should take the opportunity when we fast to live our baptismal covenant, mourning with those that mourn and comforting those that stand in need of comfort, so that we might be called a repairer of the breach and a restorer of paths to dwell in. When we cannot serve those for whom we are fasting, we can serve others and know the Lord is mindful of our sacrifice.

As with all other gospel principles, the intent of the Law of the Fast is to soften our hearts and bring us closer to our Savior, Jesus Christ. We should be more like Him because we have fasted. When we fast each month, or more often if we so choose, we should be able to genuinely feel the words of the poet stirring in our souls:

On bended knees, with broken hearts,
We come before thee, Lord,
In secret and in open prayer--
Oh, wilt thou speak thy word?

We've shared our bread with those in need,
Relieved the suff'ring poor
The stranger we have welcomed in--
Wilt thou impart thy store?

As witnesses, we gather here
To thank, and to attest
Of mercies and of miracles--
Oh, still our lives so bless!

Feed thou our souls, fill thou our hearts,
And bless our fast, we pray,
That we may feel thy presence here
And feast with thee today.
(John Sears Tanner)

Sunday, May 24, 2020

No Unhallowed Hand

Joseph Smith once declared that "no unhallowed hand can stop [God's] work from progressing". While that hasn't stopped some people from trying, it is instructive to note that opposing efforts often contribute more to the progress of God's work than they ever detract from it.

A classic example can be found in the people of Amulon. Amulon and his followers had lived lavish, idolatrous lives as priests supported by the burdensome taxes imposed by King Noah. When their country was invaded, they abandoned their families to preserve their own lives and then later kidnapped some women from a rival nation to be their new wives. Given the opportunity to oversee a righteous people, Amulon  and his followers oppressed the righteous severely and forbid prayer and religious worship. It is easy to think that nothing good could have come from Amulon.

Yet, we read that the righteous oppressed by Amulon actually grew in faith until they were eventually delivered from Amulon's rule altogether (Mosiah 24:12-16). Meanwhile, Amulon and his followers taught the language of the Nephites in every land of the Lamanites, paving the way for Ammon and his brothers to have missionary successes only a few years later (Mosiah 24:4).

When Joseph Smith knelt to pray, he was "siezed upon by some power which entirely overcame [him], and had such an astonishing influence over [him] as to bind [his] tongue so that [he] could not speak." Yet, this attack only led Joseph to exert all his energy to calling upon God and led to not only his deliverance, but his calling as a prophet and the beginning of the restoration of Christ's church and gospel (Joseph Smith-History 1:15-20).

Subsequent offenses from apostates, politicians and mobs had similar results, leading Brigham Young to declare, "Every time you kick [the Church] you kick it upstairs; you never kick it downstairs. The Lord Almighty so orders it" (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1941, p. 351).

The greatest opposition was reserved for the Savior himself. Though he "went about doing good" (Acts 10:38), he was hated by the leaders that claimed to be seeking him and betrayed by one of his own disciples. The people sought to kill him on several occasions and by several means, even setting traps to facilitate his demise, and finally delivered him to the Romans to be crucified. Though the governor could find no fault with him, Christ was nailed to a cross and left to die.

If any act could be perceived to hinder the work of God, killing His chosen son would seem to be it. Yet, even this advanced, rather than hindered, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Isaiah prophesied of Christ:

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised with our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:3-5).

Through the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, we can be forgiven of our sins, redeemed from death and empowered to act in faith beyond our own ability. As the Lord taught Joseph Smith in the Liberty Jail, no matter the obstacle or the odds, "if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good" (D&C 122:7).

Perhaps some of that experience was reflected in Joseph Smith's letter to Mr. John Wentworth, editor and proprietor of the Chicago Democrat, written three years after his inhumane treatment in Liberty. Declared the prophet:

The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear; till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Prospering by Degrees

After being captured by the Lamanites, the people of Limhi sought for deliverance. Three times they lashed out in armed conflict against their oppressors; and three times they were soundly defeated and suffered great losses. Finally, they turned to the Lord, but their prayers were answered in a way they perhaps did not expect.

The scriptures record that the people of Limhi "did humble themselves even in the depths of humility; and they did cry mightily to God; yea, even all the day long did they cry unto their God that he would deliver them out of their afflictions" (Mosiah 21:14). Perhaps their prayers were like many of ours, hoping for the Lord to grant a quick and complete relief from the burdens and afflictions they were forced to bear. Perhaps some of them were disappointed or began to waver when they woke up, day after day, with Lamanite guards still surrounding their city.

Although the desired outcome was not immediate, "the Lord did hear their cries, and began to soften the hearts of the Lamanites that they began to ease their burdens... [and] they began to prosper by degrees in the land, and began to raise grain more abundantly, and flocks, and herds, that they did not suffer with hunger" (Mosiah 21:15-16).

Relative prosperity allowed Limhi to send a group of men to find the Nephites. They were unsuccessful in their mission, but on their journey they discovered a record of a people who had become extinct. Thinking they had returned empty handed, the hearts of the people turned to the Lord and began to desire that they could be baptized and serve Him with all of their hearts.

Finally, Ammon and his men found the people of Limhi and helped them devise a plan to escape from their Lamanite captors. Mosiah, the Nephite king and a seer, translated the record and found it to be an insightful account and scripture in its own right. Though their prayers were not answered as quickly or in the way the people of Limhi had perhaps hoped, they were delivered from oppression in their bondage, strengthened in their faith, and then delivered from bondage as different people than they were when they were lashing out with wars against the Lamanites.

While we are promised that the Lord's grace is sufficient for us, sometimes we miss the blessings He grants in our lives because we are looking for grand and spectacular splashes of divine intervention. We want singing angels and the division of the Red Sea. While those things happen, we must learn that they are the exception rather than the rule. The Lord is usually more subtle.

Behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise. And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls" (Alma 37:6-7).

When we feel like lashing out against our oppressors, or that our faithful prayers are not being answered, we will often find that our faithful actions are being prospered by degrees. Maybe our clothes or our car or our employment is lasting longer or providing better than they otherwise should. Sometimes we will feel peace or patience or joy when others are panicked and distraught. Maybe we're learning foundational principles or building our relationship with God in ways that will enrich the rest of our lives.

However the Lord chooses to bless us, we can find confidence in his unbreakable promises:

The Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith. Nevertheless-- whosoever putteth his trust in him the same shall be lifted up at the last day (Mosiah 23:21-22).

"But behold, Zion hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me-- but he will show that he hath not. For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me. They children shall make haste against thy destroyers; and they that made thee waste shall go forth of thee" (1 Nephi 21:14-17).

Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good; yea, when thou liest down at night lie down unto the Lord, that he may watch over you in your sleep; and when thou risest in the morning let thy heart be full of thanks unto God; and if ye do these things, ye shall be lifted up at the last day (Alma 37:37).

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Leadership Lessons from Those Not Called

In the two hundred years since Joseph Smith was called to be a prophet, others have come forward with claims of divine appointment. In each case, the Lord has directed his people to follow the prophets and apostles he has called and ordained to lead his Church. Comparing the leadership of those who sought to lead with those who have been called to lead, and with the help of two centuries of leadership studies since the establishment of the Church, reveals a pattern that can inform the behavior of disciples regardless of their present callings.

One of the first challenges to the singular authority of a prophet came from other significant players in the restoration of the gospel. In the summer of 1830, just months after the Church was founded, Oliver Cowdery, then the Second Elder of the Church, wrote to Joseph Smith. Oliver had drafted articles to govern the new church that were superseded by the Articles and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ authored by Joseph Smith. Oliver disapproved of Joseph's inclusion of demonstrable works as a requirement for baptism and commanded Joseph "in the name of God to erase those words" (Joseph Smith, "History, 1838-1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805-30 August 1834]," 51, Oliver Cowdery had also convinced the Whitmer Family, who had themselves played significant roles in witnessing the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Church, to support his position.

Upon receiving Oliver's letter, Joseph authored a response that questioned Oliver's authority to command alteration of a revelation or commandment from God. Within a few days, Joseph had also begun a journey from his home in Pennsylvania to speak with Oliver and the Whitmers in person where he was eventually able to reason with them. Joseph later recorded, "And thus was this error rooted out, which having its rise in presumption and rash judgement, was the more particularly calculated (when once fairly understood) to teach each and all of us the necessity of humility, and meekness before the Lord, that he might teach us of his ways; that we might walk in his paths, and live by every word which proceedeth forth from his mouth" (Joseph Smith, "History, 1838-1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805 - 30 August 1834]," 51.).

Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith both wanted to see the restored gospel grow and prosper in the earth. Both men were faithful and had been essential to the work that had been completed thus far, as was the Whitmer Family. In this case however, Oliver and the Whitmer Family proudly asserted that what they thought they knew was right. In contrast, Joseph sought to humbly learn from the Lord and execute His will.

Best-selling leadership author Jim Collins has identified what he calls "Level 5 Leadership" as a key determinant of an organization's success. Level 5 leaders, he writes, embody "a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will." They are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company (or organization they lead), not themselves" (Good to Great, p. 39). Level 5 leaders also focus on results, are "more plow horse than show horse", credit others for successes, take responsibility for failures, and set up their successors for even greater success in the next generation.

We see Level 5 leadership in Joseph Smith's response. Though he was not the cause of the misunderstanding, he took responsibility for it and exerted significant effort to not only write a correction but then follow up with a visit that required a 300-mile journey on horseback. He was driven to restore unity-- not to protect his own ego, but because it was what the Lord required. Over the next fourteen years, Joseph Smith would be constantly training future leaders in the School of the Prophets, in Zion's Camp, and through dozens of other experiences. 

Later in the summer of 1830, Joseph and Emma Smith returned to the Whitmer Farm to find that the Whitmer's son-in-law, Hiram Page, claimed to be using a stone to receive divine revelation for the Church. Several members believed in these revelations, including Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmer Family. After unsuccessfully attempting to reason with the Saints as he had earlier that summer, Joseph Smith sought the revelation that appears in the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 28. THe Lord teaches Oliver Cowdery in this revelation about the relevant principles of leadership and how they should have been applied in this situation:

Behold, I say unto thee, Oliver, that it shall be given unto thee that thou shalt be heard by the church in all things whatsoever thou shalt teach them by the Comforter, concerning the revelations and commandments which I have given. But behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.

And thou shalt be obedient unto the things which I shall give unto him, even as Aaron, to declare faithfully the commandments and the revelations, with power and authority unto the church. And if thou art led at any time by the Comforter to speak or teach, or at all times by the way of commandment unto the church, thou mayest do it. But thou shalt not write by way of commandment, but by wisdom; And thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the head of the church; For I have given him the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed, until I shall appoint unto them another in his stead (D&C 28:1-7).

The revelation affirms that Hiram Page's stone was a deception of the devil and assigned Oliver to privately address the issue with Hiram. Joseph Smith's history records that the the stone was discussed at a church conference in September and, "after considerable investigation, Brother Page, as well as the whole church who were present, renounced the said stone, and all things connected therewith, much to our mutual satisfaction and happiness" (Joseph Smith, "History, 1838-1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805 - 30 August 1834]," 51.).

In the language of modern leadership theory, the Lord is telling Oliver Cowdery about his role as the first follower. First followers are often undervalued as leaders, but they are the difference between an individual with an idea and a movement. They are exposed to the same ridicule as the leader who courageously stands up and yet they make it less risky for others to join in. It would be incredibly impractical for everyone to lead or to do what the leader does, but the first follower provides an example for all of the other followers so they know what to do to be part of the movement. This is Aaron's responsibility to Moses and Oliver Cowdery's responsibility to Joseph Smith.

Following the conference, the Lord also provided another revelation addressing a few of the Whitmers. To David Whitmer, the Lord said, "Behold, I say unto you, David, that you have feared man and have not relied on me for strength as you ought. But your mind has been on the things of the earth more than on the things of me, your Maker, and the ministry whereunto you have been called; and you have not given heed unto my Spirit, and to those who were set over you, but have been persuaded by those whom I have not commanded" (D&C 30:1-2, emphasis added).

David Whitmer appears to have forgotten this chastisement and admonition of the Lord and it led to further chastisement over his leadership in Missouri. When economic failures in 1837 led many even prominent members of the Church to be disillusioned, several elders who considered Joseph Smith to be a fallen prophet called a meeting in the Kirtland Temple to appoint David Whitmer as the new Church leader. The effort was unsuccessful, but one of the main charges brought against David Whitmer when he was excommunicated in 1838 was, "possessing the same spirit with the Dissenters" (Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record, Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1844, Salt Lake City, 1983, p. 177). Though he never denied his witness of the Book of Mormon, David Whitmer left the Church and lived his life in Missouri.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, the academic authors of The Leadership Challenge, have argued that leadership is about behavior-- an observable set of skills and abilities-- rather than personality. The first of five core practices they endorse is what they call "modeling the way." Modeling the way includes establishing standards of excellence and then setting an example for others to follow so they know how to win. The other four practices are inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act, and encouraging the heart.

David Whitmer may have been demonstrating many of these leadership behaviors as the head of an apostate rebellion, but the best leadership lifts followers to higher heights than they would have found on their own. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young inspired thousands to make incredible journeys, to withstand brutal persecutions, to build some of the finest cities and most industrious economies of their time, to advance technology and accelerate learning, and to make and keep sacred covenants with God. Without the standard of excellence, leadership fizzles and the crowds disperse.

Perhaps a greater threat during the Kirtland years was a man named Warren Parrish. Parrish had served in Zion's Camp and held prestigious positions including as a missionary, a member of the First Quorum of Seventy, and as Joseph Smith's personal secretary and scribe. Yet, one of the reasons the Church-supported bank ultimately failed was because Parrish and others were stealing funds. When this was discovered, Parrish was excommunicated (Smith, George A. "Historical Discourse," Journal of Discourses, 11:1-11).

Warren Parrish responded to excommunication with a bitter drive to destroy Joseph Smith and the Church. He wrote letters to local papers expressing his anger with "infidel" church leaders and used violence and threats of violence to force Joseph Smith to leave Kirtland. Parrish eventually lead a group of dissenters to form a new church based first in Kirtland and then in Far West, Missouri. The new church intended, "to renounce the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, and take the 'Mormon' doctrines to overthrow all the religions in the world, and unite all the Christian churches in one general band, and they to be its great leaders" (Smith, George A. "Divine Origin of 'Mormonism' - Doings and Sayings of Early Opposers and Apostates", Journal of Discourses, 7:111-117).

Among those who supported Warren Parrish was Martin Harris, the man who had financed the first printing of the Book of Mormon and was a witness of the plates from which it was translated. When Parrish began claiming that the Book of Mormon and subsequent revelations were 'nonsense', division arose and Parrish's church soon dissolved. He went on to be a baptist preacher.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) teaches us about the difference between "away from" motivation, or opposition to something, and "toward" motivation, or support for something. Opposition is unsustainable because our motivation wavers as we get some distance from the source of our pain or anger. This is why dieters, who are often more opposed to being fat than they are driven to be fit, often lose motivation after losing only a few pounds (or gaining only a little distance between them and the thing they oppose). Opposition is also less clear (does that mean avoid them or burn down their houses?), doesn't inform our unconscious mind, and is more stressful on our bodies and on our minds.

The devil and his followers provide useful opposition in the plan of God. The destructive path they promote is limited. These spend their strength being angry or claiming they have been wronged rather than doing things that could lead to progress. They are, in the end, damned as much by their own inaction as they are by any external force. In contrast, the Church and gospel of Jesus Christ focus disciples on the powerfully motivating happiness we can experience in this life and the eternal blessings available after death.

Since the time of Joseph Smith, others have claimed the right to lead God's people collectively or in particular doctrines or situations. Upon the death of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon claimed the Lord wanted him to be a guardian of the church rather than continuing with a succession of prophets. In 1858, Walter Gibson claimed to be the prophet for the saints in Hawaii. Local church leaders in Cedar City ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Elias Harrison and William Godbe claimed revelation from deceased church leaders through seances and opposed church counsel on economic matters. Others have claimed inspiration that the church should accept homosexual marriage, ordain women to the priesthood, or support some other position they think is right or true.

Leadership studies give us insights that help explain how the Lord's ordained have been successful leaders; but it does not explain why they were successful or how they knew to use the techniques they did hundreds of years before scholars began studying leadership in earnest. Jim Collins wrote Good to Great 173 years after Joseph Smith needed humility and a focus on the larger organization in addressing Oliver Cowdery's demands. The Lord's pattern for leadership, including first followers, standards of excellence, and "toward" motivation, was established even before the foundation of this world.

President Thomas S. Monson has taught, "When we are on the Lord's errand, we are entitled to the Lord's help. Remember that whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies" (Ensign, May 1996). The Lord has promised his servants that he, "will go before [their] face... [and] be on [their] right hand and on [their] left, and [His] Spirit shall be in [their] hearts, and [His] angels round about [them]" (D&C 84:88). He inspires his servants to lead well, when they are called to such, and even to use effective methods that may be considered unorthodox or different from the identified or standard practices of the day.

We get to choose who we will follow, but the Lord has promised that if we receive the words of his prophets "as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith," then "the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good and his name's glory" (D&C 21:5-6). When we follow the Lord and his chosen leaders we can "rejoice in his glorious gospel and bask in its life-giving light" while "they who reject this glad message shall never such happiness know" (We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet, Hymns, 19).

Sunday, April 19, 2020

As a Child: A Scriptural Daisy Chain

A "daisy chain" is a garland that can be made by threading several daisies together into a single loop that can be worn as a bracelet or a necklace. The term is also used to refer to a single chain of electronic devices working in concert or a series of load-bearing straps used to extend the length of a sling used to hold a rock climber.

The scriptures are full of verses that can be thread together to help us better understand the beauty, the harmony and the safeguards the gospel provides. For example, this week my family discovered this sequence beginning with King Benjamin teaching his people:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father (Mosiah 3:19).

And finally, I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them. But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not (Mosiah 4:29-30).

Christ taught the same doctrine during his ministry:

At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:1-4).

The Lord who is our Judge exalts those who choose to control their passions and submit their will to His, just as He knelt in submission to our Heavenly Father:

Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder. And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.

And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy. And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. Then cometh he to his disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me (Matthew 26:36-46).

This example is the preface of King Benjamin's teachings in Mosiah 3. In his words:

For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases. And he shall cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwell in the hearts of the children of men.

And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people. And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary.

And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name; and even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him. And he shall rise the third day from the dead; and behold, he standeth to judge the world; and behold, all these things are done that a righteous judgement might come upon the children of men (Mosiah 3:5-10).

From Mosiah chapter 3 around the chain and back again, we can enjoy a richer study as we string verses of scripture together to better understand the gospel.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

To the Seven Churches

In the Revelation of St. John the Divine, the beloved apostle sees the resurrected Savior:

And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man... His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength...

And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last; I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore (Revelation 1:13-18).

The Lord appeared to John in this apocryphal vision with personalized messages for seven churches or congregations in Asia. These congregations are compared to candlesticks holding up the gospel as a light in the unenlightened world (see Revelation 1:20). The seven stars are the seven angels or servants of the seven churches. These leaders of the church in Asia were held in the Lord's right hand to show their divine authority and approval (see Mark 16:19).

It is insightful to understand that the number seven, particularly in apocryphal texts, represents perfection or completeness and is closely associated with God and covenants. Thus, the world was created in seven days, the Sabbath was traditionally the seventh day of the week, and so on. John's assignment as the last remaining apostle and president of the ancient church at this time was to relay the word of God, which is sharper than a two-edged sword (see Hebrews 4:12), to these congregations specifically and to the complete church and its leaders. The exact words for this medieval General Conference-by-mail were dictated directly from the Lord himself.

The Lord uses the same four-step pattern in addressing each of the churches. First, he introduces himself and establishes his credibility. Next, he praises the saints for what they have done well. Third, he reproves the churches for their sins. Finally, he promises blessings to those who remain faithful.

Though he follows the same general pattern in delivering his message, the Lord personalizes his counsel and demonstrates a knowledge of the unique circumstances, challenges and needs the members of the church are facing in each region. His words have been preserved for our benefit as well as those who lived anciently.

The Lord commands John to write first to the servant of the church at Ephesus:

These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars; And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.

Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.

But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; to him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God (Revelation 2:1-7).

The Lord testifies that he knows the Ephesians and commends them for their faithfulness. He endorses their rejection of false apostles and Nicolaitan preaching of grace for sexual sin. He admonishes the people of Ephesus because they have become somewhat casual or complacent in their worship, having drifted from the diligence they had when they first learned to love the gospel. Finally, the Lord promises salvation to those who press forward.

Each of the six remaining churches received counsel from the Lord. To the Saints in Smyrna, the Lord shared:

Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life (Revelation 2:10).

Scholars believe this revelation was received between 80 - 100 A.D. The Great Apostasy was already beginning. The Lord warned the people of Smyrna that they would be persecuted for ten days. In Hebrew, the number ten represents "all". Though their tribulations would last their entire lives, the Lord promises that those who are faithful to the end of their lives will "not be hurt of the second death" (Revelation 2:11).

Pergamos was the center of the religion of emperor worship imposed by Rome. The Lord acknowledged this challenge in the lives of the saints in Pergamos and praised the faithful martyrs who were killed because they would not deny the faith. He admonishes:

I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam... so hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:14-15).

The doctrine of Balaam refers to an account in Numbers of a man who agreed to curse Israel by preaching idolatry, sexual permissiveness and other false doctrines in exchange for money, power and influence. The Lord warns that those engaging in these behaviors must, "Repent; or else I will come unto them quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth" (Revelation 2:16).

Following the same pattern as used with the other churches, the Lord then promises:

To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it (Revelation 2:17).

Just as the ancient Israelites survived in the desert because of the daily bread, or manna, provided by the Lord, Christ is the "bread of life" that sustains spiritual life (John 6:35, 48). Some of the doctrines of Christ are reserved for the faithful and taught only in the temple or through personal revelation. Paul explained:

Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).

The Lord revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith:

The white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known; And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word (D&C 130:10-11).

To those challenged by a community embracing priestcraft and false doctrines, the Lord offered a personal tutoring in truths and doctrines inaccessible to those who are not on His errand. Those faithful who continue to follow Christ are provided both wisdom to refute the falsehoods all around them and a promise of exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God.

In Thyatira, the Lord praises the people for their great faith, charity and works, but vehemently rejects a particular false prophetess who had seduced many into idolatry and fornication. The Lord states that they will have "none other burden" but to be pure in heart and counsels the saints:

But that which ye have already hold fast till I come. And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations" (Revelation 2:25-26).

In Sardis, the Lord cautioned those who, though living, were spiritually dead:

I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful therefore, and strengthen those who remain, who are ready to do: for I have not found thy works perfect before God... He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels (Revelation 3:1-2, 5).

For the saints in Philadelphia, the Lord establishes himself as the holder of the key of David. This is the key to the temple, or symbolically the key to God's presence. He commends the saints for not denying his name. He warns that there are those among them who pretend to have taken the Lord's name upon them but, in reality, are lying members of "the synagogue of Satan". He promises:

Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name (Revelation 3:12).

Finally, to the Laodiceans, the Lord commands John to write:

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth...

As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and he with me. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame and am set down with my Father in his throne (Revelation 3:15-16, 19-21).

In each case, the Lord is mindful of the challenges of his people and offers blessings to offset those challenges for the faithful. He makes knowledge available to those surrounded by false teachings, offers the presence of God in the temple to those living in an environment that is not uplifting, and promises eternal life to those who give their lives for the gospel.

Likewise, the Lord knows the challenges in each of our lives. He has made the fullness of the gospel available in our day so that the light of our faith may continue to shine in a wicked and cynical world. He teaches us through his spirit and directs his church through revelations to inspired leaders. Sometimes the messages we hear from those leaders build our faith in Christ or share things that we are doing well. Often, the same leaders call us to repentance and give us hope that we can receive the blessings the Lord has in store for us.

Those who overcome are promised that they will see the Lord, as John the Beloved did in the meridian of time. Perhaps our experience will be similar to what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery experienced in the Kirtland Temple:

The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened. We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber.

His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying: I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father.

Behold, your sins are forgiven you; you are clean before me; therefore, lift up your heads and rejoice (D&C 110:1-5).

Monday, January 6, 2020

Stars to Guide Us

A classic Christmas song heralds the twelve days of Christmas with gifts marking each one. While Americans sometimes tire of that particular Christmas song, many European and South American cultures celebrate all twelve days from December 25 to January 6 as part of the holiday season.

Each of the twelve days of Christmas has a particular meaning a purpose. The first day, of course, is a celebration of the birth of Christ. In some cultures, it is the messenger of the baby Jesus, rather than Santa, that provides gifts for the children on this day. The second day, Boxing Day, is a day for giving gifts to the poor, and so on.

The final day of Christmas has dual meaning. Twelve is a symbol in scriptures for authority and completeness; for God in heaven and His government. The twelfth and final day is therefore celebrated as Epiphany, a celebration of Christ's achievement and glory. It is also Three Kings Day, a grand finale in recognition of Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, or the three magi who are traditionally believed to have completed their travel from the east to worship the Christ child on this day.

The Gospel of Matthew teaches that the three magi or wise men followed a star that guided them to Jesus' location outside of Jerusalem. Stars had been used for navigation for thousands of years prior to this historic visit and continued to be the primary method for mariners and explorers to determine latitude, longitude and course until the late twentieth century.

In fact, a thousand years ago the largest empire in the world was established on an advanced understanding of celestial navigation. This empire was not in London, Paris, Madrid, Shanghai, Moscow or Rome. It was not the result of conquest nor secured with cannons. Its' leaders are not heralded in most history books or known in popular culture. Yet, the mighty Polynesian Empire once controlled an area of the Pacific Ocean nearly twice as large as the United States or Europe. Despite limited technology and the perils of sea travel, the Polynesians' knowledge of the stars allowed for epic voyages, the development of strategic alliances and one of the most impressive trade networks in the history of the world. From Aotearoa to Easter Island to Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Tahiti, the Polynesian Triangle dominated more than six million square miles of the Pacific.

In the northern hemisphere, celestial navigation focuses on the position of the North Star. When the sun has set, travelers on land and sea look for the bright, unchanging star at the end of the Little Dipper's handle to set their course. While other stars move throughout the night, the North Star is positioned almost directly above the northern axis of the earth and so appears due North as the world turns.

Interestingly, the North Star is actually three stars: Polaris A, Polaris B, and Polaris Ab. Polaris A is roughly six times the size of our sun and two thousand times brighter. Orbiting around a common center of mass and located approximately 323 light years away, the three stars are indistinguishable to the naked eye.

Just as the stars have guided wise men, emperors and explorers, the Lord has provided lights to guide us back into his presence. Elder Boyd K. Packer has counseled us to, "Set that sextant in your mind to the word covenant or the word ordinance. The light will come through. Then you can fix your position and set a true course in life" (May 1987).

Ordinances are sacred acts performed by the authority of the priesthood and designed by God to teach spiritual truths. Five ordinances are essential to our salvation and exaltation: baptism, confirmation, ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood for men, endowment and sealing. Each of these ordinances, like stars along a plotted course, are accompanied by specific covenants and blessings.

A covenant is a sacred promise between God and his children. God sets the conditions for each covenant and offers blessings for our obedience. We are all given agency to choose to enter the covenant or not, but we cannot expect to reach the Lord's desired destination for us unless we plot the course he has outlined. That is, we have no claim on the promised blessings, including our own salvation and/or exaltation, unless we have agreed to the terms.

Baptism, for example, is the first of the essential saving ordinances. We enter a covenant when we are baptized by immersion in water by one having authority. The prophet Alma taught:

Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another's burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life--

Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you (Mosiah 18:8-10)?

Alma outlined both requirements and blessings for the faithful who are baptized, but it is clear in scripture that we must be baptized to return to the presence of our Heavenly Father. Christ taught his followers that "strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14). More explicitly, he taught Nicodemus: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5).

Similar requirements and blessings are associated with the remaining essential ordinances. The Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood requires greater discipline and effort but offers greater rewards:

For whoso is faithful unto the obtaining these two priesthoods of which I have spoken, and the magnifying their calling, are sanctified by the Spirit unto the renewing of their bodies. They become the sons of Moses and of Aaron and the seed of Abraham, and the church and kingdom, and the elect of God. 

And also all they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord... And he that receiveth me receiveth my father; And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father's kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him. And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood (D&C 84:33-39).

Even greater than the ancient Polynesian Empire is the Kingdom of God spread out across the cosmos. We are invited to join this glorious kingdom. To do so, we must do as the wise men did millennia ago and seek the Lord by following the lights he has provided. In accepting covenants we will be strengthened and taught along our path. We will be able to to see the next step and learn what we need to know. We can be endowed with divine power and sealed to our families for time and for all eternity. Many other blessings are available to those who will seek divine light.

Success in this journey can take more than our lifetime, but we must not allow our efforts to tire or fade. Those who are faithful in keeping the covenants they have made and endure the crosses of the world are promised to be made perfect in Christ, to complete their journey in the presence of our Eternal Father, and to take their place in His grand and glorious kingdom. Then we will feel to rejoice in the Epiphany of Christ with the poet who exclaimed:

How great the wisdom and the love
That filled the courts on high
And sent the Savior from above
To suffer, bleed, and die!

He marked the path and led the way,
And ev'ry point defines
To light and life and endless day
Where God's full presence shines.

How great, how glorious, how complete
Redemption's grand design,
Where justice, love, and mercy meet
In harmony divine!
(Eliza R. Snow, 1804-1887)