The Earliest Part of the Book of Mormon

ChapterheaderSample1Although our project this year is to carefully read the Book of Mormon in the order of its composition, the earliest portion of Joseph Smith’s gold plates manuscript was lost (and consequently did not make its way into the Book of Mormon when it was published in 1830).

The first phase of the writing began after Joseph and Emma moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where her father Isaac Hale set them up with a small house of their own in December of 1828. The composition process was oral: Joseph dictated and Emma wrote down the text. Martin Harris, who was emerging as the chief financier of the project, visited a couple times in early 1829 before relocating to Harmony on April 12 and taking up work as the principal scribe.[1] By the middle of June, a significant portion of the work was complete and Martin convinced Joseph to let him take the working manuscript back to Palmyra, where it was stolen and probably destroyed.

The lost section is generally called the “116 pages,” (although that figure refers to the number of pages of the later replacement manuscript covering the lost section and not the actual number of pages lost). This first section is also called the “Book of Lehi.” From the later internal narrative of the Book of Mormon, the lost text was said to have been first part of an abridgment or edited summary of a much longer collection of records. The Book of Mormon takes its name from Mormon, who was the editor of the abridgment. Properly speaking this name should only refer to the lost 116 pages and the section of the text from “Words of Mormon” through the “Book of Mormon” within the Book of Mormon, i.e., because the Book of First Nephi through the Book of Omni, and then the Book of Ether and the Book of Moroni are not meant to have been part of Mormon’s abridgment.

We’ll explore the device of texts within the text in future weeks; suffice to say that that although we’re attempting to read the book in the order it was composed this year, we can’t start with the original beginning because it is lost. However, we do have something else. (If you’re following along in our weekly readings, you’ll already know what that something is.) In July of 1828, Joseph dictated a new text — with Emma once again replacing Martin as scribe. Joseph used the same procedure that he had been employing to dictate the Book of Mormon with the key difference that the plates were not involved at all, even conceptually. The result was an original message of rebuke, but also consolation. (Because of later alterations when the text was published in the Book of Commandments and again when included in the Doctrine and Covenants, I’m quoting here from the text as copied into the “Revelation Book 1” manuscript, transcribed by the Joseph Smith Papers Project.)

Beginning with the assurance that “the works & designs & the Purposes of God cannot be frustrated”, we read: “although a man may have many Revelations & have power to do many Mighty works yet if he boast in his own strength & Sets at naught the councils of God & follows after the dictates of his will & carnal desires he must fall to the Earth & incur the vengence of a Just God”.[2]  However, the warning is probationary: Joseph has messed up, but he’s going to get a second chance:

[B]ehold thou art Joseph & thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord but because of transgression thou mayest fall but remember God is merciful therefore repent of that which thou hast done & he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season & thou art still chosen & will & will again be called to the work & except Thou do this thou shalt be delivered up & become as other men & have no more gift[.][3]

In the first several paragraphs, God is referred to in the third person (he, his) and Joseph in the second (you, your, thou, thee, thy) as if the Joseph who is dictating the text is acting as a kind of disembodied narrator to the Joseph who is receiving the message. However, that changes briefly in the final paragraph[4]:

[F]or as the knowledge of a Saveiour hath come to the world so shall the knowledge of my People the Nephities & the Jacobites & the Josephites & the Lamanites come to the Lamanites knowledge of the Lamanites & the Lamanites [Lemuelites] & the Ishmaelites which dwindeled in unbelief because of the iniquities of their Fathers who hath been suffered to destroy their Brethren because of their iniquities & their Abominations & for this very Purpose are these Plates prepared which contain these Records that the Promises of the Lord might be fulfilled which he made to his People & that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their Fathers & that they may know the Promises of the Lord that they may believe the Gospel & rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ & that they might be glorified through faith in his name & that they might repent & be Saved Amen[.]

With the phrase “my People the Nephites,” Joseph appears to slip into the prophetic voice for the first time — moving from the indirect discourse of God speaking of his people to the direct discourse of God speaking about “my people” in the first person.[5] (And I say “appear to slip” in because by the end with “his People” and “his name” he has already slipped back out again.) Joseph’s use of the prophet voice (which will build considerably in future revelations) was a restoration or imitation of ancient Israelite prophets, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, who presumed to speak messages of rebuke, counsel, and hope to people and individuals, invoking God in the first person.

Thus, out of the crisis of the lost text, we have the start of something new: Joseph the seer is now beginning to act as Joseph the prophet. Ultimately, the assertion of direct revelation was probably just as important as the publication of the Book of Mormon for the foundation of the Latter Day Saint movement that followed. But as the first instance illustrates, the history and forms of both are intertwined.

We can note also that in addition to rehearsing some of the contents of the lost text — it was apparently a story about the Nephites, Jacobites, and Josephites who were destroyed because of their iniquities and abominations by the Lamanites, [Lemuelites], and Ishmaelites — we also are told the purpose of the work: to give the “Lamanites” a history that will lead to belief in Jesus Christ and ultimate salvation. We’ll surely talk more about all of the above in the weeks to come.

Next week’s assignment: Mosiah 1 (CofC); Mosiah 1-3 (LDS).

 

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[1] An extremely useful chronology of this period is found in Dan Vogel (ed.) Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Signature Books, 1996-2003), 5:337-456. A briefer, but still useful chronology can be found in Grant Hardy (ed.) The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois, 2003), 643-52.

[2] In the original, the scribe wrote “the words of designs” but crossed out “words of” correcting the text to read “works & designs”. See: http://josephsmithpapers.org/ : the-papers, Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revlation Books (2), Revelation Book 1, pages 3-4.

[3] Later edits will soften this rebuke somewhat. When published in the 1833 Book of Commandments as “Chapter II”: “thou mayest fall” becomes “if thou art not aware thou wilt fall.” And by the time the same text was included in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants as “Section XXX,” the line “therefore repent of that which thou has done & he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season & thou art still chosen” became “therefore repent of that which thou hast done, which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen”.

[4] This changed when the text was edited. The text in the Book of Commandments read: “Therefore, repent of that which thou has done, and he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season, and thou are still chosen…” The altered text in the D&C reads: “therefore, repent of that which thou hast done, which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen…” which retroactively introduces God as “I”.

[5] These prophetic compositions (now usually referred to as “revelations”) were often initially called “commandments” and were collected, edited, and published in the Book of Commandments (1833). They were later edited again and rebranded as “covenants” when included in the Doctrine and Covenants (1835). This first revelation became “Chapter II” of the Book of Commandments and “Section XXX” of the 1835 D&C. (It’s now Community of Christ D&C 2 and LDS D&C 3.)

This series is cross-posted on Wheat and Tares.

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Reading the Book of Mormon in 2014 with Fresh Eyes

BooksOfMormonIn the new year 2014, I’m going to read the Book of Mormon.

I’ve opined more than once that as a major work of American literature, the Book of Mormon is unfairly ignored by readers outside the Restoration tradition. I believe the book can (and should) be read as an epic of the young American republic in the first generations after the revolution. With a few exceptions like Harold Bloom, most non-Mormons have either followed Mark Twain’s humorous panning of the text (as impenetrably boring)[1] or they’ve disregarded it altogether.

Even within the Restoration tradition, the book has tended to be used in particular ways. For the earliest members in the 1830s, the Book of Mormon was apparently more important as a sign of the end times and prophetic authority than as a source of theological content for preaching.[2] Over the years I suspect that readers within the tradition have tended to read the text as a history book — in keeping with the idea that the religion of Mormonism has history in place of a systematic theology. Recently, for many readers committed to reading the text as a literalistic history of the ancient Americas, this has led (in my opinion) to substantial distortions of its original meaning as the book is reframed through the prism of our ever-expanding knowledge of actual Meso-American history.  (In Community of Christ, it’s been read less and less according to informal feedback from members in my own congregation and around North America, with many people unsure how to approach the book anymore.)

I’m planning to approach the text differently. Instead of reading the book as a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic authority or the authority of one of the successor churches of the religious movement he helped found or trying to read into it a history of the ancient Mayans or Olmecs, I’m intending to read the Book of Mormon for its theological and philosophical content. To better understand this content, I’ll attempt to place it within Joseph Smith’s immediate context — the fervent North American Protestant religious revival in early the 19th century known as the “Second Great Awakening.” I’ll try to read the stories for what they are trying to teach as stories, rather than as histories of past events. I hope to track the early development of Joseph Smith’s religious thinking and how it influenced the early Restoration, but I also want to see how I will find meaning in the Book of Mormon’s theology and philosophy for those of us living now in the 21st century.

I think I’m returning to the Book of Mormon with a unique vantage. On the one hand, I’m fairly knowledgeable about the background history of its composition and publication and I think I’m rather familiar with its contents in a general sense. But I haven’t actually read the book cover to cover since I was a young teenager. I’m therefore approaching the text with eyes that are at once informed but also somewhat fresh.

I also come at the text armed with a different understanding of scripture than many other faithful members of Restoration traditions that are more literalistic. My views are largely in keeping with Community of Christ’s statement on scripture. This view includes the idea that scripture is not inerrant scientifically or historically. Rather, scripture is a human response to the Divine and the prophet or evangelist who authored the text was subject to the biases and errors inherent in his or her historical context. Rather than excuse ethical or philosophically bad teachings in scripture, in my view we need to understand them for what they are and use them to help us explore the ethical and philosophical questions we face in our lives today.

My own bias at the outset includes my belief that the Book of Mormon is a work of 19th century scripture, composed orally by Joseph Smith and written down by various scribes (especially Oliver Cowdery). If you believe the text is a translation of an ancient American text, I think you may still derive benefit from reading along with me and examining the text in a different light. However, the resulting discussion will not be a forum for historicity debates; those can be held elsewhere. Similarly, if you aren’t sure about or don’t believe in God or have value for the word or concept of “scripture,” I think you may still benefit from reading along and examining the book’s content in context.

Scope of the Project / How You Can Read Along

The text of the Book of Mormon as we have it today is different from the text as it was composed. Thousands of edits were made in Joseph Smith’s lifetime and the different churches and publishers made subsequent changes. One of the biggest changes was the division of the book into numbered verses, which each church did on its own. The LDS Church also divided the long, original chapters into shorter chapters — thus the chapter and versification between the Community of Christ and LDS versions are entirely different. (I’ll cite both reference systems as I post.) To get at the earliest text, I’m going to do my principal reading from Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale, 2009). I’ll supplement it using Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois, 2003) for the LDS text along with my copy of the Community of Christ’s “Authorized Edition” of the Book of Mormon (Herald House, 1992).

In order to take in the development of the Book of Mormon’s ideas, I’m going to read it in the order it was composed, rather than in the order of its internal chronology. The earliest part of the text is famously lost: the so-called “116 Pages” given to Martin Harris. When Joseph began to compose again, he started at the point of the narrative where he’d left off with the story of King Benjamin in the Book of Mosiah. He then dictated the text to the end of the Book of Moroni before starting in on I and II Nephi through Words of Mormon. Using that order, I’ve divided the book into reading sections, which I’m posting here for anyone who wants to read along. Each Wednesday I’ll publish a blog post with my reflections on that week’s reading and we can share in discussion here.

My first post will be next Wednesday (on New Year’s Day), where we’ll talk a little bit about the book’s composition process and the original, lost part of the text. Since we don’t have the “116 Pages,” our reading will come from the Doctrine and Covenants (Community of Christ Section 2, which is LDS Section 3).

Next year I’m teaching adult Sunday School in the Toronto congregation who will be reading along with me and discussing the text each Sunday at 10 am.  I’ll be posting posting on Wheat and Tares for the Mormon audience and here for the Community of Christ audience.  Feel free to read along and join us!

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ReadingSchedule2

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[1] Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872). Twain devotes chapter 16 to a humorous review of the Book of Mormon. Although Twain’s quip that the book “is chloroform in print” is much quoted, the joke no longer translates as people have ceased to remember chloroform as a sleep-inducing anesthetic. I much prefer Twain’s take on the Eight Witnesses, which still holds up: “I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.”

[2] In her study of the writings of William McLellin, one of the original Latter Day Saint apostles, Jan Shipps noted that “although the Book of Mormon is always mentioned, at only three points does this extended account of six years for Mormon preaching in the early 1830s [i.e., McLellin’s journals] indicate that this scripture was used as a source for sermon texts.” More important than its content for early members was “the fact of the book” and “its coming forth a the opening event in the dispensation that was serving as the ‘winding-up scene’ before the curtain rose on the eschaton.” See Jan Shipps, “Another Side of Early Mormonism,” in The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, eds. Jan Shipps and John W. Welch (BYU Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994), 6.

“How Blessed the Day when the Lamb and the Lion…”

I know I’m not alone when I confess that my favorite hymn is “The Spirit of God like a Fire Is Burning.” The song holds a special place in Restoration history as the last entry included in Emma Smith’s original 1836 hymnal, and was sung as part of the dedication ceremony for Kirtland Temple.  I always enjoy singing it, but the most special times I remember have been in the temple itself:  (1) during a interdenominational Latter Day Saint service at a John Whitmer Historical Association conference, (2) during the dedication of the new temple visitors center, and (3) during a worship service at an Affirmation conference.

We in Community of Christ sing the song a little differently than our Utah cousins.  Some of the notes are different, especially in the chorus.  We have the “…a-ar-mies of hea-eav-en, Ho-sa-nah…” while the LDS version adds more notes “…a-ar-mies of hea-ea-ve-en, Ho-o-sa-nah…”*  Also, in the Utah tradition, the hymn tends to be sung slowly and ponderously, while it’s way more up-beat in the Community of Christ tradition.

When I first encountered the text in the 1981 maroon RLDS hymnal, Hymns of the Saints, I was surprised to discover one additional difference: only three verses of the hymn were included.  The LDS version includes four verses culminating with:

How blessed the day when the lamb and the lion
Shall lie down together without any ire.
And Ephraim be crowned with his blessings in Zion,
As Jesus descends with his chariots of fire!

The original hymn actually had six verses of which “How blessed the day…” was the last.  Apparently both churches agree that verses four and five were worth skipping.  These are “We’ll wash and be wash’d and with oil be anointed, withal not omitting the washing of feet. For he that receiveth his penny appointed, must surely be clean at the harvest of wheat,” and “Old Israel that fled from the world for his freedom, must come with the cloud and the pillar amain; a Moses, an Aaron, a Joshua lead him, and feed him on manna from heaven again.”  While it might be interesting to speculate who lyricist W.W. Phelps considered Moses, Aaron, and Joshua — Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon for the first two, perhaps Lyman Wight (the general of Zion’s Camp) for the latter? — I feel like we aren’t losing too much by pruning these off.

CommunityOfChristLogoBut it’s a shame to lose the lamb and the lion in Zion verse.  After all, this was the RLDS verse!  Since the late 19th century, the church seal has been a picture of the lamb, lion, and child emblazoned with the motto “Peace.” It’s a Restoration distinctive going back to Kirtland, but for some reason it was omitted from the 1981 hymnal.  (In fact, I have one of the previous gray 1956 RLDS hymnals and I see the verse was already missing back then.)  While the “Ephraim be crowned…” bit is a little weird (referring to an early Restoration notion that Latter Day Saints were somehow literally descended from the Biblical tribe of Ephraim), the offending imagery was probably Jesus in the chariot of fire — evoking a much more militant concept of the vision of the lamb and the lion than is consonant with the church’s “Peace” motto.

When I got a hold of a copy of the new Community of Christ Sings hymnal this week, I immediately looked for my favorite hymn.  (I’m excited for all the new hymns, but first thing’s first.)  I was pleasantly surprised to see what I had always thought of as the RLDS verse restored — or rather, a new and improved Community of Christ “How blessed the day…” verse has been added:

How blessed the day when the lamb and the lion
shall lie down together in peace with a child.
With one heart and mind may the Lord call us Zion:
a people of justice, by God’s love inspired.

Beautiful!  Can’t wait to sing it in the temple.

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* According to the version printed in the hymnal published independently by J.C. Little and G.B. Gardner — the first Latter Day Saint hymnal that included music — the Community of Christ version is closer to the original.  However, in the Little and Gardner version there are additional notes in the first part of the chorus: “We’ll si-ing and we’ll shou-out…”  See Richard Clothier, 150 Years of Song: Hymnody in the Reorganization, 1860–2010, (Herald Publishing House: Independence, Missouri, 2010), 14–16.

Beyond the Literal Curtain

In the past few years, there have been a large number of individuals in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church) who have experienced faith crises. Many have left their church and become ExMormon (or “ExMo”) for multiple reasons that people like John Dehlin have attempted to explain. Although many ExMos leave religion altogether, some investigate other faith traditions, including especially Unitarianism, Anglicanism, the UCC, and Community of Christ. To respond to the questions and needs of these religious seekers, Community of Christ has begun to develop a program called “Latter-day Seekers.”*

In my work with the seekers program, the most frequent initial objections I get from ExMos derive from an idea they have that all churches are fundamentally similar to the LDS Church and therefore that Community of Christ must be something like a liberal (or somehow Protestantish) version of the LDS Church.  (The “Diet Pepsi” of the Restoration, if you will.)

This is very natural.  While most ExMos have a lot of experience with one single church (the LDS Church), they don’t have a lot of experience with other churches.  Among its characteristics, the LDS Church is a highly literalistic religion, which insists that much of scripture is history, that some visions are (or were) actual physical visitations, and the God and Jesus (along with some angelic personages) have literal, physical, perfected bodies. Further supplementing anyone’s view of religion beyond one’s own, information is drawn from sources like the news.  And the loudest religions in news are also literalistic — from Evangelical Christians in American politics to Muslim fundamentalists in the Middle East — both of whom insist on authoritarian readings of scripture. Because of these data points, it’s no surprise that ExMos frequently extrapolate and assume that all religions are literalistic.

I felt this assumption was well illustrated in post I saw recently in an online ExMo discussion group. The post consisted of two images from the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz. The first image was of the throne room of Oz with its holographic head and pyrotechnics; the second was of the actual wizard operating the machinery behind the curtain.

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The first image was captioned (something to the effect of) “how religious people view God,” while the second was captioned, “how non-religious people view God.”

I, myself, would argue that captions instead should read: “how an ex-member of a literalistic religion now sees their former beliefs,” and “how an ex-member of a literalistic religion now sees the world.”  As I know from my own experience having left the LDS Church as a teenager,† when you are born with a narrative that you later deconstruct, the new narrative you create is one of deconstruction.  While this can have value, your deconstruction narrative may still be grounded in the assumptions of the original narrative.

To illustrate, let me add a third image: a picture of Dorothy waking up in Kansas and realizing that Oz was a dream.

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The Oz story was actually designed to be allegorical.  The value of its teachings were never about whether the wizard literally had magic or was a humbug. The characters and the story are symbolic and — not to stretch this analogy too far, since we’re dealing in this case with entertainment — their actual value to us derives from whether these characters and stories help us to understand and live life more meaningfully. (And, in this particular instance, I agree that metaphors like “looking behind the curtain” remain valuable.)

To complete my analogy, I’d like to suggest that if your primary religious experience has been literalistic and you’ve experienced a faith crisis that has caused you to question all religion, if you decide now to take the time to examine Community of Christ, I think you may well discover something you’d previously have imagined was outside the bounds of religion as you’ve known it.  Or, to put it less circuitously, you may find there’s more than one curtain to look behind.

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* For more information about Latter-day Seekers visit retired Community of Christ apostle Dale Luffman’s Latter-daySeekers website.  If you’re a seeker interested in investigating Community of Christ, please join my Latter-day Seekers facebook group.

† I was raised in the LDS Church and left as a teenager, having neither served a mission nor gone through the temple.  Many years later I began to study Restoration history and joined Community of Christ.   Much more of my story is available in my Mormon Stories interview with John Dehlin.

John Hamer in Mormon Podcasts

I’m continuing to update this post, originally posted by in 2013, to have a convenient place to list the various podcasts in which I’ve participated.  Over the years, the list has grown to include a vast number of shows and a wide array of topics within the field of Restoration history, culture, and theology. If you’re interested in listening to me talk about a host of issues for hours on end, you’ve come to the right place.

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Mormon Stories

Mormon Stories Episode 116: “John Hamer (Part 1) The Succession Crisis of 1844 and the Beginnings of the RLDS Church”. January 24, 2010. John Dehlin and John Hamer talk about the succession crisis from the RLDS perspective, including the early history of the Reorganization.

Mormon Stories Episode 117: “John Hamer (Part 2) From RLDS to Community of Christ”. January 27, 2010. John Dehlin and John Hamer continue their discussion about the history of the Reorganization and its modern transformation into Community of Christ.

Mormons Stories Episodes 422–423: “John Hamer on Returning to Mormonism through the Community of Christ”. June 14, 2013.  In a 2-part series, John Hamer tells his own “Mormon Story” to John Dehlin.

Mormon Stories Episodes 426–429: “A Visual History of the Community of Christ (RLDS)”. July 9, 2013. John Dehlin and John Hamer engage in a 4-part YouTube video series on Community of Christ history, including dozens of original maps and charts, along with historic images.

Mormons Stories Episode 503: “Discussing the New LDS.org Polygamy Essays (Part 1)”. October 23, 2014.  John Hamer joins John Dehlin, Jay Nelson-Seawright and Lindsay Hansen Park to discuss the LDS Church’s essay about polygamy in Kirtland and Nauvoo.

Mormon Stories Episodes 526–527: “John Hamer on Community of Christ as a Church Home for Transitioning Mormons”. March 19, 2015. John Dehlin and John Hamer engage in a 4-part YouTube video series that discusses the differences between Community of Christ and the LDS Church in the 21st Century, examining the case for Community of Christ as a spiritual home for Latter-day Seekers.

Mormon Stories Episodes 586–587: ” Responding to the LDS Church’s Clarification on its Same-Gender Marriage and Children Policies”. November 13, 2015. John Dehlin is joined by John Hamer, Debra Jensen, James Ord, and Daniel Parkinson to respond to the LDS Church’s “clarifications” of its policies on marriage equality and children of LGBT people in committed relationships.

Mormon Stories Episodes 612-613: “Reviewing 2015 with J. Nelson Seawright, John Hamer, Jamie Hanis-Handy, and Marisa Calderwood”. January 12, 2016. John Dehlin assembled a panel to discuss the events of Mormonism in 2015, including the November 2015 LDS policy change naming same-sex married individuals as mandatory apostates, and preventing their children from membership in the church.


Gay Mormon Stories

Gay Mormon Stories Episode 43: “John Hamer talks more about being gay and his journey as a gay man in the Community of Christ”. July 8, 2013.  In a follow-up to Mormon Stories Episode 423, Daniel Parkinson talks to John Hamer about how being gay has informed his path in the Restoration.


Mormon Stories Sunday School

Engaging Gospel Doctrine Episode 40: “This Generation Shall Have My Word through You (D&C and Church History Lesson 13)”. March 22, 2013. Jared Anderson lays out information for LDS Sunday School, including a discussion on the nature of the scriptures composed by Joseph Smith with panelists Jessica Duckett Finnigan, Ben Bernards, and John Hamer.

Engaging Gospel Doctrine Episode 62: “Brigham Young and the Succession (D&C and Church History Lesson 33)”. August 28, 2013. Devery S. Anderson lays out information for LDS Sunday School, including a discussion on the Succession Crisis and Brigham Young, with panelists Konden Smith, Cami Alex Thurman Ashby, and John Hamer.

Engaging Gospel Doctrine Episode 71: “Continuing Revelation through Prophets (D&C and Church History Lesson 42). November 2, 2013. Jared Anderson discusses the topic for LDS Sunday School, followed by a panel discussion with regulars Brent, Amy, and Patrick. John Hamer joins in to bring a Community of Christ perspective.

Excavating Scripture Episode 39: “Deeper Introduction to the Doctrine & Covenants, Text and Context (Part 1)”. March 19, 2013.  Hosts Laura and Brian discuss the history of the early D&C along with the LDS, Community of Christ, and other variants with John Hamer.


Project Zion Podcast

Project Zion Episode 3: Redefining Faith. September 29, 2015. Host Seth Bryant joins John Hamer and Miles Fuller in an exploration of how believers can navigate Restoration faith apart from institutional definitions and culture. This means something more than just “cafeteria Mormonism”—which might fall within the ruts of traditional definitions, even if involvement is selective. Instead, we’ll examine the ways in which frustrated members of the Restoration, and those who have moved beyond faith, can redefine terms and claim new forms of interaction that—despite the unorthodox journey—are deeply rooted in tradition, community, and identity.

Project Zion Episode 8: Supporting LGBTQ Individuals in the Wake of the LDS Church’s New Policy. November 10, 2015. Katie Langston interviews Seth Anderson, Michael Ferguson, and John Hamer on what it’s like to grow up gay and Mormon, how Community of Christ has evolved as a denomination to support full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in North America, and what all of us can do to support our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who are most harmed by the LDS Church’s exclusionary new policy targeting the children of same-sex couples.

Project Zion Episode 40: Problem of Evil — Suffering with John Hamer. August 16, 2016. Josh Mangelson sits down with John Hamer after the 2016 Sunstone Symposium to revisit the topic of the problem of evil-suffering, following up on a previous Project Zion Podcast with Tony and Charmaine Chvala-Smith on Community of Christ understandings of the Problem of Evil.


Feminist Mormon Housewives

FMH Podcast Episode 36: “An Elect Lady, the Story of Emma Smith (Part 1)”. February 15, 2013. Lindsay Hansen Park talks to John Hamer about Emma Hale Smith Bidamon.

FMH Podcast Episode 37: “Meet Emma Hale Smith Bidamon (Part 2)”. February 16, 2013. Lindsay Hansen Park and John Hamer continue their discussion about Emma and her life.

FMH Podcast Episode 42: “The Succession Crisis and LDS Priesthood”. March 4, 2013. Kaimipono Wenger hosts a discussion on the 1844 Succession Crisis with panelists Ben Park, John Hamer, and Danielle Mooney.

FMH Podcast Episode 94: “Polygamy Controversies: Joseph Fought Polygamy?”. April 24, 2015. Lindsay Hansen Park and John Hamer discuss the actual historical evidence that counteracts the faith claims made by Richard and Pamela Price in their book, “Joseph Fought Polygamy”.

FMH Podcast Episode 95: “Dueling Cousins: How Two Smith Cousins Shaped Modern Polygamy”. May 19, 2015. John Hamer and Don Bradley join Lindsay Hansen Park to talk about Joseph Smith III and Joseph F. Smith, first cousins who were adamant opponents on the issue of Mormon polygamy.


Mormon Expression

Mormon Expression Episode 36: “Mormon Schismatic Groups”. January 5, 2010. John Larsen and Tom talk to Newell Bringhurst and John Hamer, co-editors of Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism, to discuss the various branches of the Latter Day Saint movement.

Mormon Expression Episode 58: “The Doctrinal Differences in the Community of Christ”. May 25, 2010.  John Larsen, John Hamer, and David Howlett discuss differences in doctrines and practices between the LDS Church and Community of Christ.

Mormon Expression Episode 92: “The Kirtland Temple”. November 9, 2010.  John Larsen, John Hamer, and Barbara Walden (former site director of the temple) discuss the history of Kirtland Temple.

Mormon Expression Episode 192: “Myths Concerning the Community of Christ”.  March 19, 2012. John Larsen and John Hamer discuss popular Mormon myths about Community of Christ.


Infants on Thrones

Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? (Part 1).  September 30, 2013. Hosts Glenn and Randy interview John Hamer about the authorship of the Book of Mormon, outlining the evidence for Joseph Smith as the author and why the Spaulding Theory can be discounted.

Nauvoo Polygamy Smackdown.  October 23, 2014. John Hamer joins hosts Glenn, Jake, Matt, and Randy to discuss the Mormon Church’s recent LDS.org essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo.”  Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

King Follett Revisited.  November 18, 2014. John Hamer joins hosts Glenn, Chelsea Shields Strayer, and Jake Frost to discuss the theology of Joseph Smith’s famous King Follett Discourse. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

The Problem Makers.  December 7, 2014. Hosts Glenn, Randy, Alison are joined by Mike Bohn and John Hamer to discuss Mormon doctrine and the difference between doctrine and theology, including the difference between the Mormon concept of afterlife and godhood and the concept of God and afterlife in the broader Christian tradition. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

The Christmas Jesus and Stuff.  December 21, 2014. John Hamer joins hosts Glenn, Bob, and Alison to discuss the question of the historical Jesus, the origin of the Christmas stories, and how progressive religion differs from fundamentalism. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

Excommunication the Musical.  December 21, 2014. Glenn, Jake, Matt, and John Hamer give a dramatic reading of the transcript of John Dehlin’s disciplinary hearing, prior to his excommunication from the LDS Church. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

Saturday’s Warrior Smackdown.  March 29, 2015. John Hamer joins the cast of Infants on Thrones, joining Glenn, Matt, and Randy to perform a sing-along smackdown of the campy 1970s Mormon musical, “Saturday’s Warrior”. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

John Hamer PPI.  May 26, 2015. Randy and Glenn interview John Hamer about his Mormon childhood, leaving the Mormon church, and present-day metaphysical explorations. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

Church House Rock: Priesthood Power.  June 10, 2015. Glenn and John reminisce about School House Rock and sing a song that parodies the ideas that priesthood in the Restoration includes exclusive keys of authority and physical magic to the tune of “Elbow Room.” Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

De-Romancing The Stone.  August 11, 2015. In order to fill out the complete story of Joseph the Seer and his recently unveiled seer-stone, John, Glenn, Matt, Randy, and Jake dip into the rich historical record and read witness accounts of Joseph’s contemporaries, in a documentary minisode that “De-Romances the Stone.”

Disney Songs for Alienated Mormon Kids.  November 9, 2015. In response to news of the LDS Church’s new policy of denying baby blessings, baptism, and priesthood ordination to the children of gay parents, John and the Infants have produced a satirical singalong to Disney favorites. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

The Historical Easter. March 27th, 2016. It’s Easter. And that means it is time for John, Randy, Heather and Glenn to talk about Easter. And Easter customs. And the historical Jesus. And death. And chocolate. And The Life of Brian. And a bunch of other stuff, too. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

Priesthood Power and the Magic Worldview. June 26th, 2016. John Hamer teaches Glenn, Randy, and Jake a thing or two about the LDS priesthood. And its origins. And its authority. And its power. And the magical-ness of the Mormon Worldview. And it is funny. And informative. And will tickle your ears, warm your hearts, and engorge your brains. Do not seek the treasure (we thought you was a toad). Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

Apocalypse.  October 9, 2016. Randy, John, and Heather welcome siblings Jimmy and Ben to talk about the End of the World and to laugh and giggle.  A lot.  It’s a smart, funny discussion that will have you hoarding wheat, powdered milk, and liquor in no time.  Enjoy. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.

The Definitive Meaning of Life. Period.  November 27, 2016. John and his brother Ben Hamer join Randy & Jimmy Snyder Heather Craw to discuss The Meaning of Life: both the Monty Python movie and the actual meaning of life. Caution: This program’s intended audience is adult ExMormons and may contain NSFW language.


Mormon Expositor

Mormon Expositor Episode 54: Who are James J. Strang and the Strangites?  November 6, 2013. Hosts Clay Painter and Brandt Malone talk to John Hamer about the 1844 succession crisis, why and how James J. Strang emerged as a serious rival to Brigham Young and the history of the Strangite Church since Strang’s martyrdom.


Sunstone

Sunstone Symposium 2013 Session 111: “Neither Protestant nor LDS; Community of Christ’s Unique Understanding of Scripture”. August 1, 2013. In a presentation at the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City, John Hamer discusses the ways in which the Community of Christ conception of scripture differs from both the LDS and Protestant conceptions.


Radio West

James Strang’s Brief Kingdom. February 19, 2014.  Doug Fabrizio of National Public Radio and KUER interviewed John Hamer about the history of James Strang and the Strangite Mormon Kingdom on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.


Back Story with the American History Guys

A Strangite Time. March 20, 2015.  As part of their exploration of the history of American islands for NPR, the American History Guys interview John Hamer about Beaver Island and James Strang’s kingdom in Lake Michigan.


Interesting Canadian Mormons

Interesting Canadian Mormons Episode 12a: John Hamer and Community of Christ (Part 1) and 12b (Part 2). August 3, 2014.  Host Sampson Nordquist interviews John Hamer about misimpressions Mormons may have about Community of Christ.


Naked Mormonism

Naked Mormonism Episode 43: Schism Grenade with John Hamer. November 1, 2016. Beginning with the transition time from Kirtland to Far West in 1837-38 host Bryce Blankenagel and John Hamer have a wide ranging discussion that includes major moments of schism in Mormon history.


Rational Faiths Episodes 22, 30, and 39: “Diverse Mormons at Sunstone”: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 2014.  Brian Kissell interviewed John Hamer and 33 other individuals at the 2014 Sunstone Symposium to create an audio mosaic of the diversity of thought present.

Rational Faiths Episode 32: “Scriptures What Are They Good For?”  November 9, 2014.  John Hamer joins host Brian Dillman along with Mormon scripture scholars Colby Townsend and Joseph Spencer to discuss the purpose of scriptures in the Restoration context.

Rational Faiths Episode 40: “Seek ye out of the best [podcasts]”: Charity 101 January 3, 2015.  John Hamer joins host Brian Dillman along with Lori Burkman and Paul Barker to talk about charity and ways to maximize giving.


Mormon Matters

Mormon Matters Episode 1: “An Introduction, PBS’s ‘The Mormons’, and an Ensign Article”. June 7, 2007. In this initial podcast, John Dehlin introduces Mormon Matters and discusses the PBS documentary “The Mormons” with panelists Julianne Hatton, J. Nelson-Seawright, Ann Porter, and John Hamer.

Mormon Matters Episode 3: “The Mountain Meadows Massacre”. June 25, 2007.  At the 150th anniversary, John Dehlin recalls the history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre with panelists John Hamer, J. Nelson-Seawright, and Ann Porter.

Mormon Matters Episode 6: “LDS Church Finances and the ‘Approaching Mormon History’ Press Release”. July 14, 2007.  John Dehlin discusses whether the LDS Church should be required to reveal its finances with panelists Ann Porter, John Hamer, Paul M., and Blake Ostler.

Mormon Matters Episode 9: “Big Love and Mormon Fundamentalist Polygamy (Part 1)”. August 7, 2007. John Dehlin talks about fundamentalist Mormonism and its depiction on the HBO series “Big Love” with panelists John Hamer, Ann Porter, and Tim Grover.  The discussion was continued in Episode 10 (Part 2).

Mormon Matters Episode 13: “Our Discussion on Inoculating the Saints (Part 1)”. August 29, 2007. John Dehlin reviews a Sunstone presentation on the idea of teaching Mormons uncomfortable truths (rather than white-washing history) in order to “inoculate” them against later faith crises with panelists David King Landrith, Blake Ostler, and John Hamer. The discussion continued in Episode 14 (Part 2).

Mormon Matters Episode 14: “Inoculating the Saints — Listener Feedback”. September 9, 2007. Eric Soderlund (who blogs as “Equality”) and “Mayan Elephant” join the conversation on inoculation with John Dehlin, Ann Porter, and John Hamer.

Mormon Matters Episode 17: “Book of Mormon, Introduction, Lamanites and Native Americans”. November 9, 2007. John Dehlin talks about the LDS Church’s change in the wording to the introduction of the Book of Mormon and the implications for literalist interpretation that Native Americans are Lamanites with panelists Ronan James Head and John Hamer.

Mormon Matters Episode 18: “Same-Sex Marriage and Mormonism”. November 16, 2007. J. Nelson-Seawright discusses the controversial topic of marriage equality and Mormonism with John Hamer, David King Landrith, and Rosalynde Welch.

Mormon Matters Episode 19: “An Analysis of Mitt Romney’s ‘Faith in America’ Speech (Part 1)”. December 7, 2007. John Dehlin discusses Mitt Romney’s speech on his Mormonism with panelists John Fowles, John Hamer, Tom Grover, and Russell Walker. The discussion continued in Episode 20 (Part 2).

Mormon Matters Episode 209: “New LDS Statement on the Book of Mormon.” January 6, 2014. Host Dan Wotherspoon is joined by panelists Katie Langston, John Hamer, and John-Charles Duffy in a discussion about the LDS Church’s new statement on the Book of Mormon “translation” process.

Living Scripture and a Vision of the Living Restoration

Note: The following are my thoughts on Living Scripture and the Living Restoration in Community of Christ.  I’m excited to share them, but (as always), you are not obliged to agree with me to be in communion with me.

Vision

The seekers in upstate New York who came together on April 6, 1830, wanted to restore the true church of Christ, which they believed had been lost to the Earth. They called the new church they founded the “Church of Christ” because they believed (based on scripture) that Church of Christ was the original name of the “primitive”* Christian church in 1st century Palestine. In the 19th century seekers’ view, they weren’t “founding” a new church, they were merely “organizing” the old church that had fallen into error and become disorganized. As they moved onward from New York to Ohio and Missouri, and ultimately to Nauvoo, Illinois, they earnestly believed they were literally restoring (and experiencing once again) the church of the 1st century.

And in this belief, they were quite literally wrong.

The restored Church of Christ was not the primitive church reborn again identically from where it had left off. There were no high priests, no patriarchs, no First Presidency or Stake High Councils in the primitive church. There were no Stakes, no wards, no relief societies. There were no Christian temples in the primitive church. The Nauvoo endowment had no precedent whatsoever in antiquity. Rather, the Nauvoo endowment was based directly on the rites of Freemasonry, which likewise (despite Masonic claims) were entirely modern. And, of course, no notion of Joseph Smith’s late theological speculation on eternal progression had ever been imagined among primitive Christians.

The fact that the Restoration was not literal shouldn’t come as any surprise to us. “You can never go home again” is an aphorism, but in history it’s true enough. When Community of Christ re-built Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store in Nauvoo on the foundation of the original Red Brick Store, the original Red Brick Store didn’t come back into being. When the LDS Church re-built the Nauvoo Temple, the original temple was not somehow resurrected. Rather, in both cases, new replicas were constructed. Both new buildings have all sorts of differences from the originals — not the least of which being that the original buildings were original, while the new buildings were structures that were deliberately patterned on structures existed in the past. By their very natures, a replica (in the case of a building) or a revival (in the case of an idea or institution) are inherently different from something original.

I don’t point this out to dismiss the latter-day Restoration or the earnest faith of its early adherents. While they got some things very wrong, I believe they also got some things very right.

Among the most important ideas they got right was a rejection of the “Golden Age Myth.” Living, as they were, in the wake of the Enlightenment, they and people all around them had begun to read symbolic stories as though they were merely literal history. This change created new and highly distorted readings of sacred, symbolic stories in the Bible. New literalists couldn’t help but notice that in the Bible, animals occasionally talked, prophets turned sticks into snakes and caused the sun to stand still, and God talked to humans like humans talk to each other. They likewise noted (correctly) that such things did not happen in the present day. From this, many believers understandably concluded that the past era was different from the present era. In the past there had (apparently) been a spiritual or heroic age filled with miraculous, enchanted happenings — a Golden Age — while in the present age, the heavens were closed. The spiritual gifts of the past were no more.

The early members of the Restoration disagreed. “The heavens were not closed!” they declared. The same spiritual gifts that were ever available of old continued to be available. Prophets could yet respond to the Divine in the prophetic voice. When the Restoration’s first historian, John Whitmer, began his history of the latter-day movement, he used the same scriptural language — so identified in English because of the then unchallenged popularity of the King James Bible — that Joseph Smith used in composing the Book of Mormon and the revelations that formed the initial sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. For the early members of the Restoration, scripture was not just consigned to a heroic past or Golden Age — scripture could still be lived today.

This was partially because early members remained in a liminal period — they had one foot in a world of unexplained enchantment and one foot in a more fully understood and explained world. Standing on the threshold, they were not always to discern between the symbolic and the literal. For example, the witnesses who viewed the plates understood that their visions were visionary,† but many who read the testimonies the witnesses signed did not.  The members who saw angels in Kirtland temple understood the difference between the eye of the spirit and the physical eye. But early members who took up arms at the Battle of Crooked River did not understand that the Biblical account of Gideon’s defeat of Midianites (Judges 6-8) was a myth. In imagining God would similarly deliver their enemies, early members of the Restoration came close to precipitating their own actual extermination in the 1838 Missouri War.

As people in the 21st century, we have largely crossed the threshold into a post-enchanted world. And ironically, that means for the bulk of Restoration believers today, the heavens are again closed — there is no new scripture; there are no new revelations.  The early Restoration now represents a Second Golden Age whose sacred stories (in many cases) are once again misunderstood to have been literal. This is a shame because there are miracles (such as the miracles of love, forgiveness, and transcendence), even if there is not (and never was) magic (such as demonic possession or turning water into wine). The latter can still be meaningfully understood symbolically, while the former can be meaningfully experienced literally.

Fortunately, in Community of Christ, the canon continues to be open. The river of revelation is ever flowing and we are renewed with new scripture that speaks to our experience today. And we are all called to feel inspiration and respond as a prophetic people to our own individual encounters with God.  We are living scripture as our scripture continues to be living.

In my view, the Restoration was never meaningful as a set of correct answers that had somehow been forgotten were relearned. Rather, its true value is understanding that the scripture must be continually Restored as human understanding expands, so that gospel is a living thing that can still be lived meaningfully today.

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* In the 19th century, the adjective “primitive” more generally referred to the earliest form of an institution or custom.  The word in our own time has narrowed to refer more specifically to cavemen.

† The plates artifact was handled by multiple witnesses under a cloth and/or lifted while sealed shut in a wooden box; and many people were able to visually inspect transcriptions of the characters.  But there were no direct physical sight eye-witnesses of the plates; all visions of the plates were visionary.

Let’s Pray for Peace Better

PrayerForPeaceMy congregation in downtown Toronto is not a young congregation. We have two of the little supplemental hymnals, but it’s a rare Sunday that we sing any hymns out of either of them.  When we aren’t sticking to the familiar old Hymns of the Saints hymnal, the speaker usually makes a special effort to explain that the hymn can be found in the little gold hymnal (almost to prepare the congregation that we are about to enter a strange, foreign land).*

However, there is one “new” Community of Christ tradition that my congregation has successfully incorporated into our weekly service: the Prayer for Peace. I’m a big proponent of this part of our worship because I believe it is done with a very positive goal and it is a practice that unites Community of Christ as a denomination, allowing all of us to use the temple as a focal point for good everywhere in the world even when we’re individually far away from it.

Because the Prayer for Peace is newer and less familiar than other parts of the service, members of my congregation have less of a sense of it and are more likely to read materials from the church’s website verbatim than they are, say, with the sermon or the Disciples Generous Response.  Unfortunately, I feel that the material provided by the church falls short of the Prayer for Peace’s potential in a couple key ways:

The first problem I have is with the Prayer for Peace Calendar.  We definitely want to be inclusive of all the countries in the world and all the peoples of the world who aren’t recognized nations, and those can be spread across our 365 days in the Temple. But most of us aren’t yet doing this every day (like they do in the Temple); most of us only do this weekly on Sundays. With that in mind, I think it makes sense to schedule some of the countries that could use more attention on Sundays (for example, Syria could clearly use some extra attention right now). Two weeks ago, San Marino got a Sunday. I don’t want to suggest that anyone in the world would not benefit from prayer.  However, there are only 52 Sundays a year.  Devoting 1/52nd of the denomination’s annual focus on world peace to San Marino seems like miscalibration of the calendar.  Perhaps Syria could be scheduled for a Sunday and San Marino for sometime Monday-Saturday?

I’d actually like to shake up the calender more than that.  We have essentially produced the schedule as a national roster for several years, with just a couple days here and there for “Indigenous Peoples of North America” or “Children of the World.”  Going forward, I would like to have a lot more of the latter at the expense of the national roster. In order to give more attention to indigenous peoples who aren’t recognized as internationally sovereign or to groups and classes of people in the world who do not experience peace and justice, I think we should begin to combine nations into groupings. In other words, if all “Indigenous Peoples of Africa” get only one day — which it’s very good that they get one — we might decide to group “European Micro-States” (San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, Vatican City) on one day. Although they might seem to get less attention that way, we might actually benefit by considering the special needs that peoples in micro-states have by grouping them. Likewise, we might want to have regional groups (e.g. Scandinavia, Lesser Antilles, central West Africa), again so that we can focus more. For us in Canada, having just one day to focus on (all) “Indigenous peoples of North America” (on a Wednesday this year), is probably not enough.

I feel that the resources for the “Invitation” to the Prayer for Peace also routinely fall short of their potential to make the practice meaningful.  Consider, for example, last week’s “Invitation” to pray for Cambodia, provided on the church’s website:

Today we remember the people of Cambodia in our prayers. The Kingdom of Cambodia is located in the southern portion of the Indochina peninsula in Southeast Asia. Rebuilding from decades of civil war, Cambodia has seen rapid progress in the economical and human resource areas. Strong textiles, agriculture, construction, garments, and tourism sectors led to foreign investments and international trade. In 2005, oil and natural gas deposits were found beneath Cambodia’s territorial waters, and the oil revenues could profoundly affect Cambodia’s economy.

That was read word-for-word in my congregation.  Cambodia is a country that definitely has some recent history and current issues that could be highlighted in a world peace context.  But heard very little about those things.  Instead the Invitation read like something taken from the CIA world factbook or a global investors guide to the Cambodian petroleum industry.  I don’t want to hear about GNP and the export of textiles — unless we focus on a peace and justice issue (such as underage workers in textile factories). Can’t we find the words and experiences of an individual Cambodian or two, having lived through their horrific civil war, and/or where they are today, to teach us inspiring lessons about world peace?

Looking ahead to the next couple Sundays, we’re praying for Australia (March 31) and then Sierra Leone (April 7). The materials aren’t yet online for the latter, but we do have the Invitation for the former. Although the text notes that “Community of Christ has been established in Australia since 1840,” there are apparently no stories about that 170+ year experience.  Instead we read that:

The dispute of replacing Britain’s queen with an Australian president as head of state remains an issue of concern, but the government has yet to make a definitive statement. Australia’s multicultural inhabitants and visitors enjoy the natural beauty from the top of snow-cloaked mountains to the coral reefs in the bottom of the sea.

I’m very certain that people in Australia need our prayers for peace and justice issues (since everyone in the world does), but our invitation seems to miss the mark.  Considering that we have a well-established, multi-generational presence in Australia, would it be possible for anyone in the church in Australia to write a few sentences about what members there are doing to work to achieve peace and justice in their nation?

I don’t know who at headquarters is in charge of creating the Prayer for Peace materials.  I do know that everyone at headquarters has a thousand, thousand, thankless jobs, and no time to do any of them.  So, my criticism here is not meant to attack anyone or to complain in vain.  Complaining is easy; we all see problems.  What we need is for everyone to pitch in and help to provide solutions in a constructive way.  One way I’m intending to help out is by working on alternate Invitation and Prayer for Peace materials, which I’ll post here and on the Beyond the Farthest Hills Church Resources blog.  Any help readers here might contribute is also welcome.  For example, if you’re a member of the church in Australia, we’d love to hear from you in the next couple days so that we can share your story in our congregations.

Let’s all pitch in so that we can pray for peace better.

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*I’m looking forward to the new Community of Christ hymnal, but I do think as a whole my congregation will have to go through a lot of deliberate effort to learn to love it.