Growing in Comfort with the Book of Mormon – Part 5 of 5

Uncovering the Gems

gemsIf we can set aside or even undo the concerns that we bring to our exploration of the Book of Mormon, concerning the folklore and sticky passages, etc., we might then be able to more readily consider some of the great stories, themes, and powerful passages contained within it.

Naturally, what constitutes a “scriptural gem” is a matter of personal opinion. However, I’m excited to share some of the ones that I’m fond of.

To begin with, I want to share a few words regarding some Book of Mormon themes.

There are some great themes that run throughout the Book of Mormon. One of these themes is that of community building. I intend to talk more about that elsewhere, so I don’t want to elaborate on that at this time — but mull it over.

Another theme is that of the dangers of pride. All through the Book of Mormon there are warnings to beware pride, and the hardships that result when society gives into pride. This is something I noticed the first time I read the Book of Mormon, and it stands out, as many people have observed it’s presence.

The Encyclopaedia of the Book of Mormon (Herald House, ©1978, 4th printing, 1991) offers the following on this subject (page 269):

Pride set in among the Nephites beginning with their second king. From that time, the Nephites fluctuated between pride and righteousness throughout their history. A period of righteousness brought prosperity. Prosperity led to pride, pride led to dissension, dissension led to desertion, desertion led to war, war led to grief, grief led to repentance, repentance led to righteousness, and righteousness led to prosperity; thus the cycle began again.

Some of my favourite passages from the Book of Mormon include the story of the Vision of Lehi (and Neph’s interpretation of it). There is something intriguing about the love of God, word of God, etc. etc. being represented by the rod of iron, the tree of life, and so forth.

Tangent: I sometimes chat with an LDS member. He often boasts that his church must be the true church because of how large it is. Whenever he (or any Mormon for that matter) does so, I caution them not to be too caught up on that fact. After all, in Lehi’s vision, the great and spacious building represented the pride of the world.

I also have always enjoyed the story of the glowing stones that God provided in order for the Jaredites to have light in their eight barges as they sailed across the ocean. Its just a neat story that reminds me of the fun Old Testament stories we learn about in as kids in Sunday school.

I guess that is one of the things I really admire about the Book of Mormon. It has, like the Old Testament, some “epic” stories, which are sort of lacking in the New Testament, yet, like the latter, it has a great deal of the pastoral wisdom & compassion focused ministry that is not as abundant in the Old Testament.

Some of my favourite verses are as follows:

And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood…your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings; and ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.  (CofC 3rd Nephi 4:49)

And I, Nephi, said to my father, “I will go and do the things which the Lord has commanded, for I know that the Lord gives no commandments to the children of men save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commands them.” (CofC 1st Nephi 1:65)

And there came a voice to me, saying, “Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.” I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away. And I said, “Lord, how is it done?” He said to me, “Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen.” (CofC Enos 1:7-10)

…after you have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say to you, No…Wherefore, you must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God, and of all men…and there is no other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen. (CofC 2nd Nephi 13:27-32)

For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children. Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard. (CofC 2nd Nephi 3:29, 30)

O Lord, will you give me strength, that I may cope with my infirmities? For I am infirm, and such wickedness among this people pains my soul. O Lord, my heart is exceedingly sorrowful; will you comfort my soul in Christ? O Lord, will you grant unto me that I may have strength, that I may suffer with patience these afflictions…O Lord, will you comfort my soul, and give me success, and also my fellow laborers who are with me…even all these will you comfort, O Lord? Will you comfort their souls in Christ? (adapted from CofC Alma 16:109-112)

Finally, I’d like to end this blog by sharing what may be my favourite Book of Mormon verse of all. It is in fact, in my own opinion at least, nothing less than the long sought after meaning of life itself; and it is so short, so concise, and so simple, which only makes it seem that much more significant in my mind and heart, and it is something that I encourage all of us to remember.

Adam fell, that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (CofC 2 Nephi 1:115)

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The Book of Mormon as a Reflection of Religious History

Dont-look-at-fingerThe dichotomy between believers and non-believers of the Book of Mormon (BoM) was simple for many years following its introduction into the sectarian religious scene. Believers believed it was a literal record of ancient American tribes delivered through Joseph Smith by God. This literal belief is what Marcus Borg would call natural literalism;* belief with little reason not to believe. Non-believers confidently asserted it was the product of a con-man, or perhaps several. It possessed no value whatsoever.

Two reflections can be made based on the above paragraph. First, the early BoM saga represents a microcosm of the intense debate of the early 19th century between skeptics (often Deists) and evangelicals/mystics. Second, the natural literalism which pervaded the early church is similar to that of Christians with regards to the Bible during the Dark Ages and much of Medieval Times.

While, admittedly, my knowledge of Community of Christ history in and of itself is limited, I think it is fair to assert that its reaction to scientific and empirical thought in the 20th century is reminiscent of the Deist reaction in the 17th and 18th centuries. For many, conscious literalism (or fundamentalism) became and has become untenable, even outside of the Community of Christ tradition. On the other hand, many Latter Day Saint traditions continue to assert such literalism. They ask a poignant question of so-called “liberal” members: Is Latter Day liberalism, like Deism, a halfway house on the road to rejection of the BoM?

First, conscious literalism is not evil, or necessarily wrong, at its core. Such beliefs can provide a rewarding life and fulfillment. I know, for many years, I was both a natural and conscious literalist. Like others who have become much more liberal, I have had to ponder the question posed above. The answer is no, it does not have to be. Additionally, the question assumes it is the BoM which makes the religion. For the rest of this post, I will recount how I have come to understand faith in general, and the BoM’s relationship to faith in the Latter Day tradition.

Faith, for me, is not in an object. Using a Buddhist proverb: I don’t believe in the finger, I look to where the finger points. In addition, the words of Paul Tillich summarize another element of faith:

“Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolic name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith.”

Continuing a line of Tillich-ian thought, I do not ground my faith in that which is finite, as God, for me, is an infinite reality. However, I can use language and images of God to relate to that which I believe serves as the basis of being.

The finger of the Latter Day tradition, the BoM, can still play an integral role. Just as it can be viewed as a human response to God, time, and man in its own era, we can respond to it as well. By this I mean we can find where it is applicable to our lives, not necessarily as God’s direct word, but as relevant to the divine.

*See Reading the Bible Again for the First Time; I include several references to it throughout this post.

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.

A Mormon’s Survival Guide

CommunityOfChristLogo

This blog entry is specifically for my friends who are LDS and may be contemplating attending Community of Christ. I hope this also is able to bring a new perspective to my friends in Community of Christ, so that they may become better at reaching out to our LDS friends and truly making them feel welcomed at the table. I hope that both communities can use these tips and hopes that we can come together in “community” of Christ.

Survival Tip One: Don’t Trust Everything on the Internet.

My journey with Community Christ started with the internet. I had been vaguely aware of Community of Christ growing up, but I had heard lots of rumors. Rumors such as: “they no longer believe in the Book of Mormon, they believe Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet, and they no longer believe in the restoration.” There are many other things I’ve heard said, but these are the main falsehoods that are spread about Community of Christ. As you search the internet, you will find some Community of Christ members who may back up these claims, but keep in mind they only speak for themselves. The church’s official webpage acknowledges the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and The Restoration. All of them are seen as very important parts to the development of Community of Christ. There are countless of people who believe in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and The Restoration just as strongly as LDS members, but there are those who don’t. This at first can be very confusing to us who share an LDS background. It’s hard for us to understand how this can possibly work and at times it can be frustrating to Community of Christ members on both sides, but remember Community of Christ affirms the Worth of All People and all our welcome at the table. If you have an LDS background and you have a strong testimony of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Restoration don’t be afraid to share that with others. There are plenty of Community of Christ members who feel just as strongly about it as you.

Survival Tip Two: Open Yourself to Receive God’s Message

When I first started attending my local CofC congregation I was listening for someone to reference the Book of Mormon. Week after week passed and I heard nothing. Then one Sunday someone spoke from 3rd Nephi and I was like “finally!” Looking back on it, I missed a lot of important messages because I was fixated on wanting a book referenced. Remember that Community of Christ does affirm the Bible as the scriptural foundation of the church. The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants serve as additional witnesses of Christ’s love and mercy, so don’t be surprised if the Book of Mormon is not mentioned the Sunday you attend or if you attend for awhile and don’t hear it. Be patient and allow yourself to receive God’s message. Remember scripture is not to be worshiped.

Survival Tip Three: Introduce Yourself

When you attend the LDS church for the first time everyone wants to talk to you and they want to know what they can do for you and if they can share with you the “gospel.” The Community of Christ does not proselytize, so it may be likely that no one will pressure you to sit down, so they can share the “gospel” with you. Don’t take this the wrong way. They’re just not that interested in converting you. However, you may want to speak to someone about the church in further detail especially the church in your local area. There are a few things you can do. Some congregations have slips that you can fill out with your information you can do that and wait for someone to contact you, or you can introduce yourself to the “pastor” or a person presiding. Tell them you want to know more, and they will share with you. So, don’t be shy and don’t wait for someone to actively pursue you. Pursue them first!

Survival Tip Four: Jesus Must Be Your Foundation

John 14:6 clearly states: “I’m the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the foundation. While there are many things and mediums in which we can communicate with God we must acknowledge that ultimately he is what he says he is. Joseph Smith when asked about his religion said: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. But in connection with these, we believe in the gift of the Holy Ghost, the power of faith, the enjoyment of the spiritual gifts according to the will of God, the restoration of the house of Israel, and the final triumph of truth.” (Elders’ Journal, July 1838, p. 44) We make things so difficult. Tip Four is simply have Jesus as your foundation.

Survival Tip Five: What would Joseph Smith Do?

By this time you probably have a lot of questions and you probably have been dealing with the questions “What Should I Do?” “Where should I Go?” “What is right for my family?” etc. Remember you’re not alone with these questions and great men and women have struggled with the questions for centuries. When Joseph Smith was faced with these same questions, he turned to James 1:5-6 “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting…” As we know Joseph went into the grove and he prayed. He had an experience that changed his life and forever changed the lives of those who would know him as prophet. Final Survival Tip: Pray.

Forever Mormon

In life, we often have things that define us. People are often defined by events, education, and contributions given to society. We are defined by the people we keep and the associations we make or have been apart.

I grew up in Iowa and in my opinion Iowa is much like the rest of the midwest in that it’s very average. It’s not bad, but it’s not stellar either. For the most part, people in Iowa have the same amount of education, income, and their faith’s are pretty close to one another. Most Iowans are either Catholic, Lutheran or Methodist. My faith was very unique I was a Mormon.

Growing up “Mormon” in a place like Iowa brings a lot of questions. Questions ranging from “Do we have electricity?” to “Do you drink Coke?” I have always been met with curiosity and amazement from those who find out that I’m a Mormon.

In the last ten years America’s awareness of Mormonism has been heightened. This is in large part to South Park, Sister Wives, Glenn Beck, and Mitt Romney. I used to get questions about electricity and now I’m getting questions like “how many wives do I have?” and “why do we hate homosexuals?” These perceptions are not only damaging to the larger LDS church, but I believe it’s damaging to all who are part of the restoration heritage.

Recently, I have undergone a transition in my life. I no longer attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and now I attend Community of Christ. Although, the place where I worship has changed, I still see myself as a “Mormon.” I’ve always defined Mormon as one who believes in The Book of Mormon as scripture and is associated with a restoration heritage. Many of my Community of Christ friends do not see themselves as “Mormons” they see themselves as either Latter Day Saints or simply Christians.

Should we in Community of Christ, who are comfortable with the name, still refer to ourselves as “Mormons”? I believe we should continue to refer to ourselves as Mormons. Mormons should not be defined by the church in Salt Lake, Sister Wives, or Mitt Romney. I believe that we have an obligation to share with others what a “liberal” Mormon might mean. We may be surprised with the reaction we get. What an opportunity that we have to show that we are “Mormons” who believe women can have priesthood, accept homosexuals, and at the same time love the restoration as much as our LDS cousins. Mormonism is what attracted me to Community of Christ and although I’m very much a Christian, I cannot deny that I’m at heart by my definition a “Mormon” and will forever be.

“I would present to you, my brethren, Joseph Smith”

Joseph Smith III

In traveling to Amboy, Illinois 6 April 1860, Joseph III shared these words (150 years ago today) with the gathered conference preceeding consideration of him to the prophetic office:

I would say to you, brethren, as I hope you may be, and in faith I trust you are, as a people that God has promised his blessings upon, I came not here of myself, but by the influence of the Spirit. For some time past I have received manifestations pointing to the position which I am about to assume.

I wish to say that I have come here not to be dictated by any men or set of men. I have come in obedience to a power not my own, and shall be dictated by the power that sent me.

God works by means best known to himself, and I feel that for some time past he has been pointing out a work for me to do.

For two or three years past deputations have been waiting on me, urging me to assume the responsibilities of the leadership of the church; but I have answered each and every one of them that I did not wish to trifle with the faith of the people.

I do not propose to assume this position in order to amass wealth out of it, neither have I sought it as a profit.

I know opinions are various in relation to these matters. I have conversed with those who told me they would not hesitate one moment in assuming the high and powerful position as the leader of this people. But I have been well aware of the motives which might be ascribed to me,—motives of various kinds, at the foundation of all which is selfishness,—should I come forth to stand in the place where my father stood.

I have believed that should I come without the guarantee of the people, I should be received in blindness, and would be liable to be accused of false motives. Neither would I come to you without receiving favor from my heavenly Father.

I have endeavored as far as possible to keep myself unbiased. I never conversed with J. J. Strang, for in those days I was but a boy, and in fact am now but a boy. I had not acquired a sufficient knowledge of men to be capable of leading myself, setting aside the leading of others.

There is but one principle taught by the leaders of any faction of this people that I hold in utter abhorrence; that is a principle taught by Brigham Young and those believing in him. I have been told that my father taught such doctrines. I have never believed it and never can believe it. If such things were done, then I believe they never were done by divine authority. I believe my father was a good man, and a good man never could have promulgated such doctrines.
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The Book of Mormon: Fact, fiction or fading away?

Last Wednesday, Rod Meldrum visited Nauvoo and gave a presentation on DNA and the Book of Mormon.  His attempt was to make the case that DNA studies do indeed prove the validity, accuracy, and historicity of the Book of Mormon.  The videos arguing that DNA disproves the Book of Mormon have been circulating for many years now, and he was offering his response.  The presentation was interesting, if tragically unorganized and disconnected, but he made some valid points.  I did not agree with all of his conclusions, nor did I disagree with them all.

If for no other reason, his presenation did get me thinking.  Meldrum’s claim, a part of which I’d never heard before, was that:

(1) The Book of Mormon is an historic document, detailing people, locations, and events which really took place

(2) The Hopewell moundbuilders are the closest descendants to the Lamanites

(3) DNA proves (through his understanding of Haplogroup X) that Native Americans have genetics from the Israel region

(4) Joseph Smith believed the Book of Mormon to have occurred in the United States

(5) The events and locations in the Book of Mormon are mostly throughout Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.  Particularly, he emphasized his belief that the city of Zarahemla was directly across the river from Nauvoo’s present location. Continue reading