Thursday, May 25, 2017

Historical Mormonism

I was listening to a podcast today about LDS issues and this statement struck me:
“We on the whole, Mormons, don’t do theology really. We don’t have theologians. We have historians. That’s where our issues are fought out.”1
That is a fascinating statement to me.

History can be a dangerous and complicated place for a religion to fight a battle. It is a particularly vulnerable place for a religion as new as ours is. It is our insistence on (quite recent) actual events, actual visions, and actual miracles that makes our religion peculiar, often laughable to other peoples. But fighting the battle of historical miracles gives power to our claims.

For example, our church teaches that the cornerstone of our religion is the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is a book of scripture translated from golden plates—plates that we claim were actually hefted out of a hillside and given to a boy prophet by an angel, and then handled and looked at by a dozen plus witnesses. Each witness swore their name to a document, claiming that they saw with their eyes and “handled with their hands”2 and turned the pages of very literal plates of gold. These were gold plates that were plausible enough that local enemies of the prophet certainly believed in them; at least they went through great lengths to try and steal them from the prophet. These were gold plates that were hidden in a tree stump, in a barrel of grain, under a bed, up in a barn. This is all a matter of historical record. One can dispute the record if they wish. It could, after all, be an elaborate hoax involving dozens of people. But we latter-day saints, much to the consternation of some critics, believe in the historicity of actual gold plates.

Not to mention the history found on the plates themselves—not just a straightforward little story, but one that is extremely complex, far beyond the education level of our little 24 year old hayseed prophet—one that includes at least three groups of people that all lived in the Americas during a thousand year plus historical time-frame, making for a wonderfully complicated story. Besides the depth of doctrine and incredible clarity of teaching, we also have accounts of ancient government systems, compelling family dynamics, ancient warfare tactics, a system of coinage, political treatises, and much more. There is no shortage of historical claims found there that can be examined, disputed, and engaged with, and while it contains the “fullness of the gospel of Christ,” it is clear that The Book of Mormon is not a mere theological treatise. It is a historical record preserved with incredible detail and force, with remarkable spiritual weight heavier than the gold it was written on, and it is meant to convince us all, “Jew and Gentile, that Jesus is the Christ.” It is extraordinarily compelling evidence to me at least. Those that treat it lightly, reject it, or ignore it; I believe they do so at their own spiritual peril.

Latter-day saints also believe in a historical God, one that came down to Joseph Smith with an actual body in the Spring of 1820—that He had hands, eyes, ears, hair, toenails, and all the rest—and didn’t just poof around like a magical mystery force in the universe, but actually pointed to His Son with a real finger, calling a teenage farmboy by his name to answer his prayer. Imagine! For us it is a remarkably real and historical event.

Then, as if that weren’t enough, we also believe that real, tangible, actual angels came down from heaven and put their actual hands on Joseph Smith’s head to restore the priesthood. The Latter-day Saint claim to authority is not a mere abstraction. It was a historical event in the same way that Moses spoke to God in the burning bush, that Israelites actually walked through the Red Sea on dry ground, and that Christ was actually resurrected and appeared to his disciples. The story of the restoration by the prophet Joseph Smith is so simple that my young children can tell the story. That is powerful stuff to me.

Did God really appear to Joseph Smith in New York? Did he see an angel named Moroni in his bedroom? Did the eleven witnesses really see and handle plates? These are the questions that rise from the history claims, not theology.

“Sure,” a person may say, “But there is no real proof.”

Well, this is history, not science. No one can prove history, but what we can do is look at the evidence to more accurately inform our understanding. While our faith issues are fought out in history, historical proof is not the basis of our faith. Proof is not how God works. We have a God who took back the gold plates. Why? Because He expects us to live by faith, which is frustrating to some, but learning faith is precisely why we came to earth. We already had proof when we lived in heaven.

In the restoration narrative, yes, there are certain questions that are raised. Everyone should grapple with those questions in some way. Questions and doubts are a necessary catalyst for exercising faith. For example, Why are there multiple and contradictory accounts of the First Vision? Why did Joseph dig for gold as a youth? Why did he fail in his business endeavors? And what about polygamy, for heaven’s sake! No easy answers there. The history is complicated enough, perhaps by design, to demand a humble prayer, a wrestle of some sort for all seekers of truth, rather than be led gently down the road of easy, passive belief.

So we are back at the basics. If our issues are historical, not theological, then we must study the historical evidence to formulate our spiritual questions, most crucially by studying the Book of Mormon, and we do so with sincerity, humility and faith,3 and then we ask God.
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1. Daniel Peterson in “Tough Questions about Mormon Polygamy.” Retrieved from http://www.ldsperspectives.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/37LDSP-Tough-Questions-about-Mormon-Polygamy.pdf

2. The Testimony of Eight Witnesses.

3. Moroni 10:3-5

Monday, May 15, 2017

Mother's Day Talk

How does a person speak about Mother’s Day? I have been asking myself that question all week.

Mother’s Day is a tricky kind of day. It is tricky because not everyone feels all the time the joy of motherhood that is usually taught over the pulpit. Some women absolutely love it! They adore waking up before church and getting breakfast spilled on them in bed, and they love receiving home-made cards from tiny hands covered in glitter, and they feel peace, fulfillment and purpose as they consider their magnificent role as a mother in Zion. That is truly commendable, and I do not want to diminish at all their experience.
But I also know that this is not the experience of every woman here. Some wonderful women in my life have told me that too often the talks, the platitudes, the rhapsody about the glory of motherhood makes them feel small and inadequate, sometimes overwhelmed. I believe that every one of us here is a mix of sinner and saint, and the classic platitudes don’t always explain what it means to be a mother well enough.

There are women who don’t have children or are not married, for many different reasons, and some have told me that sometimes this day, Mother’s Day, is more than they can bear. And for some, Mother’s Day may remind people of a mother that maybe was a little more sinner than saint, and it doesn’t match the ideal that is being talked about over the pulpit.

In the end, all of this talk about the ideals of motherhood can be a hard thing, because not a single one of us here quite measures up to the perfect ideal on our own.

However, I do have a testimony of motherhood, that it is a key part of God’s plan. I want to celebrate with you the wonderful women here that are building up God’s work through their unique and personal talents and special gifts that God has given them.
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I have been surrounded and outnumbered by women my whole life, beginning with my five sisters. I am currently studying to be a registered nurse, so I know that being outnumbered won’t change anytime soon. When I graduated in English with a minor in Women’s Studies at BYU, I was the only male at the time in the Women’s Studies program! I know, I am slightly weird, as anyone who knows me well enough soon finds out. In school I learned quickly that few women like to be put on a pedestal. Talking about women as if they are some kind of ethereal angel objects works well in Tennyson and Shakespeare, but actually works out terrible in real life. I learned that women generally want to be treated like the complex and diverse people they are, not angels in the house.

For example, no mother I have ever met doesn’t occasionally hide in the bathroom from her children, sometimes with a jar of Nutella and a spoon. I have not met a mother who has not felt her blood pressure rise as her children yell and hit each other in the back of a car. No grandmother I know doesn’t fret and worry sometimes about how to help a struggling or wayward adult child or grandchild, or worry about how to say the right thing in a difficult situation. No woman I know, whether she is a mother or not, has not had a moment where they wonder how they are going to do it—how they can rise up to the impossible demands placed on them as a daughter of God.

Elder Ballard said the following at a Women’s Conference 2 years ago:

“When you join with other women of covenant in unity and harmony, there is no limit to your influence for good. Your contributions…are immeasurable. I am particularly impressed by your ability to nurture…This is a gift from God and is an important part of your divine endowment from a loving Heavenly Father. [Nurturing] is a Christlike attribute—a blessing to a world that desperately is in need of nurturing.”

Do we have the vision of what women, all women, can do in this church?

As a missionary, I served for a time as a branch president in a small village in Honduras. The branch was almost all women, with only one active priesthood holder besides the missionaries:  one teenage boy who blessed and passed the sacrament each week. The church was less than a few years old, and these tough, valiant women of grit and perseverance dragged their children, single and alone, to raise up Zion in that little rented house. I will never forget their power as I, a ridiculous sunburnt Gringo teenager, tried to let them do their thing without getting in their way. Now ten years later, that branch is large and thriving and full of good men and families. They all owe it all to those incredible women that basically ran that branch and built it to what it is. Elder Ballard is right when he says that the world is in need of more women like these.

I am living proof of the influence of good women. The most obvious, of course, being my own mother, who created for me this body, and then went on to put up with me for over 30 years. She has nurtured me through tantrums about matching jogging pants, and been there for me during personal struggles as a young adult, and she has really made me who I am today. And I am also here because of the nurturing influence of countless other women: aunts, primary teachers, grandmothers, sisters, friends, music leaders, and of course my wife, all of whom invest their energy and patience into putting up with me and loving me in spite of me.

We learn a lot about womanhood in the scriptures. Eve was our first mother, and the restoration gives us marvelous insights about her and her foresight in the plan of salvation.

Eve was given a difficult choice in the garden of Eden. She could have remained in the garden, never experiencing the inconvenience, pain and sorry of mortality and childbirth. Or she could partake of the fruit and put in motion the great plan of salvation. Our religion is the only one I know of that teaches so clearly the wisdom of Eve, that she was valiant and thoughtful, she caught the vision of the plan certainly before Adam did, and that she made the right choice. “Adam [and Eve] fell that man might be, and men are that they might have joy.”

So the purpose of mortality is to have joy, yes. But why then did God say to Eve in Genesis, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception. In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children…”?

Why would God multiply sorrow for her valiant choice? As a husband and father, I share to a lesser extent in that sorrow that is parenting, and at times have to ask, “Is all this sorrow really necessary?” Right now I am in the stage of life where that sorrow includes nailpolish in the carpet, sudden dirty diapers when we are already running late, bullying at school, and where on earth did you leave your shoes! I am sure that sorrow will continue to multiply as my 4 children grow into rebellious and moody teenagers, leading to late nights waiting up for them to come home, or addressing difficult questions I don’t know how to answer. As I grow as a father, I am sure that “sorrow” will continue to multiply into worries over grandchildren.

For those here who are not parents, that “sorrow” given to mother Eve and her posterity may be particularly difficult, because it includes the heartache of not having children. It may mean a failed marriage, a wayward child, or trying to fit in as a single person in a family-centered church. Again, if the purpose of mortality is to have joy, why is there all this sorrow?

Eve explains it better than anyone. “It is better for us to pass through sorrow, that we may know the good from the evil.”

No woman or man can experience the joy of motherhood or fatherhood without passing through sorrow in some way or another.

Each of us chose to come down to earth to have a mortal experience, to be tried and tested, and to know for ourselves what opposition and suffering are like. I would even go so far that Heavenly Father designed this life to be hard on purpose—imagine, on purpose!—so that we could learn and grow by having difficult experiences. That same divine being who created beautiful fields and mountains, wildflowers and sunsets to give us joy, also went on to create mosquitoes, sunburns, hail, wind, and ferocious bears that may just eat you while you try and enjoy the scenery.

Lehi talked to his son Jacob, saying,

“And now, Jacob, I speak unto you: Thou art my firstborn in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness. And behold, in thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow, because of the rudeness of thy brethren…
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one.”

Here Lehi is explaining why Jacob has had to suffer so much in the wilderness. Well, I also can’t help but think of Jacob’s mother, Sariah, the formerly posh housewife of a well-to-do man in the Jerusalem suburbs. Picture her, living on raw meat, riding pregnant, stricken with morning-sickness on a camel in a desert, giving birth in a tent, all while trying to sort out some sons that keep trying to kill each other. Why all this sorrow in her journey to the promised land?

Well even Sariah, valiant as she was, had to pass through the wilderness, to journey through the lone and dreary world to get to the promised land. She and each of us have to learn, to grow, and to experience sorrow in order to appreciate the good, and to learn to choose good over evil.

So is that all motherhood is? A “vail of tears”? I could end the talk here and all of us could feel pretty rotten about it.

“Men are that we might have joy.” I have a testimony that there is a Savior, Jesus Christ, who is central to this plan, As Paul taught “if in this life alone we have hope, we are of all men most miserable.” But our hope is not in this world, but in Christ, who is the source of all lasting joy and peace. Our vision of what we are doing in our families is eternal, and we have been given a Savior to redeem us from our sins, to bear us up in our weakness, and as Alma taught us in the Book of Mormon, “he will succor us in our infirmities.”

Elder Holland spoke recently about mothers in his talk “Behold Thy Mother.” He said,
Today I declare from this pulpit what has been said here before: that no love in mortality comes closer to approximating the pure love of Jesus Christ than the selfless love a devoted mother has for her child.”
As Elder Holland said, Motherhood is not just an act of sorrow, but it is also an act of love, and that love is what gives purpose and lasting joy to the sorrow of our lives.

“Faith, hope, and charity” said Paul, “but the greatest of these is charity…for charity never faileth.”

Christ taught us how to love. None of us loves as perfectly as he did, and all of us struggle to love each other, and that may include a mother trying to love a fidgety toddler who doesn’t listen. Because parenting is truly an impossible task on our own, we need help.

Seven years ago this month exactly, my wife was expecting a baby. I also had a 2 year old. I had just graduated from university and I was back at my parent’s house with no real prospects at a job. It dawned on me, “What have I done!” I remember driving to Lethbridge for a long-shot job interview as a health care aide. Certainly not the glamorous job I imagined after my degree, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why would they hire an English degree to take care of Seniors. What on earth am I doing?” But I was a little desperate, and I knew I had to put Becky through nursing school somehow, so there I was. I was overwhelmed by my responsibility as a father and provider, and I felt inadequate. Two children and no job.

As I was driving, crying a little, there suddenly came over me an overwhelming feeling from the Holy Ghost that I was not alone as a father. The scripture that came searing into my mind that rainy day was from Doctrine and Covenants, “That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world.”

The weak and the simple! That’s it! I already knew that I was weak and simple, but I felt in my mind the realization that it was okay, that those were precisely the Lord’s qualifications to do his work. I knew I was not alone, and that if I relied on my Savior, he would help me grow into the Father my children need.

As parents, each of are expected to feel insufficient, weak and simple. Motherhood is daunting, as is fatherhood. However, if we each turn to Christ for help, taking his yoke upon us and becoming his disciples, he will “succor us in our infirmities, according to the flesh.” I think of succor as a nurturing word, the way a mother succors her child, feeds it, encourages it, holds it, pats its back when it cries, and gives it comfort when it is afraid or tired or overwhelmed. Like infants, that’s what Christ does for us.

As parents and as disciples, Christ bears with us our infirmities and weaknesses, just like our own mothers bore us for nine long and uncomfortable months. Both our mothers and Christ continue to bear with us as they raise us, teach us, nurture us, and support us. And finally, just as our mothers gave birth to us into mortal life, our Savior will lead us through and bear us into eternal life.

What is the price for this work?

When Christ appeared to his disciples, and also to the Nephites, he invited them to come and feel the wounds in his hands and feet and side. I have often pondered why. Obviously, the people could see it was Jesus. The Nephites had just seen him come down from heaven in light. They had heard and felt the voice saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.” There could not be any doubt about who he was.

And yet he invited all—the whole multitude—and it must have taken quite some time, to come and feel the wounds for themselves. And when they did, they, all of the multitude, did fall at his feet and worshiped him.
Christ connects with us through his wounds. Though he has all power, he did not show off and create for the multitude a planet, not even a single flower. He showed his disciples the things that made him vulnerable and relatable, the wounds of his suffering for our sins and weaknesses.

Each of us, including I am sure, the mothers here, carry wounds, sometimes we sing it as “sorrow that the eye can’t see.” Is it any wonder that if we try to connect with each other over Instagram through photoshopped pictures of perfect kids, perfect meals, perfect lives, broadcasting our successes broadcasted over social media, that at the end of the day we may all feel a little hollow? This is something I struggle with personally—I don’t want to be weak and vulnerable! And yet if we are to “mourn with those that mourn, comfort those in need of comfort” and have “hearts knit together in unity and love” we have to share our burdens—our struggles as mothers, as fathers, single members, childless members, and as disciples of Christ.

Christ’s saving act of love for us came with wounds. If motherhood comes closest to that love, maybe it should follow that motherhood (or the lack thereof) comes with its own set of wounds.

Child-birth is a very physical and visceral experience, and there are very real physical wounds left:  scars and stretch marks and varicose veins and all the rest. I have been around women enough to know that they love to talk about their birth stories. “My first pregnancy was terrible, I was sick every day!” or “I pushed for four hours!” and so forth. It is a great way mothers connect—through the physical wounds of childbirth. However, I believe there are emotional wounds as well, ones that continue well after that child has arrived. That kind of love—when a woman creates a human being, a soul, a child of God, and commits herself to that child, bearing the sorrows of raising it to adulthood and beyond—that kind of love leaves marks. I also believe there are wounds of women who yearn for that blessing but do not receive it in mortality. As disciples of Christ, it is okay—even necessary—to share those burdens and wounds in appropriate ways. To speak up and say, “I feel alone. I need your help.” As we bear one another’s burdens, we are better able to point ourselves to the Savior and follow his call to come unto him, so that he may bear us together.

Christ on the cross said unto John, like he says to each of us, “Behold thy mother.” I believe that means beholding and recognizing the wounds, the sacrifices, and their endless work in bearing and nurturing a new generation.

In Matthew 25, Christ says,
Then shall the King say… Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee naked, and clothed thee? or in prison, and came unto thee?  
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
I can think of no more obvious way that a disciple can clothe the naked and feed the hungry than what a mother does, and they do it day after day. Sometimes clothing the naked means wrestling a 3 year old into his clothes as he squirms out of your arms and tries to run away. Sometimes feeding the hungry means sighing heavily as you get down that bowl of cereal for your picky six year old because he won’t touch that healthy casserole you worked hard to make. Sometimes visiting those in prison means supporting and loving unconditionally a wayward child that may have left the church, or finds themselves in a prison of sin or addiction.

Whatever your calling as a woman in Zion, I testify that if you do these things to “one of the least of these”which certainly snot-nosed kids fit the bill—whether you are a mother in this life or not, you will hear those words, “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

In closing, I want to share a story about my own great great grandmother, Eva Leota Hochstrasser Hansen. She was a pioneer woman and midwife in Aetna outside of Cardston. She was pregnant with her eleventh child when her husband died. Back then there was no social assistance, no welfare, or subsidized income. They were in the boonies and alone. She struggled with minimal income for some time to provide for her numerous children. One day, the family sat down for dinner, except there was none. There was no food left in the house. Eva said the blessing on the food, saying, “Lord, we have no more food in the house. I have done everything I can.” Suddenly the prayer was interrupted by a knock on the door. Brother Joseph Ellison was at the door with bag of flour and some pork. He said simply that he had been impressed that there was a need in the Hansen home, and then he left.

I am so grateful for mothers and women of faith that mete out their sometimes meagre substance to their children. Sometimes a mother’s flour runs low, sometimes it’s their patience, or their faith; and at some time, I imagine all of us may find ourselves like my Great great grandmother, sitting at an empty table, our resources and energy spent, and surrounded by hungry mouths, or hungry souls.

I know that because of the atonement, Christ will provide a way to sustain all of us, especially mothers, in our calling to nurture and provide for the children of God.