Thursday, January 22, 2015

Jeremiah 19

(January 22, 2015)
                There seems to be a constant refrain in the scriptures and the words of the prophets whereby there is a distinction drawn between weakness and failure on the one hand and outright rebellion on the other.  Neither is acceptable before the Lord, and each brings with it severe negative consequences, but weakness precedes chastening and adversity while rebellion precedes destruction.

                There is no better contrast between these two, in my opinion, than in comparing the destruction that was imminent at the time of Jeremiah and the adversity and chastening that was a constant presence at the time of the Exodus and wandering.  The people of Moses were at times rebellious, but their primary problem was weakness – after being held as slaves for so long they needed to develop the capacity to be a people capable of worshipping the Lord.  Thus we see their trials both before and after entering the Holy Land.

                The people, by the time of Jeremiah, were no longer weak but rebellious.  Thus instead of chastening, the Lord brought their destruction.  While it may be seen as a matter of degree to some people, in my mind it is a matter of quality as well as quantity.

                Of course, this is only an intellectual argument and does not justify any disobedience – whether we classify it as weakness or rebellion.  Adversity can be plenty powerful and uncomfortable, though prompting of growth, and it is far better to obey than to fail because of weakness.

2 Nephi 2

(January 22, 2015)
                The first thing I wanted to share was something that I have learned a great deal more about in the past year – although it was always something that I drew comfort from.  It is the promise that all things are done in the wisdom of Him who knoweth all things.  The fact that all things are done according to the will of the Father (who perfectly loves us) means that no matter what happens – no matter how bad things might seem – everything will work together for our benefit.  This empowers us, to the extent that we have faith in this true principle, to let adversity roll off our backs like water and keep moving forward.

                The other thought was on Laman and Lemuel, and what they must have felt listening to Lehi as he taught them at this time.  I know that, for myself, I was painfully aware of my continued weaknesses and shortcomings as I read this chapter (indeed, that seems to be one of the greatest blessings of the scriptures – a constant reminder of how far we have to go to be who we need to be).  But somehow Laman and Lemuel heard these words and yet continued to rebel.

                The only rationale that I can come up with is that they allowed themselves to be angry at Lehi.  Anger, in that respect, is a dangerous emotion.  It permits us to close our minds to things that we should hear and consider.  Anger empowers us to justify our own behavior and condemn the behavior of others.  Anger is inherently prideful, and inherently self-righteous.  The more I consider this, the greater my realization of the danger of anger and contention.

Jeremiah 17-18

(January 21, 2015)
                I recently realized just how important the Sabbath Day is.  I admit that I tended to disrespect it (watching football was often the way I spent most of my day on Sunday), but after realizing that I needed some extra help I began to live the Sabbath better and more in accord with how I thought that it should be lived.  What I have learned by doing this is that the Sabbath brings a number of blessings that I wouldn’t have expected.

                One of those blessings is a break from those things that I am struggling with.  If I am struggling with a temptation, but I have been regularly keeping the Sabbath, I find that when Sunday comes around I am given relief (or added strength) to resist that temptation. It is a break in the cycle, so to speak – it is almost like a reset to my soul, which gives me a greater power to start over and work harder to live to be like Christ.

2 Nephi 1

(January 21, 2015)
                Awful chains is such an apt description of sin, as is the need to awake in order to break free of those chains.  I myself have struggled against my personal chains for decades – pulling futilely against them until the Lord saw fit to grant me relief.  And I can tell you that, pulling against them it is clear that they are chains.  This, to me, is another demonstration of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and the divine translation of this book – when I was in my 20s I didn’t understand the chains of sin.  It wasn’t until I was in my late-30s up until today that I began to understand the truth of what was written here.  Joseph couldn’t have written it – Lehi, though, could.

                Waking up is another key concept.  It wasn’t until I woke up that I began to recognize the depth of my entrapment and slavery.  It was so much more comfortable to remain asleep, but by waking up and experiencing those chains in their fullness I realized both their destructive capacity and my need for Divine assistance to escape.  

Jeremiah 14-16

(January 20, 2015)

                These chapters were difficult chapters, because they were entirely focused upon the destruction of Jerusalem and her people.  Though difficult, however, it is essential that we constantly remember that it is only by the grace of God that we are preserved and if we go too far astray from Him, He may cut us off.  It is His prerogative to do so at any time.  Working out our salvation with fear and trembling is not an idle instruction, but rather a reminder of just the way we should approach our relationship with Deity.

1 Nephi 22

(January 20, 2015)
                It is always amazing to me the things that are undercurrents in the Book of Mormon – the things which color everything but are never explicitly mentioned because they would just be assumed by their author. The best example is the constant tension between the people of Zarahemla and the Nephites, but second on that list has to be the conflict between Laman on one side of the Deuteronomic Reforms and Lehi/Nephi on the other.

                Reading this chapter, it is clear that Nephi’s goal is to persuade Laman and Lemuel that they have picked the wrong side.  I think that, if we were to meet Laman and Lemuel in Church on Sunday, we might be hard pressed to recognize them as apostate rebels.  They believed in things that were part of the culture around them, but by so doing they lost track of the central premises of the faith.  It is all over this chapter, and countless other points in 1 Nephi.   

Jeremiah 12-13

(January 19, 2015)
                The covenant is not a special relationship in the traditional sense, but rather it is a special way of living that enables us to receive the Lord’s blessings.  It isn’t that we are special because we are people of the covenant, it is that we are special if we live after the covenant.  Jeremiah illustrates this in both directions – if the people of Israel live after the manner of the world, they will be destroyed but if the people of the world live after the manner of Israel they will be saved.  

                So it is with us.  We have the fullness of the Gospel and the saving ordinances.  If we live according to the covenants we have made, we will be saved.  If we live according to the ways of the world, we will be destroyed.  If the people outside of our faith live according to the covenants (even if they have not yet been formalized), they will have the opportunity to be saved.  If they live according to the world around them, they will be destroyed.

1 Nephi 21

(January 19, 2015)
                A problem that I sometimes have is that I lose track of the fact that the Savior is a personal Savior, and not just a global Savior.  I realize that He has the capacity to break the shackles of nations and to level mountains, but I at the same time tend to struggle believing that He can free me from my shackles of foolishness and sin (and this after He has already done so much to free me). 

                But Israel is both a man and a nation, and in the same way the Lord’s promises to Israel are promises to both the nation and those who choose to align themselves with that nation’s standard.  If everyone in the world, beginning in this very moment, chose wickedness over righteousness, it would not change the simple fact that the Lord has the capacity to save me if I will let Him.  In one sense, the Plan of Salvation is a great tapestry – a grand epic with billions of actors.  In another, very real, sense, the Plan of Salvation is a personal story of each of our individual choices to develop a love and relationship with our Savior.

Jeremiah 9-11

(January 18, 2015)
                There seems to be a constant pull, especially today, for some within the covenant to adopt the ways of those outside the covenant.  Using the word heathen in this context, and I think it is an appropriate if loaded word, there are those who tell us even today that we should learn the ways of the heathens and adopt them within the Church.  Learn the ways of the heathens on gay marriage, on female ordination, on secularist approaches to scripture, and so forth.

                The reality is that, although the Lord may change things on any or all of those positions (although I don’t see how on gay marriage) right now living according to the covenant we are under we are to live our lives in opposition to those things.  Choosing to accept gay marriage (or even promote gay marriage) is learning the way of the heathen, and it is a dangerous way to be.

1 Nephi 20

(January 18, 2015)

                The power of the Lord is astounding, and His creations are magnificent.  But even He lacks the power to bring peace to the wicked, because a life of wickedness is a life lived in opposition to peace.  The Lord is doing everything within His power to help us to choose His path because He wants us to experience our greatest joy possible.  But finding that joy through any mechanism other than consecration is not possible.

Jeremiah 7-8

(January 17, 2015)

                The love and mercy of God, like most other things, are understood only in the extremities.  Here we have a concise description of the failures of Israel – they are idolaters, a den of robbers, sacrificing their children to heathen gods.  And yet, even with all of their wickedness the Lord still extends to them the same promise – repent and be preserved.  The problem isn’t that we consume the full extent of God’s mercy.  The problem is that our wickedness takes us so far down the wrong path that we lose the capacity (or the willingness, which might be the same thing) to make our way back.

1 Nephi 19

(January 17, 2015)
                Considering the amount of time that I have spent and continue to spend on my journal, scriptural references to the practice of journal-keeping always catch my eye.  And, in fact, what is scripture except a journal – the testimony of a first-hand witness of the Hand of the Lord being revealed in the lives of the believers.

                I have often wondered why I have been blessed in my life to have witnessed the miracles that I have witnessed.  I have come up with a number of excuses or rationalizations for why the Lord has blessed me the way that He has.  But one that comes back to my mind over and over again is the thought that the Lord has shown me so many miracles because I will write about them in my journal, and the Lord will then be able to bless others’ lives by blessing mine.

Jeremiah 5-6

(January 16, 2015)
                I had two thoughts as I read through these chapters.  The first was on the common-sense reality that sometimes deceit makes people rich.  Jeremiah recognizes this, and the Lord almost acknowledges it.  But wealth and riches don’t bring happiness – we might like to pretend that they do, but they do not.  So why do we envy the rich for their wealth (even when ill-gotten) if our choices to live after the manner of happiness bring us more happiness than their wealth brings them?

                The second thought was on those who seem to blame the Lord for punishing the wicked or when bad things happen to people (even when bad things happen to the righteous).  We live in a fallen world, where misery and death are at the end of each and every road.  It is not so much a situation where the Lord brings evil upon us, but often it is a matter of the Lord ceasing to protect us from the evil we bring upon ourselves.  By so doing, He helps us to be more aware of the consequences of our own behavior and gives us additional strength to recognize (if we will) that we must follow Him or face destruction – not because He will destroy us, but rather that we will destroy ourselves.

1 Nephi 18

(January 16, 2015)
                The reality is that each of us needs to choose to allow the Lord to soften our hearts.  As I have progressed this past year, I have come to realize that though I may want to progress, there is nothing that I can do to become the person that I want to be on my own.  No amount of discipline or practice or willpower or effort will bring about even the smallest amount of positive change in my life.  The only way that any positive change comes about (and positive change has and continues to come about) is through turning myself over to the Lord and being willing to have Him soften my heart.

                It is in that context that I looked at the language that nothing save the threat of destruction could soften their hearts.  There seems to be a continuum between wanting to give your will over to the Lord one the one side and wanting to keep your will consequences be damned on the other side.  Laman and Lemuel were near the far edge at this point (though not as far as the people of Mormon were, when they would curse God and die).  But the more we are willing to move towards turning our lives over to the Lord, the more He empowers us to actually sacrifice our wills to Him.  Over time, with persistent effort, I can see how this would eventually allow our wills to be swallowed up in His.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Jeremiah 4

(January 15, 2015)
                There were a pair of thoughts that I had reading through this chapter today.  The first was a return to the idea of circumcision.  The more I think about that ordinance, the more I realize what a perfect symbol it is for each of us in putting the Lord first in our lives.  There is a huge biological imperative for reproduction – some argue that the urge to reproduce is more important than the urge to survive – and the ordinance of circumcision was the process of sacrificing a portion of our participation in that process to the Lord.  It was, in effect, putting the Lord first before our sex drives.  It doesn’t mean that we cannot reproduce, or enjoy the blessings of life (expanding the symbolism outside reproduction alone, which I think is appropriate), just that we must put the Lord before ourselves.

                The second thought that I had was the imagery of running towards the walls.  There are walls built around each of us.  They are not built to keep us in, but to protect us and keep the adversary out.  We can, at any time, abandon these walls and go where we choose to go.  But we are only safe within the walls.  Sometimes it seems in my own life I will almost play a game – I will leave the walls and venture just as far outside of them as I feel safe doing.  I will tiptoe outside, seeing the wolves, but trying to stay close enough that I can run back to safety when the charge.  This, of course, is foolish on my part.  Rather than considering the walls that keep us safe a burden, we should view those walls as the protection they were meant to provide.

1 Nephi 17

(January 15, 2015)
                I had a number of thoughts as I read through this chapter today.  The first was on the Lord’s instruction to move on from Bountiful.  After having been in the wilderness for so long, the Lehites must have felt very comfortable to be in Bountiful.  It must have been difficult for them to move on.  And yet, the Lord had something even better in store for them.  And so they eventually got in the ship and sailed across the seas.

                So it is with us.  There have been times when I have not wanted to leave what I have felt was my Bountiful.  I have been forced by circumstance or instructed by the Lord to get on a ship and enter the stormy seas when I would be far happier to remain on terra firma and enjoy the fruit and honey.  But the Lord drives each of us onward, and though the course is treacherous and hard it leads on to the place we were always meant to be teaching us the lessons we were always meant to learn along the way.

                My second thought was on the Lord making the Lehites’ food sweet in the wilderness.  This is such a perfect example of how the Lord makes sin irrelevant if we trust Him.  The choice to eat raw meat does not seem appetizing – it seems downright miserable to me to live off of raw meat for eight years.  I cannot imagine reaching the point where eating raw meat would be sweet.  But the problem is with my thinking, and not with the Lord.  Every good thing comes from the Lord, and that includes happiness.  We think the things of the world bring us happiness (our sins, or cooked meat), but it is the Lord that is the source of all our happiness.  We cannot, under any set of circumstances, be happier in our sins than we are being obedient because happiness is solely a gift from God.

                The third thought was on why Nephi refers back to Moses.  I have thought about that a little bit along the way (I don’t refer back to George Washington all that much, so it seemed odd that they would look back to Moses in that way).  I had thought it to be a cultural shift, but now I realize that there is more going on than I thought.  This was the time of the Deuteronomic Reform, after the Book of the Law of the Lord was found and read aloud to the people.  There is the undercurrent of dissent between Lehi and Nephi on one side of the Deuteronomic Reform and Laman and Lemuel on the other.  Moses, then, was the common ground between them.  So Moses was both a contemporary topic and the central point of reference that they shared – it was only natural that Nephi bring up Moses so often.

                And, as I thought through this, it again struck me how Nephi and those who follow after him so very rarely mention David.  There are, of course, obvious reasons why.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Jeremiah 2-3

(January 14, 2015)
                A good portion of these chapters was on the issue of ‘backsliding’ – an important topic for each of us.  There is no doubt that while we hope to be regularly and steadily progressing, it seems to be part of the human experience for all save Christ to make progress and then backslide.  Then, hopefully, make progress again.

                Understanding this, then, we see a number of important considerations that are addressed here.  We need to maximize the time we are progressing when we are progressing – we want it as productive and as long as possible.  We need to minimize the time we are backsliding when we are backsliding – and we want our backsliding to be as little as possible.  

                So when we are backsliding (whether intensely or even trivially), the Lord here tells us what we must do.  We must confess our sins to Him.  So many times, our backsliding becomes more severe (and I can speak from experience) because we choose to minimize what we are doing, to justify it, to categorize it out of the realm of sin and into the realm of ‘vice’ or ‘foible’ or ‘weakness.’  Or, sometimes, we point the finger of blame at others rather than engage in the introspection necessary to deal with our faults.

                So long as we are covering our sins, we are not opening our hearts to Grace to stop our backslide and return to the Lord.  Once we acknowledge, firmly and unflinchingly, when and how we have failed we open ourselves up to the support of the Lord sufficient to return to Him.

1 Nephi 16

(January 14, 2015)
                I had a number of thoughts as I made my way through this chapter.  The first of these was on Nephi’s bow breaking.  I wondered, first, why it was Nephi’s bow (after all, he was the younger brother – and he had a snazzy new sword).  I wondered whether it was because he made the bow himself, which would be consistent with the fact that he seemed to demonstrate a capacity for metal-working throughout his life.

                The second thought was on whether it was Nephi’s fault that the bow broke.  It is never clearly said how or why the bow broke, but it did say that his brothers were angry with him about it.  If he had done nothing wrong, you would think even Laman and Lemuel wouldn’t have been so angry.  Is it possible that the bow breaking occurred because of some mistake Nephi made?  I somewhat like that idea, because of what it teaches us.

                Each of us will have problems in our lives, and these problems don’t always come because of a Laman or a Lemuel.  Sometimes we are hungry because we have made a mistake.  When we are in that position, what we must then do is follow Nephi’s example – instead of defending our past mistake or obsessing about it, we instead turn our attention to fixing the problem.  We go to the Lord and seek out guidance not about the past, but rather what we must do next.

                The third thought was on the chastening of Lehi.  In my life right now, I don’t know how I would handle the Lord chastening me – I feel too fragile, sadly, for that.  But I know that it is inevitable that the day of chastening will come – I hope the Lord loves me, and whom the Lord loves He chastens.  I need to get stronger, so that the Lord can chasten me without breaking me.

                The final thought that I had was in the Liahona sending Nephi to the top of the mountain to find food.  In the wilderness, the tops of mountains were dangerous places and had limited sources of food.  It was certainly counterintuitive for Nephi to have gone there.  But when we are focused on a temporal problem, and when we correctly look to the Lord for the solution, we find that the Lord will often send us places that don’t seem to make sense (and the symbolism of the top of the mountain in reference to the temple seems apt here).  We can then find the temporal assistance we need, even when logic might not dictate that would should be successful.

Jeremiah 1

(January 13, 2015)
                We like to think that we will win our battles if we take the side of the Lord.  The fact is, we are correct in that approach (but perhaps not in a temporal sense).  Jeremiah was told by the Lord that his enemies would fight against him but would not prevail.  In the long run, that was true.  But in the short run Jeremiah spent a long period of time in the muck of an oubliette (about one of the worst fates I could imagine).

                We will win if we side with the Lord, but it is far more common that our test demands that we lose in the short term even if (especially if?) we are doing our best to follow the Lord.

1 Nephi 15

(January 13, 2015)
                The rejection of Christ is an interesting phenomenon – it seems like it must be necessary (extremely necessary) or it would not have happened.  I think I understand at least a portion of why it happened the way that it happened (if Christ had reigned in glory, there would be a decrease in our agency and the testing would be void), but Nephi points out that it also happened because that was necessary or else the Gentiles would not be converted.

                Historically, as I consider that, it seems to be true.  After all, Judaism was a provincial religion – and most of the problems with Islam in the world today is that it is conflated too often with nationalistic identity or political ambition.  But Christianity escaped that trap precisely because it is a religion displaced from its roots.  The Gentiles became able to be converted in large part because the Jews crucified Christ.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Isaiah 65-66

(January 12, 2015)
                When I was a little, little child I would lay out all of my Hot Wheels cars and put together massive races.  I’d inch cars forward one at a time – the coolest looking cars always taking the lead, of course.  I would take a large amount of time setting up the races and the track, but now I cannot even remember any of the winners or even what more than a few of my cars looked like despite them being so important to me once upon a time.

                I thought of that when I read of the new Earth and new Heaven and the former not even being remembered or coming to mind.  In as little time as around 30 years something so important to me once upon a time almost completed faded and but for the scripture bringing it forward I likely could have gone my life without remembering it.  I expect there are other things of similar importance to the younger version of me that I have completely forgotten about never to again consider in mortality.

                This is a comforting thought, because so long as we clean up our mistakes the time will eventually arrive when we are able to let go and forget about all of the things that bother us so much today, of all the things that are so important to us, and so forth.  When the new Heaven and new Earth are brought about, we will likely view our greatest challenges of the day and our grandest triumphs or our greatest failures as nothing more than a Hot Wheels track set up.  This, to my mind, is a comforting doctrine.

1 Nephi 14

(January 12, 2015)
                I really liked how the angel described the Lord manifesting His power – through the removal of stumbling blocks.  If there is something in life that we are stumbling on, it is obvious that we have a problem beyond our capacity to resolve (if we could fix our problem, we wouldn’t be stumbling).  But our only hope of escaping our human habit of falling over the same problems over and over and over again is to beg the Lord to remove our stumbling blocks and grant to us escape.

                The second thought was on the great pit being filled by those who dig it.  This made little sense to me for a long while – after all, if someone is laying a trap why wouldn’t they avoid it themselves.  But at this point in my life, I am literally watching it play out in front of me.  I am seeing someone who is so consumed by anger and hatred that this person cannot help but dig and dig even as it becomes apparent to more and more people that this person is the source of the problem.  Far from being a metaphor, this is something that is very possible and very real.  I don’t think I can ever look at this scripture the same way after what I have seen this past year.

                Finally, I note that there was no formal Church at the time that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.  That brings new light to Nephi’s description of the members of the Lord’s ‘church’ being all around the world.  Was Nephi looking still further into the future, compared to when Joseph was translating?  Possibly, but I don’t think so.  I think that Church is being used here in a very different sense.  There are two churches only – the Church of the Lamb of God (those who have chosen to walk the pathway of discipleship) and the Church of the Devil (everyone and everything else).  I don’t think that these scriptures use church in the same sense that we typically interpret it today. 

Isaiah 64

(January 11, 2015)
                We in the Church like to believe that there is a ‘righteous’ group (us, usually) and a ‘wicked’ group.  We like to believe that, since we are part of the righteous group that we are destined for great things and can count on the Lord to recognize our righteousness and reward us accordingly.  We likewise expect the Lord to recognize the wickedness of those who we believe are wicked (our enemies, of course) and punish them accordingly.

                As a brief transition, I keep (kept?) bees, and I would love to sit around and watch them at work as they moved in and out of their hives.  Of course I was utterly unable to tell one bee from another, although I could tell one genetic strain from the other after a while (each hive had a number of genetic strains).

                Here is the point that I want to make – our righteousness in comparison to the Savior is a far greater gulf than my intellect in comparison to the bees.  The bees were so far below me intellectually that I was effectively incapable of telling one bee’s intellect from another’s.  The only thing I could tell were which bees were placid and which bees wanted to chase me around the bee yard and try to sting me.

                In a similar sense, though we might take pride in our righteousness (neglecting basic awareness of the irony of this conceit) we are so far away from the Lord in righteousness and the most wicked and most righteous are still close together on the scale in comparison to Him.  We take pleasure in being the “smartest bee in the apiary” when we would be better off taking pleasure in being the bee that the Lord could count on not to try and sting Him (metaphorically speaking).

                Our righteousness, then, is not found in our obedience (important though that is) but rather is found in our willingness to live our lives for Him and to sacrifice our wills upon His altar.

1 Nephi 13

(January 11, 2015)
                Worshiping the Devil and being evil is something that I just don’t understand.  I get being too weak to do the right thing – I feel too weak to do the right thing just about every day – but actively choosing evil over good is something that I just don’t understand.  And yet, as this chapter (and countless life experiences) demonstrate, some people (even perhaps a majority of people) affirmatively choose evil over good.

                We see the same four carrots held out for them – power, praise and popularity, greed, and lust.  Over and over again, evil is pursued (and even explained away as good) all to acquire one or more of those four things.  It is easy to see the failures of others in this regard (it seems clear to me, for example, that many of my current problems arise from someone who wants power over me, who wants praise of the world [victimhood status], and who wants all the money they can acquire).  But the important thing, for me, is to be able to see the same thing in myself.

                I think it is a fair estimation that whenever we are moving towards one of these four ‘carrots,’ we ought to be extremely cautious.  When a goal would give us access to power, praise of the world, access to the objects of our lusts, or wealth we ought to take it as a sign that whatever the course of action (even if a good one), we must be extraordinarily careful that we don’t bring about our destruction chasing these goals.  If we are not prepared to give away these goals to the Lord, then we have put them as our idols.  Only when we are capable of sacrificing them to Him are they in their proper place where they will not destroy us.

                So if we can’t say ‘I give up XYZ to the Lord, to take or to give as He so chooses” and really mean it, we had best look inward rather than outward. 

Isaiah 62-63

(January 10, 2015)

                There are times, as I struggle with dealing with myself and my mistakes and the evil and anger and hatred of others, that I feel genuinely alone.  I see help surrounding and supporting my tormentors – help that I feel should be there for me as I try to do the right thing.  But, as these chapters demonstrate, we are never alone in the way the Lord was alone.  He looked around and there was none there with Him.  No one – not even the Father – was with Him in the end.  No matter how alone I feel, and no matter how abandoned things seem, I am never alone the way He was alone because He is always with me.  Rather than sulk on my circumstances, I need to remember and be grateful that He is there with me.

1 Nephi 11-12

(January 10, 2015)

                I was struck this time reading of Nephi’s vision of the number of times the angel simply says “Look!” to Nephi.  As I have made some progression towards the Lord over time, I have slowly but surely begun to realize that this is the answer to many of my greatest problems is just to look – look at what is staring me in the face, and what I least want to see.  Look inward at the mistakes I am making and why I am making them.  Look outward to the opportunities that exist and the blessings the Lord is giving to me.  Just look, with the faith that the Lord has given me everything that I need to return to live with Him, should I so choose (and I desperately want to choose).

Isaiah 59-61

(January 9, 2015)

                The language of these chapters was interesting, because it seemed to show that two things were keeping us from God – both our individual and our societal iniquities.  I can understand our individual iniquities separating us from God, but society iniquities dividing us from God was an altogether different issue.  But as I thought about it, I realized that the Lord tends to work across cultures and groups of people and not just individuals.  When a society becomes rotten, there are fewer and fewer people capable of finding the Lord in that set of circumstances.  So even if judgments are made at the individual level, a society’s iniquities can keep many people from God.

1 Nephi 9-10

(January 9, 2015)
                Once again, my mind was drawn to the absolutist language of the scriptures here – this time to the phrase that he who diligently seeketh shall find.  There is no middle ground here – there is no room for someone who diligently seeks the Lord but doesn’t find Him.  Yet, in our day-to-day actions and language we seem to almost hedge on this.  We try to explain away why someone can say they didn’t find the Lord when they diligently sought Him (do we do this because we lack faith ourselves?).

                No, the truth is that if we haven’t found Him it is because we haven’t diligently sought Him.  I can say this not only from the clear language of the scriptures here, but also from my personal experience.  I have, at times, sought the Lord in the wrong place (justifying myself in the process) – but I wasn’t really seeking the Lord but rather my own nightmare image of Him, and I wasn’t searching diligently either.  But each and every time I went before the Lord and admitted that I didn’t know Him, but I wanted to find Him (who He truly was) and I would do whatever He asked me to do, I have found Him.  Every single time.

Isaiah 57-58

(January 8, 2015)

                There is a great deal to learn here about fasting.  The promises are important, but fasting needs to be used correctly (not every prayer will be answered).  The main purpose of fasting (and one that I don’t think we appreciate enough) is fasting to let the oppressed go free.  Who are the oppressed?  Well, it undoubtedly includes the poor who we help with our offerings, but it also includes each of us who are oppressed by sin.  As I face my oppressor in my moments of temptations, I need to be more aware and remember to call upon the Lord in fasting.

1 Nephi 8

(January 8, 2015)

                There are few scriptures in the Standard Works more frightening than the simple phrase that as many as hearkened fell away.  If you have been reading these for a while, you know that I am always struck by absolutist language (perhaps more so than I should be) and this has some frightening absolutist language.  If we hearken to the crowd – even a little bit – well it would appear that our inevitable course is to fall away.  We need to bring ourselves to be capable of completely ignoring the world and the scoffs and the scorn or else we will (subtly at first) amend the doctrine in ways that make it more palatable to the modern sensibility until it leads to our destruction.

Isaiah 55-56

(January 7, 2015)

                The more I read in Isaiah, the more I am struck by just how much of it seems to come directly from the words of the Lord.  At first it may seem out of place in our understandings of ancient scripture and the way the Lord works, but my thoughts came to the Doctrine and Covenants.  Once that thought came to me, it was remarkable to me how similar those two books of scripture are.  Even the tenor or feel of the scriptures are the same, which is no surprise considering how much of it comes directly from the Lord.

1 Nephi 5-7

(January 7, 2015)
                I have always liked Nephi praying for the strength to burst his bands, and then them being loosened (it reminds me that our prayers are often answered in ways that we don’t request, but which accomplishes the Lord’s purposes just the same).  But this time I drew on that same lesson while considering the bands of sin, and our desire for strength to burst those bands.

                Is it not reasonable that, rather than being given the power to burst our own bands of sin, we are given Divine aid to merely loosen those bands from us?  And that, as we continue our efforts (line upon line) eventually we are given the capacity to slough them off entirely?  We may rarely have the dramatic moment of bursting the bands of sin (although I have experienced this a time or time), but more frequently we will have the experience of seeing our capacity to change being increased from Grace to Grace until we escape the bands of sin.  And whether bursting them or having them loosened and us wiggling out, the important thing is escaping the bands of sin rather than the method.

Isaiah 53-54

(January 6, 2015)
                I am constantly amazed at the personality of the Savior.  I imagine myself, and whether I would be willing to give my life for someone.  Frankly, I think that I would give my life for another – so long as the death was sufficiently heroic and memorable and didn’t hurt too much.  But then I think of an ignominious and painful death, and I wonder whether I would do that.  For strangers, probably not – for my children, probably.

                But then I move forward and think about whether I would continue to do that even if my children hated me and even if the reason that I was called upon to die was because of the misdeeds of my children (and even if I had warned them ahead of time).  I’d like to think that I would still make that sacrifice, but it is certainly a closer issue in my mind.

                I go through that little mental exercise to place myself in the mind of the Savior.  He sacrificed His life not for just those who love Him, but for those who hated Him.  At His death, it was not heroic and memorable (because mortal minds did not comprehend) – but He did it anyway.  It was painful and miserable – so much so that the Son of Almighty God would that He might not drink, and yet He did.  All for us – His enemies, we who wound Him with our sins.

                The more I learn of the Savior, the more I realize how amazing He is and how unworthy I am.

1 Nephi 4

(January 6, 2015)
                Two brief thoughts from the scriptures today.  The first thought was on the Israelites looking back to Moses for their examples (Nephi begins with doing just this thing).  That was somewhat odd to me, since I don’t go around saying “let us be honest like George Washington” or “let us be brave like General Jackson.”  I find my examples more current.  But I think that might be a change in society – after all, once upon a time the Bible and the works of Shakespeare were the two things that you could count on everyone having read.  Now you can barely count on everyone being aware of what happened last week.

                The second thought was on Abrahamic sacrifices.  It seems that they inevitably come to all of us at some point and time or another.  Nephi, being commanded to kill Laban, was one such sacrifice.  That is why loving the Lord is the first great commandment – because we never know when that commandment might conflict with one or more of the other commandments.  When we hold to the commandments (blessings though they are) as the purpose of our existence, we worship a creation rather than the Creator.  We must place the first commandment as “Come Follow Me,” and recognize that everything else flows from that.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Isaiah 50-52

(January 5, 2014)
                In case I haven’t mentioned it before one of the things that I do in the process of marking my scriptures is to identify who the speaker is for every line.  I want to think through what I am reading and identify whether it is a prophet or a king speaking, whether it is an editorial comment from the subsequent writer, or whether it is the words of the Lord or words of an angel (and so forth).

                Isaiah has been particularly problematic in this regard for me, because it has seemed that textual clues are indicating that Isaiah is seamlessly going back and forth between his own words and the words of Deity.  I see clues such as referring to God in the third person on one line and the Lord referring to Himself in first person in the next (or in the very same line).  I have tried to tease them apart as best as I could, but I had little confidence in what I was determining.

                All that changed as I was reading today.  I realized that all of my problems could be solved with one simple realization – Isaiah was speaking much less often than I thought.  The textual clues that indicated to me Isaiah was interjecting also could be explained (and explained more consistently) by the fact that it was the Son speaking of the Father.  So a phrase (invented here for the purposes of demonstration), “I will judge my people and the Lord God will grant me the words I shall say” is difficult to deal with when determining who is speaking between Isaiah and the Lord.  But when I recognize that it is the Son speaking, and He is referencing the Father, it all makes sense.

                I imagine it would be nearly impossible for anyone to perform the marking exercise that I performed without coming to the same conclusion – that the Lord of Isaiah references a God over Him.  Going back, evidence of the Trinity and their separate natures are scattered throughout this book.

1 Nephi 3

(January 5, 2014)
                In the Church, we carry with us a certain attachment to the Protestant success ethic – and the idea that if we are righteous the Lord will bless us with material possessions.  Of course, this isn’t true – some of the most righteous people in this world own nothing or next to nothing – but it also masks an important concept.  We must be certain that we are not attached to our wealth, because by being attached to our wealth we lose the capacity to use that wealth for the benefit of others.

                There was certainly nothing wrong with Lehi amassing a fortune.  And he set a great example for us in his willingness to leave all of that money behind when the time came.  Plus, if he hasn’t made that money, his children would not have been able to attempt to use that money to buy the Brass Plates.  Lehi, it seems clear, earned his money with the intent of using it to build the Kingdom of God.

                I think that is the best form of motivation for us.  I know I sometimes get hung up in the day-to-day of earning money, but I need to remember that the more successful I am in my business the more useful I can be to the Lord.  And I want to be useful to the Lord.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Isaiah 47-49

(January 4, 2015)
                I think we tell ourselves that happiness is something reserved only for the righteous, and I believe that ultimately this is a true statement.  The problem is that our definition of happiness has been so changed through the years that the claim has been stood on its head and no longer means what it once did.

                We think of happiness as having enough (or having what we want).  There is no guarantee that the righteous will have enough food to eat, and there is certainly nothing preventing the wicked from acquiring the possessions they desire.  So happiness cannot have anything to do with material possessions.

                We think of happiness in terms of popularity and friendships.  But being a disciple of Christ often means walking that path alone (or, at best, with a couple very good friends).  The only friend we can count on is Christ.  The wicked, on the other hand, tend to be surrounded by people who are pleased to be in the presence of someone who rejects the Lord in the same way that they do.  So happiness cannot have anything to do with our social relationships.

                Having lived righteously in the past, and having lived wickedly in the past, I feel myself in a good position to compare the experiences.  I experienced positive things and reverses in both conditions.  The one thing that was not the same, however, was what I can best call peace.  This peace is a synonym for the happiness that is exclusively reserved for the righteous.  The wicked can gain the possessions or relate to the people that they choose to, and they will almost certainly enjoy their lifestyle of choice (if they didn’t, they wouldn’t live that way).  What they lack is peace, and they don’t even realize what a loss that is (I didn’t).

                The Lord’s statement, then, is overwhelmingly true in my experience – there is no peace unto the wicked.  The wicked can duplicate many of the trappings of happiness, much as Pharaoh’s sorcerers could duplicate many of the miracles of the Lord when Moses confronted them.  But the wicked can do nothing to bring peace to their souls in the quiet moments (that is why the wicked are so metaphorically loud in some ways) – nothing, that is, other than repent.

                And, of course, this also means that regardless of what is happening to us we should be able to identify the peace in our hearts.  If not, then we need to repent – because if the peace in our hearts is absent the problem is not out there, but within ourselves.

1 Nephi 2

(January 4, 2015)
                When I read verse 3 today, I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed despite the countless times that I had read this chapter (let’s face it – before I started on my reading schedule I started the Book of Mormon countless times – I fizzled out along the way a number of times, but rarely before 1 Nephi 2).

                Nephi states that Lehi was obedient to the commandments of the Lord, wherefore he went into the wilderness.  I always thought that the first phrase (Lehi being obedient) was almost a restatement of the second phrase (Lehi went into the desert).  Or, at a minimum, Nephi is speaking of a pair of events correlated in time chronologically – Lehi decided to be obedient and so he headed out into the desert. But that really isn’t the case.

                Nephi is giving a description of Lehi’s character in the first phrase – Lehi was obedient to the commandments of the Lord.  This wasn’t limited to the time when he received this particular commandment, but was rather a trait that Lehi had developed over time.  In that light, Nephi is saying (if I can rephrase the words of a prophet of the Lord), ‘Lehi had developed the quality of obedience to the Lord.  As a result, when the Lord commanded Lehi to take his family into the desert, Lehi was obedient to this commandment the way he had been obedient to all the other commandments of the Lord.’

                Read in this light (and I think that is the correct light, there is an important lesson to be learned here.  When the Lord calls on us to forsake everything for Him, we will not be able to be obedient unless we have developed that quality in our character through effort and the application of Grace.  The story goes that Elder J. Golden Kimball asked a congregation to raise their hands if they would die for the Church (every hand was raised, of course).  He then asked the same congregation to raise their hands if they were full tithe-payers (only about a third of the hands were raised).  Elder Kimball turned to the Stake President and said, “See?  The Members of your Stake would rather die than pay their tithing!”

                The same thing is true in our lives.  We may not be called upon to give our lives for the Church.  We may not be called upon to sell everything like the rich young man was told to do by Christ.  We may not be called upon to sacrifice our children on the altar like Abraham was.  But the day will come when we are given instructions from the Lord that seem beyond our capacity.  In that moment of trial, our ability to obey is dependent upon how well we have developed the capacity to obey in the moments of safety and security.

Isaiah 45-46

(January 3, 2015)
                Idolatry is a huge problem in modern society.  Many of those most enmeshed in this sin deny that idolatry even exists (or would claim that Christianity is nothing more than idolatry) but it is a sin that persists even among the people of the Church.  And, like Isaiah described, we are not only idolatrous but foolish in our idolatry.

                Whereas the ancients made idols out of gold or silver or wood, and having crafted them bowed down, we tend towards electronic idols.  We no longer make our idols, but rather we buy them at WalMart and set them on our entertainment centers and give our lives over to them.  They are our televisions, our computers, our smart phones, and all of the other trappings of modern life that have passed the point of being ways to pass the time and have become what we must acknowledge to be items of genuine worship.  Technology is great, but we mustn’t allow it to replace the Lord in our lives.

1 Nephi 1

(January 3, 2015)
                One trait in my life that I have difficulty with is that I internalize the suffering of others.  I have always thought that was a good thing – that it was appropriate to feel other’s pain and to sorrow with them (mourning with those who mourn, so to speak).  I recognized that I didn’t necessarily deal with it in the correct way, but I felt like it was a good thing.

                I still feel that way, but I do have to reconcile that with something I read in this chapter.  Lehi has just been granted a vision, and in that vision he sees the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Captivity (not a pleasant time for the children of Israel).  But, in verse 15, we read that his soul did rejoice – he was still extremely happy with what he had seen.

                I think it is good to mourn with those who mourn, but we become ungrateful if we allow that to overwhelm each of us and for us to lose sight of the fact that we are all (each and every one of us, no matter how miserable our lives may appear) blessed beyond measure and blessed beyond what we deserve.  We should never let our empathy for our fellow men (good though that trait is) overcome our gratitude for the Lord.  I have seen that in those who read the Old Testament and call it a “terror text” – they have allowed their empathy for those they have never met to overwhelm their gratitude to the Lord who blessed both them and the people that may have been destroyed (and, frankly, I have felt that same inclination in myself a time or two).  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Isaiah 43-44

(January 2, 2015)
                No matter how long our lives are, and no matter what we accomplish with them, the day is coming that we will each die.  Everything that we accomplish will turn to dust (in time) with us.  Everyone we know and love will die.  Every political party, every social cause, every temporal goal – all of these are destined to be destroyed.  Whether you are a believer or an atheist, every person born on this Earth is born to die and all goals and motivations will die along with them.

                So that leads each of us to make our decision as to how to respond to this inevitability.  There are really only two choices available to us that make sense.  The first, for those who believe, is to dedicate our lives wholly and completely to something that will not die – namely our relationship with the Son and the Father.  The second, for those who do not believe, is amoral hedonism and the maximization of personal pleasure.

                What doesn’t make any logical sense is any attempt to intermingle those two positions.  I don’t need to spend much time discussing the atheist attached to the ‘social construct’ of morality because it is almost cliché (think of the amoral atheist dedicated to the political cause of Communism).  Instead, it seems far more valuable to spend my time considering the believer who seeks to dip his or her toes on the hedonistic side of the pool (in other words, all of us).

                There is absolutely no philosophical or conceptual worldview in which this makes sense.  It is almost like the inverse Pascal’s Wager – if we are right in what we believe we are damning ourselves and if we are wrong in what we believe we are losing precious time that could be spent really going off the deep end.  And yet, even though it makes no sense (and most of us realize it makes no sense), we still want to straddle the line between the world and the Lord.  And that makes us good for nothing.

                Of course, like so many things that don’t make sense when considered in one set of terms it clearly makes sense in another way.  The issue is not whether we believe or disbelieve – the issue is whether we will serve God or Satan (or, to put it another way, whether we will accept God or make ourselves gods). We are each choosing our God – we are choosing who we will serve.  If we are choosing ourselves as our god, we will be hedonistic even if we believe.  If we are choosing God, we will be moral even if we don’t believe.  Both sides of the belief aisle probably would dispute this characterization, but I think it is probably pretty accurate.

                Our challenge, then, as believers is to firmly place ourselves in congruence with our beliefs and the things we know to be true.  We need to not only know that God is God, but resolve within our hearts to accept God as our God.  When we do that, our desire to straddle the gulf between the world and the better world to come will diminish.

Testimony of Joseph Smith; Brief Explanation of the Plates

(January 2, 2015)
                I was struck as I read with the realization that Joseph Smith never quotes Moroni – only paraphrases him.  I find that more than a little bit remarkable, but I don’t know why.  I think that if an angel came to me, I would certainly have a pretty good idea of each and every word that the angel said to me and I would quote him liberally.  But that isn’t the case here.

                This makes me wonder if the manner in which the angel Moroni communicated with Joseph was in a manner that did not allow for easy quotation.  Or, and this is probably more likely, it is indicative of just how frequently by the time his testimony was written, Joseph Smith had talked with divine messengers.  After all, meeting a U. S. Senator could be seen as a big deal, but if you have brunch with the President you are less likely to remember all of the details of your meeting with the Senator.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Isaiah 42

(January 1, 2015)
                If there is something that serves as a greater miracle than helping the blind to see, I don’t know what it is.  I have gone through the process of clearing my life of self-deception (and I am certain I have a long way to go, although for obvious reasons I am not aware of where I am continuing to be self-deceiving), and this has taught me of what a tragedy the simply phrase ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ can be.  We are blind to our mistakes, and we aren’t even aware of these blind spots.

                Causing the blind to see, in my opinion, is really an extension of the promise of Ether 12:27.  That is the most priceless way that we are blessed to be given sight.  It is something that I see in others more than myself (again, for the obvious reason that I don’t know what I don’t know), but I can see certain people who don’t know what they don’t know and this blindness is destroying their lives.  Continuing to clear away this blindness in myself is a great challenge of mortality and a grand blessing from the Lord.

Book of Mormon Title Page; Introduction; Testimony of the Three Witnesses; Testimony of the Eight Witnesses

(January 1, 2015)
                It is always interesting to see the people who seem to think that finding any mistake in the Book of Mormon is sufficient to somehow ‘disprove’ the divinity of the book or its translation.  But there really is no justification of taking that inerrant approach.  By the terms of the book itself, there may very well be mistakes – they are mistakes of men, not of God.  We have to answer the problems with the book along with the things that admit no explanation other than divinity.  When we focus only on the mistakes, we place ourselves in the position of condemning the things of God because of the mistakes of men.

                The other thought I had was being once again struck by the reliability of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon.  There are places where the only explanation of the Restoration is either artifice or divinity – Joseph Smith either was who he said he was or he engaged in deliberate fraud to mislead (there isn’t a middle ground).  But, in other places, there is a different dichotomy – Joseph Smith either legitimately was who he said he was or he at least believed he was who he said he was.  It is, at times, difficult to choose definitively between the two, but when the two types of conflicts are combined, there is only one consistent possibility – that Joseph Smith really was who he said he was.

Isaiah 40-41

(December 31, 2014)
                We see, nowadays, the argument that the claims of one religion are suspect because other religions make similar claims or because other religions through history have made mistakes.  It isn’t really fair that we members of the Church need to defend the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but it makes at least a little sense.  What doesn’t make sense is when we are expected to defend the Inquisition or the Crusades or Galileo’s trial.

                This is nothing more than a continuation of the same thinking that Isaiah and the Lord are speaking against.  Just because false religions believe or do something doesn’t mean that other religions are untrue (just as the fact that one believer does something bad doesn’t mean that all believers are evil or wrong).

Moroni 10

(December 31, 2014)
                I don’t know why we, as members of the Church, constantly envy or compete for the appearance of righteous superiority or do any of the other very natural-man mechanisms of comparison.  After all, when someone else is doing something well, that does nothing but strengthen the work and bring glory to God.  We, of all people, should encourage and build those around us to achieve more and greater righteousness.

                In the eternities, should we be blessed to receive all that the Lord stands to give to us, we will find ourselves spending our existence building up others.  When those within our sphere of influence accomplish something, that is a sign that we are doing what we should. Why should that approach only begin post-mortality?  We should look to spend all of our time building up others, and when they achieve something we truly should look at that as demonstrating the glory of God.

Isaiah 37-39

(December 30, 2014)
                I expect (although I cannot, of course, truly judge) that Hezekiah received an eternal reward.  That brings some comfort, especially when we see him as having made a pretty egregious (if honest) mistake in showing the wealth of Israel to others.  One of my great fears is the mistake that I don’t know is a mistake – I have proven to myself too many times that I can be blind, that I worry that I will do something wrong and bring about bad consequences.

                I think that is a temporal thing, and I think we are obligated to do the best we can, but even with a righteous man like Hezekiah it is possible to make an important mistake and still be found useful in the sight of the Lord.  That is something that gives us each hope when we try to become the best persons we can be.

Moroni 9

(December 30, 2014)

                The condition of spiritual blindness where sharpness brings anger and lacking sharpness brings hardened hearts needs a name, because I see that over and over.  It seems to be a legitimate spiritual and psychological phenomenon.  The hard part is, I cannot see a hope for those that I know who are progressing down that road, so I don’t really know what I can do to help those who are living that way.  I know there is hope, but the mechanism by which escape can occur is something that I don’t see.  I feel like Mormon – at a loss to know what to do with people that I love but who are otherwise seemingly stuck in a negative cycle of spiritual degeneracy.