Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ears to Hear

As we LDS attempt to share our message of a restoration of the Christian Church and it’s Priesthood authority, it is only natural that we identify in our minds those individuals who would appear to be most receptive. Often it is not really a measure of receptivity that we recognize but rather some manifestation of supposed preparedness. Who could blame us for thinking that someone who already believes many of the important doctrines of Christianity that we ourselves embrace, should be the one who is most prepared to listen to our message. When a person lives a life that exemplifies devotion and commitment to God, we can easily visualize the necessary transition in becoming a solid member of our church and a valuable asset to the Lord in building up His Latter-day Kingdom. It is these understandable expectations that sometimes leave us bewildered when our, so imagined, prime candidate rebuffs our overtures.

People live such varied lives and have so many unique experiences that we are unlikely to be aware of a person’s true historical makeup. It is partly these experiences that prepare a person’s mind for the planting of the Gospel seed, or preclude its nourishment. Each of us comes here from the presence of God with developed personalities and capacities, and yet many of our capacities lay hidden until some series of events brings them to fruition. I think we all know people who appeared to be unlikely prospects before exposure to the LDS story, but who surprised us by embracing it with zeal. I submit myself as an example. Who knew me well enough to have predicted my interest and willingness to change my lifestyle so radically? Outward appearance and current habits and affiliations seem to be poor indicators of the truly receptive.

The world is filled with many millions of people who are of such character, that when given the right opportunity, they will fully embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The “right opportunity” is sometimes too complex for us to provide in short order. It is not always a matter of presenting the message in just the right words or from the lips of the right messenger. I believe most of these good people are simply sidetracked, either by other compelling interests, or by a heavy cloak of misinformation. In either case, something is going to happen to them someday, which will cause them to stop and reevaluate their pursuits and prejudices. The Lord is obviously willing to wait for this to happen and we must be patient as well. Meanwhile, hearts are being softened every day in those unexpected few that are ready now. Our charge is to find them but it is not very often easy. They may be in camouflage, not only to us but also to themselves.

I could not have predicted my own conversion because I could not have imagined the offer. The LDS message caught me totally by surprise and I was ill prepared to accept it. I was, however, receptive. What was it that made me receptive? It could have been a complex set of variables, but mostly, I wanted to do the right thing with this precious mortal existence. Although I did not expect to find a precise plan and reliable guide when I was nineteen years old, I recognized that that was exactly what the LDS message offered. Fortunately, I was not prejudiced against the Church, as so many good people are. I could visualize the significance of the promise of a modern prophet -- if only I could come to know if it was really true. That is a story for another day.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Joseph's First Rejection

You may have noticed that when religious people get really hostile toward another religion, it usually isn’t one of polar opposites, but rather one which shares many elements with their own. This has certainly been the case as the LDS have taken the most heat, not from Muslims or Buddhists or Scientologists, but from other Christians. This scorching began even before our church was founded. When the fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith approached his minister and related to him a miraculous personal experience, he was immediately condemned. This reaction would have been expected had he propounded some heretical doctrine, undermining the validity of Christianity and the Bible record. Such was hardly the case.

Implicit in Joseph’s story was physical confirmation that God is not “dead,” that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the Biblical account of His life, death, and resurrection were true in literal fact. These same assertions, so fantastic and unbelievable to many, have been accepted as a matter of faith by Christians, most of whom have never received any more than a quiet witness of the heart that they were true. For two thousand years members of the Christian community have looked forward to the day when a physical witness would replace their faith, and the supernatural events foretold in the Bible would unfold as undeniable confirmation that their faith had not been in vain. Young Joseph’s message was that his faith had been replaced by a sure knowledge and that this long awaited unfolding had begun.

Joseph’s innocent and na├»ve attempt to share his experience was rebuffed by the very people he expected would be most glad to hear of it. The reasons for this are a matter of curiosity to me, as I would like nothing more than to share Joseph’s message with others. In 1820, Joseph was not yet associated with the Book of Mormon, golden plates, angels, plural marriage, or any of the other controversial aspects of the future LDS church. His account was simply that he had seen God the Father and Jesus Christ, and that they had directed him not to join any of the existing churches because they all contained some errors in doctrine. He was to wait for further instructions, and he did wait for three long years.

The reaction of Joseph’s minister may have bewildered the boy but it should not be so strange to us. There are several reasons that would explain his behavior. As a graduate of his particular sect’s religious training, he would have been heavily schooled, not just in the Old and New Testaments, but also in the writings of ancient Christian leaders and the more recent Protestant reformers. By the nineteenth century, the Protestant churches had a long history of using language not found in any of the English translations of the Bible. Many of these trained theologians accepted 4th and 5th century creeds with equal veracity. Joseph’s simple statement that he had seen both the Father and the Son would have been viewed as running counter to the creeds.

A more obvious problem that any ordinary man of the cloth would have is that of pride. It would be difficult for him to accept a mere child as having received a greater education in one brief vision than he had gained after years of devoted study and service. If Joseph was right, then his minister was wrong about some important aspects of the Christian faith. Admitting that you have been wrong about something is never easy, especially when you have been vocal in claiming to possess the correct understanding. The Protestant clergy of Joseph’s time had been very vocal indeed. Each denomination was battling for new followers and often resorted to criticism of the other church's doctrines. Each believed they had discerned the real truth.

There are also practical considerations he would need to weigh. The two choices before him would be to either reject Joseph as a fanciful liar, or to hang up his cloth and wait for the lad to receive the promised instructions. The latter would have been unthinkable. A man who makes his living as a preacher would be facing a career change in the middle of his life and might be repulsed by the thought of having to run a plow. His friends and family likely would have ostracized him. This would make earning a living even more difficult.

Another reason to reject Joseph’s story was the then common belief that miracles of this sort had ended with the close of the New Testament period. Although this thinking has since changed for many Christians, it was being forcefully taught in 1820.

Perhaps the most universal aversion people have had to Joseph’s message of modern revelation from God, is that it would require a change in beliefs, behavior, and social standing. Most people resist change and never more than when the path ahead is uncertain. Joseph’s minister would suddenly be well outside his comfort zone had he given any thought as to the possible truth of Joseph’s vision.

While the above reasons make understandable the rejection and criticism Joseph experienced, it remains a curious fact that he was so viciously set upon while still a youth of no importance. He marveled at this himself as he labored under the difficulty it brought to him and his family. It is not without significance that both his parents and all his siblings believed his incredible account, and that they continued to support him through all the terrible ordeals his claims brought upon the whole family. While Joseph's minister was his first rejection, his own father, Joseph Smith Sr., was his first convert.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

First Article of Faith

We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.

This is the first Article of Faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are twelve more but this is the one on which all the others rest. It serves as the foundation for all that we believe. These three separate entities constitute what the Apostle Paul called the "Godhead." The fact that we Latter-day Saints believe in them and revere them as Divine places us in league with most of the Christians in the world. It is what Christians of the various sects believe about them that creates troublesome divisions in the Christian world.

This is an interesting quote from the Book of Mormon:
2 Nephi 31:21 "And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen."

We believe that the Father is a father. We believe that the Son is a son. We believe that the Holy Ghost is a "ghost" or "spirit" - without a physical body. We believe as Paul, that these three form a "Godhead." We believe as Nephi, that these three constitute one "God." Nephi's declaration is confusing only if we insist that the word God always describes a single entity, rather than a harmonious trio. Like most words, this one has more than one meaning, and means different things to different people. It is a word loaded with intrigue. It is at the same time, common, useful, important, and dangerous. It is a trigger in the mine field of misunderstanding so prevalent in the Christian world.