Lesson 2: Abraham and Foreordination

35852_all_004_001-preexistenceBeing raised deeply within Mormonism there are some concepts that have become the water I’ve swam in. Certain bits of theology and specific verses I’ve heard read over and over again, embedding themselves deep within my consciousness. I accepted them as truth before I was even old enough to scrutinize them.  I’ve aged. And I’ve studied. In recent years, I’ve wandered into theology, pulling bits and pieces from various sources. Along the way, I’ve encountered ideas and insights that have resonated and that seem to solve problems that my life demanded solutions for. None of these ideas at the time seem to conflict or contradict my childhood Mormon lessons. But I’ve brought them in, planted them like seeds in my heart, and have enjoyed the wonderful fruits of peace, expansiveness, and grace that I have in real ways experienced.

But as my faith foundation has shifted along the way, there have been times, going through my Mormonism as I do, in the weekly correlated Sunday School lessons for example, when I’m confronted with these life-long, deeply recognizable verses that force me to reckon with the contradictions that have built up over the years – the very real tensions that exist between Mormon theology and the theology of making my life work.

This week is one example:

Abraham 3:

22 Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;

23 And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.

and in D&C 138

53 The Prophet Joseph Smith, and my father, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and other choice spirits who were reserved to come forth in the fulness of times to take part in laying the foundations of the great latter-day work,

54 Including the building of the temples and the performance of ordinances therein for the redemption of the dead, were also in the spirit world.

55 I observed that they were also among the noble and great ones who were chosen in the beginning to be rulers in the Church of God.

Coming at these verses again with new eyes, I find them deeply uncomfortable. For one thing, I know first hand this theology was used by some to justify the church’s priesthood ban to black people, which has been discredited officially by the modern church. For another, what of those of us who haven’t been called into major leadership positions within the church? What of women who aren’t given this opportunity, and what of the countless billions of people inhabiting the earth throughout its history, some in the most humble of circumstances? Finally what of my mom, who has had trouble just leaving her house for pretty much her entire life?

Taking even a cursory scan of the world, it’s pretty easy to see the incredible injustices and inequality. I’m still haunted by the scene in the beautifully haunting book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, of the trash collector, hit by a car, and ignored for hours as he dies on the street, and then disposed of without attempts to find loved ones to notify of his death. One way to deal with this, I suppose, is to point to a forgotten pre-existent world and assume those born into difficulty, weakness and limitations deserved it for their lack of pre-existent valiancy.

Maybe my mother was not valiant enough to be born free from the mental illnesses and afflictions that bothered her, her entire life? What did I do in my pre-earth life to deserve my social anxieties? Or my father’s mother who struggled with mental illness?

I reject this kind of thinking. I think we all were called into weakness, limitations and suffering. I think we are weak to help us learn humility, I think we have injustice and inequality in this world, to remind us to have compassion, concern, and grace for each of those around us, especially those whose suffering exceeds are own.

Perhaps, these verses are just too narrow. Perhaps there could have been another pre-existent scene in which God gathers another group pre-existent spirits and saw their goodness, virtue and humility to exceed even those of the first and then proclaimed:

“And God saw these souls and wept, seeing that they were pure, lovely and good and proclaimed, these I will call into suffering, greater than most. Some will be born into poverty, some will suffer severe limitations of body, mind or spirit, some will be prone to addiction, some will suffer abuse. Most will be neglected and forgotten. But these are my truly chosen ones.”

And really, I think this is true for each of us. We all have gifts and weaknesses. We are born limited. We are born to suffer. But also, I think some of us really, truly are born to shine. And we ought to appreciate and revere the truly remarkable gifts some of us bring to this earth and send out as gifts to the world. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legendary orations and leadership in a time of American need. Or our prophets and leaders who organize, bless and uplift. Or our musicians and poets and artists who labor tirelessly in isolation on their craft, coming out just long enough to make this world a little more beautiful for the rest of us.

And let me pause on this point. My wife is a beautiful pianist, but she hasn’t been able to practice since getting married and having kids like she once was able to. To really make inspiring music requires a lifetime of sacrifice. Really, to pull together a single piece, requires hours of dedicated practice, isolated, alone and then to come up out of this isolation to put this sound out there into space for a brief moment.

I think someone has to be called into something like this. Maybe there was something pre-existency for artists and musicians just like those leaders mentioned in that verse above.

I hope we can apply these verses more universally. We were all chosen. We were all among the noble and great ones. It’s just up to us to figure out what we were chosen for. What we were called for. And then, along with that, to appreciate those around us, magnifying their callings in the most expansive ways possible.

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Lesson 1: Moses Chapter 1

Introduction

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Did I say that this year was on the Old Testament? Well, we can’t start there, instead we detour into our own scriptures first, today Moses 1 in the Pearl of Great Price.  Joseph Smith spent a lot of time in the Bible and he took the liberty to come up with some extraordinary re-translations and expansions of Old Testament. The Book of Mose came out of this.

By the way, I have purchased a couple of books to help guide my way through the Old Testament, but they are en route, and we haven’t really started the Old Testament, so what follows is purely my ideas, and I’m taking a lot of liberties here.

A couple of pre-conditions. I’m reading it to optimize its applicability to my own life. I doubt I will ever encounter God face to face as Moses does here, so doesn’t seem relevant to me. I’m assuming a world as I encounter it now.

Re-reading Moses 1, to me it reads like poetry. Some specifics:

Verse 1: Mountains

God speaks to Moses when he “was caught up into an exceedingly high mountain,”

First of all, how did Moses get to the mountain? I’m imagining it wasn’t planned. Maybe he needed time alone, maybe he was trying to find solace or comfort. But whatever the circumstances he was in a situation where his mind was elevated beyond the daily concerns that tend to overwhelm our day. In other words, he was ready to step into deep time.

Verse 4: Eternity

“my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease.” God’s words never cease. Most of what we do does end, including and especially our words, the sounds and the music. Daniel Barenboim in his beautiful book on music, talks about the impermanence of sound here:

Sound does not remain, sound has a tendency to drop into silence. Therefore, sound has with silence is the equivalent of life and death. I think the fact that sound is drawn to silence, therefore sound has a tendency to die, that means that every note that you play or sing has a tendency to die puts you in direct contact with the feeling of death more than anything I can think of because its not in your imagination only because its physically in front of you whether you are playing or listening.

But there’s also sometime permanent about it as well here:

Sound is extraordinary because it doesn’t live in this world. Whoever makes a sound, he is literally bringing this sound into the world. And yet when it comes to this world, it suddenly acquires a human dimension, it acquires a dimension that makes humans move. I know know of no other phenomenon that is a purely physical phenomenon that takes another dimension.

If God’s works and words never cease, what specifically does that mean? I can think of experiences and emotions in my life, both good and bad, that etch deep within me. They become part of me and if I’m eternal, and if God’s words can embed within me, they become eternal as well.

Verse 6: Grace and Truth

Let me assume this is the primary substance of God, grace and truth. This is what constitutes divinity, grace and truth. In that sense, God knows us, inside and out, all parts of us, our good and our bad, our darkest secrets and our most proud, public achievements, and most importantly, the broad context of our lives. If this is true, God’s grace means, we are loved anyway. I think this is how we should all aspire to be. To know things as they really are as fully and completely as possible, and then to approach the world with as much compassion and grace we can muster.

Verse 6: All things are Present For I know them all

Imagine that all things are now, present. We’re perfectly aware of everything around us. We ignore nothing. How often do I sleepwalk through my day. Ignore real suffering and especially how often do I miss a problem I’m in a position to solve. Are there people or things calling for my attention that I purposely cast aside?

I’m not sure I’m capable to be in a constant state of presence and awareness. But this is a divine attribute and something I should strive for.

Verse 20: The bitterness of hell

God leaves Moses and he is left alone. In this moment, Satan visits him and demands Moses worship. Moses refuses and in the exchange Satan expresses frustration causing Moses to feel the “bitterness of hell”.

There are two possibilities each of us must reckon with. We can either find connection and solidarity with each other in love and equality and concern. Become present and aware. Or we can withdraw within and demand others to pay attention to us. In other words, we can make everything about ourselves or we can be more concerned with our relationships and our connection.

I have had experiences with both and at times I’ve sought for and received attention and praise. And it’s incredible and fulfilling but temporary and fleeting. There have been times when I’ve wanted it but didn’t get it and I’ve fallen into the bitterness of rejection.

I think God here shows us the better way.

Verse 34: Adam, which is many

“And the first man of all men have I called Adam, which is many.” Ok, this is weird. Adam which is many? This, for me, gives room for Adam as an archetype and not a real person and theological room for evolution – of which Mormonism is officially neutral.

 

I’m Going All in on the Old Testament This Year

downloadYou know by now, I’m Mormon, right? As a Mormon, we have these really intense Sunday services, three hours worth, the second hour of which is Sunday School. The Mormon church has an extended scriptural cannon that goes beyond the Bible and for the purposes of Sunday School, we spend a year on each one. Getting through all of them in four years – the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and Church History – primarily the Doctrine and Covenants. This year is the Old Testament. These lessons then repeat every four years.  As a lifelong member, I have now sat through these lessons multiple times, and did I say they repeat?

The church organizes Sunday School in a very particular and perfectly valid way. We are a church of hierarchy, revelations and prophets. Much of this, then, is driven from the top down and much of it began in the 1960’s correlation headed up by then apostle, Harold B. Lee. The result of this is that Mormon Sunday School, is a very directed walk through the scriptures as organized and informed within modern Mormon interpretations and prophetic revelation frameworks.. We are informed by the scripture, but more often the scripture is used to firm-up these more modern frameworks and understandings.

I’m fine with this approach, but this year, in my personal journey through the Sunday School curriculum, I’m going to pull from other sources. Most importantly, I’m going to try to drink as deeply as I possibly can from the scriptures themselves and give less heed to the manual prompts. This will likely mean I will get different kinds of lessons than the ones intended from church correlation. Which I think is the whole point of personal scripture study.

There are a couple of potential consequences to this approach. I’ll be a little more disconnected from the flow of the in-class discussion. I don’t want to disrupt this flow. I’ll try to participate still, but I’ll have to find moments of overlap, some Sundays, perhaps I won’t find them. And it’s a large class, even when I have a comment to share, there’s not always an opportunity. But at a minimum I’ll try to listen this year, I promise.

But because I will likely trudge down slightly (or significantly) different paths through the Old Testament than the class, I’m going to use this blog to express whatever insights I find.

This is not a New Year’s resolution. I may completely flame out. We’ll see. I’ll do it, time, energy and interest permitting. I’m hoping for weekly, but we’ll see.

A couple of thoughts about the Bible and the Old Testament specifically:

First of all, one of my reference books which has been highly recommended from multiple of people I know, written by a BYU professor and Mormon scholar, David Bokovoy, is “Authoring the Old Testament”.  He wrote a nice introductory article recently, entitled 5 Things to Know Before Studying the Old Testament.  His basic suggestion is to avoid treating the Old Testament as a single book. It’s not, obviously. It’s a vast, complicated library of perspectives and genres over a thousand year history. As such, it’s full of contradictions and tensions and is easy to misinterpret. His basic recommendation is to recognize this, have fun with it, recognize its antiquity, feel free to re-apply its lessons to our own circumstances, but don’t get carried away. It really wasn’t written for our day and don’t try to force it too much.

I think this should be exciting. I hope it is. Again, I may flame out. We’ll see.