Being 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:
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.