29 July 2006

How to Refuse a Calling

Some callings in the Church are coveted; others are feared. Whether one accepts a calling or not is ultimately a private matter between one and the Lord. But to suggest that it is a matter of personal preference ignores two important facts:
1. The Lord rarely issues the calling himself. Instead, he goes through one of his servants on earth—be they a prophet, bishop, or Relief Society president.
2. The Lord has given examples in the scriptures of how to act when called to do something that seems impossible.

I believe there are many scriptures that address this issue, but none better than 1 Kings 17:9-16. Elijah has been sent to Zarephath, in modern-day Lebanon, to be cared for by a widow. The widow, whose name remains unknown, has been "commanded…to sustain [Elijah]" by the Lord (1 Kings 17:9). Unfortunately, we have no record of how or when she received this commandment.

As we follow the narrative, we immediately see a problem:

10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks: and he called to her, and said,

Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.

11 And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said,

Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand.

Due to a curse on the land by the hand of Elijah, there was a severe drought, and we can assume that this contributed to the impoverished state of the widow and her son.

12 And she said,

As the LORD thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.

What a heartbreaking reply from this poor widow! Not only would it be a sacrifice for her to feed Elijah, it would be the ultimate sacrifice. In her answer we find a noble example: she does not ask for pity, nor does she ask to be released from Elijah’s request. She simply and plainly tells the prophet the facts as she sees them.

This makes Elijah’s response seem all the more demanding:
13 And Elijah said unto her,

Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son.

With her heart already beaten down by her situation and her inability to provide for her son, we can only imagine how hard these words were to hear. "I have nothing," she said, only to hear the charge, "Then give even that." Elijah’s command, however, is not without hope: she said there was enough meal for one cake only, yet in saying, "after make for thee and for thy son," Elijah hints that there will be enough for at least three. Indeed, Elijah promises much more:
14 For thus saith the LORD God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the LORD sendeth rain upon the earth.

What an uplifting—and yet, seemingly impossible—promise in the face of such a demoralizing request! It is in this moment, in the way that she responds, that we learn the most from this faithful widow:
15 And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.

Those three words—"went and did"—tell us everything we needed to know about this woman. Furthermore, they tell us everything we need to know about what the Lord expects when he issues a calling, "whether by [his] own voice or by the voice of [his] servants" (D&C 1:38). The widow did not refuse, but she did not immediately agree to something she felt incapable of doing either (see Mosiah 4:27 and D&C 10:4). Instead, she informed Elijah of her abilities and concerns, then left it up to him to retract or to repeat his demand.

The closing sentence does more than just give us a happy ending, it emphasizes the major themes of the story: first, that the Lord is faithful to those who are faithful, even to fulfilling all of his promises (Alma 37:17); and second, that those promises are made by the Lord through his servants.
16 And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake by Elijah.


27 July 2006

Hill Cumorah Pageant: Reflections, Part 2

The Hill Cumorah Pageant attempts to tell the story of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon—a 70-minute narrative spanning about 1,000 years of history. Due to the obvious time constraints, the screenwriter had to choose which stories he would relate and which would be left untold. Many, if not all, of those selected are stunning. Here are a few scenes:
• Nephi shocks his brothers, then builds a boat (sailing scenes are beautifully choreographed)
• A massive storm nearly wrecks their ship (complete with rain, waves, and lightning)
• Abinadi prophesies boldly, then is burned to death (real fire on stage)
• Faithful people narrowly escape death due to the timely miracle of a night with no darkness
• Christ appears following massive destruction
• A civilization-wide battle (involving about a hundred actors) ends in the destruction of an entire nation

Partway through the performance, I began to consider whether the chosen stories are what I would select as the most powerful in the Book of Mormon. By “powerful,” I mean spiritually moving, intellectually captivating, or emotionally staggering.

I asked myself: “What are the most powerful parts of the Book of Mormon?”

One scene jumped to first place in my mind: Zeezrom’s repentance. There is a lot that is moving or amazing in this story, from the exquisite doctrine taught in the streets of Ammonihah, to the destruction of innocent believers and the physical suffering of Alma and Amulek. But what really moves me are the words exchanged between Alma and Zeezrom:

6 And it came to pass that Alma said unto him, taking him by the hand: Believest thou in the power of Christ unto salvation?
7 And he answered and said: Yea, I believe all the words that thou hast taught.
8 And Alma said: If thou believest in the redemption of Christ thou canst be healed.
9 And he said: Yea, I believe according to thy words.
10 And then Alma cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord our God, have mercy on this man....

I find this part of the story so fascinating because it happened on a personal level and does not involve an explicit miracle. In the former sense, I find it easier to relate to this story because it is so personal. In the latter sense, this story seems more applicable because it does not rely upon an unusual type of divine intervention. I do not mean to suggest that miracles do not occur, but because they are (I think by definition) rare, the absence of an imposed singularity is what makes the story remarkable. After reading, I that I can play the part of Alma, trying to forgive the unforgiveable, or the part of Zeezrom, probing my conscience so deep that it is truly haunting.

As a final thought: Mormon gives his answer to my question here. How do you answer?

Please Note: This post is not about what should be added to or deleted from the Pageant. For many reasons, including continuity of story-line, limitations of the pageant medium, and the desire to appeal to a wide audience, many stories from the Book of Mormon simply would not be “pageant-able.”


26 July 2006

Hill Cumorah Pageant: Reflections, Part 1

I recently attended the Hill Cumorah Pageant (known simply as, “Pageant”—no article—by locals). I want to share as a series of posts a few thoughts I had while there.

In one of the first scenes of the Pageant, Lehi is shown calling the people of Jerusalem to repentance. Lehi is depicted standing above a crowd of people yelling, “Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations!” He goes on to tell them they have rejected God and the scriptures, and to repent or be destroyed. The people laugh, then get angry, then try to capture him.

We were sitting in back—near the highway—which means we were in hearing distance of the protestors with megaphones. A few were saying things that I can only think were meant to be rude. Others were just being argumentative (though, thankfully, I never saw anyone actually going over to argue).

But there were two hecklers who were saying almost exactly what the Lehi character was saying: “You need to repent! The god you are worshipping is a false god. You have turned your backs from the true way. You have rejected the scriptures.” And so on.

I had listened to their shouting for about two hours before the show began—and grown quite weary of it—so the Lehi character’s shouting disturbed me all the more in its similarity. I began to wonder:

• How did Lehi actually go about telling the people to repent? (See 1 Nephi 1)
• What do the scriptures mean when they say “cry repentance”? (Such as here, here, here, and here.)
• If Lehi didn’t actually yell, what made the people so mad? (Yes, I am implying that persistent yelling is grounds for lynching, though I stop short of endorsing such action.)

Please Note: I understand that the Hill Cumorah Pageant is theater, and pageant theater at that, so it is necessarily going to exaggerate and be overly emphatic at times. This post is not intended to imply that the show be rewritten.


19 July 2006

Stem Cell Veto

Pres Bush recently vetoed a bill from the Senate that would have allowed federal funding for stem cell research. He marked the occasion with a publicity photo, featuring himself surrounded by several couples with their children that they had "adopted" as unwanted embryos.

There are some facts that do not support Pres Bush's veto:

1) He has delayed medical discoveries that would have positively affected the lifespan and quality of many (or all) of the children in the photo. I am reminded of a poster by the Foundation for Biomedical Research:

2) Current IVF techniques were developed by experimenting with human embryos--meaning that the parents in the photo are to some degree protesting the science that made the photo possible.

3) Pres Bush delayed research that will improve IVF and other reproductive technologies. This has several implications:

a) Couples that cannot afford reproductive medicine will still be unable to do so;
b) Couples will continue to transfer several embryos in the hope that one or two will actually implant (most hope for twins, because IVF is so expensive). The problem is that in some cases, high multiples are achieved. Remember that in terms of infant mortality and morbidity, twins typically do fine, triplets are often problematic, and beyond triplets the outlook is usually poor. The couple is then faced with the option of "selective reduction," which means aborting some of the fetuses so the mother only carries one or two.
c) Couples that cannot be helped by today's medicine will still be unable to conceive.

(I also find it ironic that the same man that can argue that the benefits of war outweigh the costs (ie. civilian deaths and casualties), can also argue that the benefits of embryonic stem cell research do not justify the perceived costs.)


Whom Shall I Send?

In another blog about volunteering for things at church, Mark Butler quotes a scripture in Abraham 3:

And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first.
And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate; and, at that day, many followed after him.
(Abr 3:27-28)

Never mind exactly how that scripture applied to the topic, I have a separate question: Of all Lucifer’s actions (from these verses only), which was the first that was wrong? A few possibilities:

1) When he rejected his first estate (volunteering is good and anger has its place, but he went too far).
2) When he got angry (volunteering is good, but don't get mad when you don't get picked).
3) When he volunteered second (if he really wanted it, he wouldn’t have delayed).
4) When he volunteered (because he should have accepted what everyone knew: Jesus had been chosen before the question was even asked).

I don’t support explanation #3, because it implies that Lucifer would have been right if he had only been faster. I can't believe that "fastest finger" is the way to make this kind of selection.

Of course, #1 was his ultimate mistake, and #2 helped him get there. But I believe that #4 was the real problem for Lucifer. Lucifer knew that Jesus was the Christ, but he wanted the title—albeit, not the responsibility—for himself.

Are there problems with explanation #4? For one, I don’t think that the text explicitly supports this reading. Another scripture might give it some support, mainly because it shows that Jesus was the Christ long before he was born:

Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people.... (Ether 3:14)

This interpretation relies on the assumption that in whatever way Jesus was “prepared...to redeem” us, it was done openly: i.e. everyone in the spirit world knew his role. This also hinges on the meaning of “foundation of the world.” When did this happen? Is the “foundation of the world” the beginning of human life, the beginning of the earth’s creation, or the beginning of our spiritual lives? Abraham 3:24 sounds like it is talking about the foundation of the world (which occurs right before the question of who will be the Savior).

If everyone already knew who God had chosen and prepared, why ask the question? I think the point is to show that Jesus is willing to do the Father's will. The alternative is that we might think that God forced Jesus to be the Christ. I do not think this is to show that Jesus is doing something without being asked.

I think this question also allowed each of us to identify Jesus as the Christ at a crucial time. I imagine us answering the question in our own minds, "Well, clearly he should send Jesus." This might have been our first experience identifying Jesus as our leader--right as Lucifer would rise as an alternative choice.