Saints Book Club Ch. 4

Chapter 4 of Saints has it all: buried treasure and golden plates, action and romance.

Joseph’s work in assisting with treasure seeking has been the subject of much controversy. This chapter smartly positions that employment in the context of Joseph meeting and courting Emma Hale. Whether Joseph was right to use his talents in pursuit of treasure seeking or not, God used his experience to put him where he needed to be to meet Emma.

I like how the chapter describes the romance between Emma and Joseph. You can see what each found so attractive in the other. Emma had grown up in relative wealth and privilege and I suspect that Joseph seemed so different. He was rugged and rough. He had a natural charm and was gregarious and humorous. Emma likely offered Joseph a sense of refinement and class that attracted him.

It was no surprise that Issac Hale did not approve of their relationship and marriage. Joseph was a poor hired laborer whose family had little property and little standing. Joseph must have appeared uneducated and superstitious. And the rumors of gold plates and angels would frighten any would be father in law.

Amidst this courtship, Joseph is charged with fraud for his work with Josiah Stowell. The charges are dismissed after Josiah testifies on his behalf. But I can’t imagine that those charges helped Joseph’s relationship with Isaac Hale.

When Joseph visits the Hill Cumorah again, he is warned that he is still using his skills to pursue financial gain and that he must quit working with money diggers. He is told that if he does not change his ways, he will not have another chance. This makes me wonder if there are moments in our lives where God gives us a similar warning and where we have to either step up and change of lose out on precious spiritual opportunities? Continue reading

Saints book club, ch 3

Chapter Two of saints ended right after the immediate aftermath of First Vision. Chapter Three looks at the years that followed which contain some of the many highs and lows of the life of the fledgling Prophet.

I have always loved how Joseph Smith candidly admits in his history that in the years after the First Vision, he fell into temptations and lost sight of the vision that he had. How relateable. Here is how this is described in Saints:

“Joseph and his friends were young and lighthearted. Sometimes they made foolish mistakes, and Joseph found that being forgiven once did not mean he would never need to repent again. Nor did his glorious vision answer every question or forever end his confusion. …Joseph was still unsure if God was pleased with him. He could no longer feel the forgiveness and peace he had felt after his vision of the Father and Son. Instead, he often felt condemned for his weakness and imperfections.”

I love being able to click on the footnotes in Saints and instantly be transported to the primary sources. These paragraphs combined information from the well-known account in the Pearl of Great Price, and also from an earlier 1832 account. The 1832 account has some wonderful details such as Joseph’s description of how his transgressions and sins “brought a wound upon my soul.” Joseph’s earlier account also lays bare how difficult and painful these years were for Joseph: as “his Fathers family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions.”

This backdrop gives Moroni’s visit a much deeper resonance. Joseph once again needed personal reassurance of his standing before God. He had “full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation,” and yet imagine the relief he must have felt when a heavenly messenger appeared before him.

And yet, despite the vision Joseph did not become transformed overnight. The first time that Joseph tries to get the gold plates does not go well to say the least. He is warned that he must not seek the plates for financial gain. “Still, Joseph could not help thinking that he now knew exactly where to find enough treasure to free his family from poverty.” (Saints).

After Joseph is rebuked for seeking the plates, Moroni appears and Joseph Smith has another remarkable vision that I had not been aware of:

“Look,” Moroni commanded. Another vision unfolded before Joseph, and he saw Satan surrounded by his numberless host. “All this is shown, the good and the evil, the holy and impure, the glory of God and the power of darkness,” the angel declared, “that you may know hereafter the two powers and never be influenced or overcome by that wicked one.”

Joseph was undoubtedly aware of Satan after the assault proceeding the First Vision, and yet here Joseph is given to fully understand the power and influence of the adversary and how forcefully Satan would oppose him. I suspect that this must have been quite a wake up call for him.

Saints does not skimp in its depiction of one of the traumatic events of Joseph’s life–the death of his Brother Alvin. Immediately after the visit of Moroni, Joseph’s home was filled with joy. “Night after night he captivated the family with talk of the gold plates and the people who wrote them.” And then suddenly, his brother Alvin dies. The event was devastating to all the members of the household, especially Joseph Sr. who is described as “furious.” Neither Joseph Sr. nor Joseph Jr. ever forgot Alvin and many later events were influenced by his passing.

The second attempt to get the plates went slightly better than the first. Joseph got the plates out of the ground. And then he realized that the other items with the plates could be valuable and so he set the plates down out of his sight. Because he was not cautious with the plates, he is denied access to them again. Joseph had grown from the first encounter with Moroni, and yet he also still had a long way to go.

What stood out to you in this chapter? What did you learn? What questions did you have?

He Called Me By Name by Liz Lemon Swindle

A temple for Russia!

For nearly six years, I have watched General Conference with bated breath. As President Monson announced temple after temple, I waited but the words never came. I was happy for all of the incredible places in the world getting temples, but came away from each conference disappointed.

I served in Novosibirsk Russia under a visionary Mission President- who not coincidentally had been set apart by President Nelson. President Gibbons came to Russia with a single and divinely inspired goal – to help build a district and eventually a stake in Siberia. He promised the members that if they remained faithful, one day they would see stakes and temple dot Russia and specially in Siberia.

After six years, I had lost hope. After years of progress in constructing stakes and districts, the government crackdown was savage. First came anti-Mormon propaganda on TV. Next came an effort to label members of the church tratiors to the national fabric. An aggressive ban on proselytizing followed. And within just the past year, family history centers were shut down and meeting houses raided after evidence of criminal conduct was manufactured and planted.

With each unfulfilled conference prayer, I began to doubt whether God would truly be faithful to the promises he made through his divinely called servant. Today, President Nelson, a true Prophet of God, showed that it is not God that is unfaithful to his promises.

It is so appropriate that President Nelson would be the one to announce the building of a temple in Russia. He was the apostle instrumental in the opening up of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union territories to missionary work in the late 80s and early 90s. One of his many granddaughters served in Russia. He has spoken to the saints there on many occasions and has used their stories in conference.

I can’t begin to express how much this announcement means to me personally and to the saints in Russia. My Siberian Brothers and Sisters are probably currently as far from an operating temple as anywhere in the world. In 2010, the Church dedicated the Kiev Ukraine Temple which somewhat eased the burdens of travel. But worsening socio-political circumstances have dashed that dream. And even with a temple in Kiev, the distance is over 4,000 miles from the center of my mission. Those faithful members ride the trains for days and spend a week at the temple doing work night and day. Their faith and example resembles the early pioneers. It will truly be a glorious day to have a temple in Russia.

There will likely be opposition to the building of the temple. When a temple is built, a portion of the world is sanctified and set apart for the holiest purpose imaginable. Satan rages. But God will triumph.

I also celebrate the announcement of new temples to be built in Argentina, Nicaragua, the Philippines, the USA (UT and VA), and India, but for me the temple announced in Russia makes all the difference!

O Jerusalem

Yesterday’s announcement that the United States will officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is controversial to say the least. Indeed, of all the contentious claims in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the status of Jerusalem is the ultimate landmine. Having spent quite a bit of time studying the conflict, I am well aware of how complicated the final status of Jerusalem ultimately is. And having lived for several months with a Muslim Bedouin family in the Negev, I also know how sacred Jerusalem is for the Palestinians and I long for a peace that recognized their shared claim to the holy sites of Jerusalem.

With all of that being said, I felt prompted to share my personal reaction to the decision. I frankly didn’t expect it to resonate as deeply with me as it did. Though I was born in Israel, I have not lived there for more than several months at a time since childhood. But reading about the decision nevertheless brought tears to my eyes.

As I read about Trump’s decision, I thought about the generations of my ancestors who longed to return to their ancestral homeland. Their souls hungered for home. They prayed and sang of Jerusalem. They ended their worship with the eternal hope that next year they would be in Jerusalem once more. And with the Psalmist they declared “if I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand whither.” (Jewish Study Bible). Some of my ancestors were able to fulfill their dream and make Aliyah to Israel. Others were brutally murdered because of their Jewish heritage and faith.

For the Jewish people, the land of Israel is not merely a nicety. It is a matter of spiritual and temporal salvation. It is a refuge from the storm of anti-Semitism. It is a place where the connection to the past and to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is particularly strong. It is the land promised by God. And Jerusalem is at the center of that ancestral claim.

Yet despite that ancient connection, there is a concerted effort to deny Israel’s historic claim to Israel. UNESCO, an arm of the UN that recognizes sites of historic and cultural significance, recently attempted to whitewash the Jewish history of Jerusalem completely away. And so as I read about Trump’s announcement tears unexpectedly came to my eyes. The United States was declaring that it recognized the historic claim of the Jewish people. It was pushing back against a false narrative that would wide away Jewish history from the land.

There is room to debate and discuss the necessity of such a step, given that it merely acknowledges the reality on the ground for at least 50 years. Whether the decision was wise given the inevitable backlash remains an open question. And whether this will help or injure peace efforts is yet to be seen. But what seem undeniable to me is that the Trump administration has acted in solidarity with the eternal longing of the Jewish people. Although the “nations rage” and the “peoples plot in vain” (Psalms 2:1 NIV), the call of the Jewish soul to Jerusalem will remain forever. No peace deal, no settlement, and no negotiation can proceed that undermines that basic fact.

(Although it is somewhat secondary to the point of this post, as a Latter-day Saint I also see the return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land as a fulfillment of many great and marvelous prophecies from Isaiah to Joseph Smith).

Edit: I want to link to this post by Sahar Qumisiyeh who is a Palestinian Latter-day Saint to offer a counter perspective.

The Nephite Pride Cycle and the Early Saints

Two years ago, I wrote a post on this blog discussing devotional uses of the Book of Mormon by the early Saints. This week, I came across another inspiring example of the usage of the Book of Mormon by early church leaders.

1836 saw the Latter-day Saints in Kirkland enjoy unparalleled prosperity and spiritual outpourings. The newly dedicated temple resulted in incredible manifestations and visions. And a land boom resulted in spiking land prices and financial stability. In those conditions, many members began to grow disaffected by efforts by Joseph Smith and other Church leaders to direct temporal and political affairs. As the murmuring and opposition intensified in the start of 1837, David Whitmer, one of the Book of Mormon witnesses, delivered what appears to have been a powerful sermon. Wilford Woodruf describes the sermon as follows in his journal on January 13, 1837.

“Met at candlelight with the quorums of the Seventies and was
favored with a lecture from President David Whitmer. He warned us to humble ourselves before God lest his hand rest upon us in anger for our pride and many sins, that we were running into in our days of prosperity as the ancient
Nephites did. It does now appear evident that a scourge awaits this stake of Zion, even Kirtland, if there is not great repentance immediate and almost every countenance indicates the above expectation, especially the heads of the Church. (See Dec. 11th, 1836.) May the Lord in mercy enable us to meet every
event with resignation.”

I find this to be a remarkable example of how the Book of Mormon had taken moral and spiritual significance in the life of the Saints. The reference to the Nephite pride cycle is dependent on the listener having read and internalized the narrative arc of the Book of Mormon. And Whitmer expressly invokes that story to call his people to repent and to cast off pride and dissension. And it is clear from Woodruf’s account that he (Woodruf) fully understood the point of Whitmer’s message. In this critical period, Whitmer called upon the power of the Book of Mormon to invite repentance and draw us closer to Christ.

What also struck me was how consistent this usage of the Book of Mormon is with one of the more prominent contemporary uses of the Book of Mormon. For instance just last month Elder Wilford Andersen delivered a penetrating sermon on the Pride Cycle.

Elder Andersen described with great clarity the traps of the Pride Cycle, and perhaps more significantly he described how we can escape from that Cycle:

“Brothers and sisters, let’s be honest. Most of us, like the Nephites of old, have ourselves taken a few laps around the pride cycle. I used to wonder how the Nephite nation could run the entire cycle in a period of as short as five years. I have since come to believe that we can run the cycle in five years and we can run it in five minutes. It is a pernicious pattern of thinking and behavior that permeates our society. It is so common that it sometimes becomes hard to recognize.

Are we consigned to continue forever in this endless do-loop of despair? Is there no way to get off the pride cycle? There is. In fact, there are two points on the pride cycle where we can exit—one to our eternal destruction and the other to our everlasting happiness.

At four o’clock, when we are facing failure or affliction and feel like all is lost, if instead of becoming humble we become angry; if we lose hope or give in to self-pity; or if we begin to blame others—including God—for our misfortune, then we will exit the pride cycle. But we will exit downward to destruction, as did the Nephites of old.

But at ten o’clock, when it seems like we can do no wrong, when all is going well, if instead of becoming proud we become thankful, then we will exit the pride cycle. But this time we will exit upward toward God. To exit the pride cycle at ten o’clock, we must recognize that every blessing we receive comes from Heavenly Father. He is the source of all that is good in our lives—the fount of every blessing.“

Just like Wilford Woodruff, David Whitmer, and the early saints, we can learn much from the Nephite Pride Cycle of the Book of Mormon. May we like Wilford Woodruff he humbled and allow our prosperity to bring us to gratitude rather than pride.