This is a guest post by Lattertarian
The metaphors of Lehi’s dream are explicitly explained thanks to Nephi’s desire for clarification and willingness to write down what he learned. The plain and precious truths of that vision are of course only seriously taught within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but have clear lessons for all Christians (and every truth-seeker to some extent). All of us search for a path to happiness. Taking hold of the rod of iron that is the word of God puts us on a straight path to that happiness. But we are under constant pressure to step away and grope toward other voices, and wandering around in the dark is a dangerous proposition.
It’s also possible, and eminently reasonable, to read Lehi’s dream in an extremely broad quasi-secular way. We all have someplace we want to go, some destination we perceive as desirable. We also know there’s a way to get there, and that “path” has its own guidance “rod” of principles and actions we innately understand we need to adhere to in order to get us to our destination. But a variety of things can distract us from that, and it’s worth considering some of those things.
So what are we doing here? Largely unasked in Lehi’s dream are questions of why someone would let go of the rod once they held it. The mockery from the people in the great and spacious building is one thing, but there are some daily ground-level specifics we all encounter that are worth considering. To my mind, there are four obstacles we can run into as we walk the path and hold to the rod. In keeping with the structure of Lehi’s dream, they’re best explored through metaphor.
Rough Spots on the Rod
The Iron Rod is not smooth, metaphorically speaking. Or at least not entirely smooth. It has rough spots, with dings and edges on it in various places. Much of the time we can just run our hand along it as we walk. But when we hit those sharp spots we need to resist the urge to let go of the rod to lick a wound. Rather, we need to put the other hand on the rod, past the rough spot, and purposefully and carefully hand-over-hand our way past that spot until we can find another smooth length. What does this represent? Sometimes living the truths of the gospel can seem hard. Sometimes we hit a rough spot–a teaching with which we struggle, an interpersonal conflict within the congregation or our families, a sense that God has “allowed” some bad thing to happen to us, or some other thing we perceive as a problem going forward. We can sometimes feel like we need to “take a break” from the rod for a moment to “reorient” ourselves. But that’s a trap. Letting go of the rod always is. Don’t let go. You can slow down, and giving yourself permission to do that can be a valuable factor in your spiritual health, but letting go is extraordinarily dangerous.
This does mean, however, that progress along the rod does not happen at a constant pace. Each of us speeds up and slows down at seemingly random (to an observer, anyway) points along the path. Sadly and dangerously, many of the rough spots on the rod, the places on the path where many slow down, become places where we encounter two important kinds of people. The influence of either of these groups can halt your progress and maybe even detach you from the rod. This is made easier for them (and harder for you to resist) if you have let go of the rod to nurse a scrape.
Vigilante Speed Enforcers
For this, we swerve into a highway metaphor. Highways involve lots of individual drivers making decisions, particularly regarding speed. Have you ever come up behind someone on the highway who insisted on driving slower than the flow of traffic? Sometimes precisely the speed limit, sometimes just under, or sometimes (and most frustrating) close to the speed of traffic but just slow enough to create an inconvenience for everybody else? Or to look at it the other way, have you ever had somebody come up fast behind you and rather than go around they chose to tailgate, honk and gesture, or be otherwise pointlessly aggressive? We can encounter similar people as we walk the path while holding to the rod. These are the people who insist there is one way to walk the path and one way to hold to the rod, and if you’re doing it differently from them you’re doing it wrong. A subset of these people are the stubbornly dogmatic, demanding that everyone yield to their hard-charging and “correct” (and often myopic and unnecessarily hardline) doctrine/policy position, and they’re quite prepared to bully people about it.
The metaphorical danger here lies in the idea of people passing each other as they individually walk along, holding the rod. More specifically, you might come to think that you need to make a significant move, which may involve letting go of the rod to go around somebody or to let somebody pass. The problem with passing people, either on the road or on the rod (or trying to let them get past you without incident) is that you’re both moving, just at purposefully different rates of speed. This can create a hazard, as everybody tries to second-guess each other on the fly. If you let go of the rod to deal with a vigilante speed enforcer, you might collide with them on your way back, bounce away, and find yourself more distant from the rod than you thought. You might not find your way back for a long time. This is you getting offended. Realize what it is, and avoid this error.
Where the vigilante speed enforcers create inconvenient and perhaps dangerous moving obstacles, the highwaymen seek to halt your progress entirely. Moreover, the highwaymen tend to be charismatic and cool. There’s something seductive about being a rebel, and highwaymen are almost always seductive rebels. Just like the famous banditti of history, the highwaymen along the path of the iron rod will admit they want you to stop moving, but only temporarily (give me your attention for a minute–you’ll be on your way before you know it). But once they get you to stop moving, they’ll start working to get you to let go of the rod (step over here and let’s talk).
Highwaymen can come in all shapes and sizes. The obvious ones are the “repent tomorrow” hedons. They are not mocking partiers in the great and spacious building, but are instead encamped just a few steps from the rod; they proclaim you can temporarily join them to live a little, get some life experience, or see what you might be missing before you seek to re-establish your hold on the rod. Some directly oppose some piece or other of the word of God, and stand by a spot on the rod they dislike demanding that passers-by stop until they have been “properly educated about this problematic topic” (part of the rod that they will patiently explain is unnecessary, outdated, or otherwise incorrect–and don’t think for a second that “being right” about overcomplicated justifications isn’t seductive). Regardless, the tactic is always the same: stop moving and step away from the rod for just a moment–you’ll get right back to it, we promise. It’s a trap.
The Loud Goodbyes
These are the exit-narrative people. You can be moving along the path, holding to the rod, when suddenly someone near you hits one of the other three obstacles already described. Rather than work their way around such troubles they declare at the top of their lungs that this whole rod thing is stupid and they’re not going to deal with it anymore. Having made a very loud production of releasing the rod, they make it clear that if you disagree then you’re a bigot. And if you keep holding to the rod after you hear their loud let-go speech you’re a bigot. And if you try to coax them back to the rod you’re a bigot. Because they’re happy now. They’ve never been happier. They’re the happiest they’ve ever been. They couldn’t be happier. You never understood them, and now you can never challenge their happiness again. Because they’re happy now! Seriously! Happy!
The danger here is that you might let go of the rod and follow the loud leaver a few steps into the darkness. Perhaps this is a function of you trying to coax them back. Perhaps it’s about you trying to understand the root of their narrative. Loud goodbyes are almost always passionate, and it’s natural for a caring person to want to “understand” that passion. But seeking that understanding risks carrying you into the darkness, too. It might be harder than you think to find your way back to the rod.
Motes and Beams
There is a fifth obstacle you might encounter on the rod, but it’s subtle so it’s important to understand the first four first. Because the fifth obstacle is you. It is easy to read about vigilante speed enforcers and immediately think of that judgmental old lady at church who is always ready to scold others and always seems to disapprove of anything that wasn’t her idea. It is easy to read about highwaymen and think about that young couple who stopped coming to your congregation because their active party schedule didn’t leave room for church, but who are still popular with others you know. But what each of us must always remember is that sometimes we may experience trials, but sometimes we’re the trial experienced by others. Are you a judgmental vigilante speed enforcer in your church? Are you part of a band of highwaymen distracting your comrades in faith from important things they should be doing? Be honest with yourself. Is your presence in church a contribution or a conflict? Does it elevate or does it erode? It’s one thing to avoid obstacles that lie along the rod of iron. It’s equally important not to be one of those obstacles yourself.
The iron rod as presented in the Book of Mormon is the word of God. There’s no better influence in our lives than that. But in the daily activities of life, we can sometimes forget that basic and critical truth. And sometimes we can be responsible (best-intentions accidentally or willfully arrogantly) for others forgetting that. Recognize these dangers, and hold to the rod. It’ll get you where you want to go, no matter what may happen around you in the moment.
(Lattertarian grew up in Southern California, moved out to raise his children in the Midwest, and recently returned to the land of his people. He is a compulsive communicator (findable on Substack here), though it helps to read his work as though you were all hanging out at a diner, chatting over greasy-spoon steak and eggs on a slow Saturday morning.)