Tag Archives: Nephi

The Book of Mormon pantheon

Paul and Peter. Which one was more important? Which one was better?

Paul and Peter. Which one was more important? Which one was better?

My wife listens to the Book of Mormon on her mp3 player at work. It’s one of the few ways she can feel connected to the scriptures in her busy lifestyle. On top of that, she learns better through audio lessons than through reading, anyway. So the system works out pretty well for her.

Recently she started over and texted me from work that she doesn’t really like Lehi. She doesn’t like how he seems to badger his older wayward sons by making comparisons to Nephi (why can’t you be like your younger brother?) and by constantly calling them to repentance. If you ever want to anger my wife, call her to repentance (no, really, I dare you. But please wait until the microwavable popcorn finishes cooking before you do).

By extension, she doesn’t really like Nephi, either. He seems a lot like Lehi. She isn’t saying that their actions deem them horrible people, simply that their teaching methods don’t jive with her. It doesn’t make matters any better when they also often tell the reader that if they reject their words, it’s because of a hard heart.

Now, Ammon. My wife loves Ammon. He’s a good guy, in her book. When he goes off to teach the Lamanites the gospel, he doesn’t barge into the nearest apostate synagogue like his brothers do. He marches right to the king and volunteers to become a servant. He watches the sheep, he’s dutiful, and he does this for a  long time. The entire time, he never brings up the gospel. He simply serves and becomes their friend. When, after some crazy circumstances in which bandits suddenly find themselves five pounds lighter, he is called before the king, he waits an entire hour before he decides to bring up the gospel or even start answering the king’s questions.

That’s how my wife is – she is much more interested in becoming your friend rather than your missionary. The gospel, she believes, helps no one and only falls upon deaf ears if those who carry it refuse to live by its call of temporal service. And we should not barge into their own places of worship to do battle; we should become their servants, only bringing up the gospel when we are certain they really want to hear about it.

But when you have an mp3 version of the Book of Mormon, it’s hard to accurately skip to the Ammon parts. So my wife slugs through her less favorite parts, holding out for her real Book of Mormon heroes. Of course, she feels guilty for this course of action. “What do I do?” she asks.

I think about this for a minute. Nephi is not my favorite, either. There’s just something…unnerving about him. Maybe even smug. The serene calm in the face of death caused by others around him. He just seems too perfect. Too unrealistic. Too much like a paragon carved in marble than a living person. We briefly see a glimpse into some of the uncertainties in his life during the chapter many members call “Nephi’s psalm,” but for me, it’s not enough. I have little use for lessons on how to face every disaster perfectly, mostly because I am not a perfect person at all.

At the same time, I can see how some people do react to Nephi and Lehi’s teachings. Sometimes, they need comparisons or badgering or nagging or a really, really, super-duper righteous example to look up to. It helps them feel that maybe some measure of perfection is achievable and gives them hope. My wife just doesn’t happen to be one of those people. She prefer that her teachers really care about her and serve her before they preach to her.

One of my favorite characters in the Book of Mormon is Zeezrom. He’s smart. He’s intellectual. He uses his faculties for reason and learning to get gain through malfeasant practices and dishonest intentions. He attempts to bribe the prophets and trap them in logical inconsistencies. But through the course of his interactions with them, he starts to realize that maybe the righteous guys have something going. He begins to probe, to ponder, to question what he’s believed in. By the end, he’s a stalwart missionary who accompanies the prophets on several missions. I can identify with him, and that’s okay.

It's not often Zeezrom is chosen as a hero, but here he is.

It's not often Zeezrom is chosen as a hero, but here he is.

I text back to my wife. Maybe we don’t have to like all the prophets, and that’s fine. Why does God send so many messengers? Because we’re imperfect and invariably we will like some more than others. My sister loves Elder Holland’s fiery brand of preaching. She loves his pulpit thumping, hellfire and brimstone sermons. My brother gets turned off by Elder Holland’s rhetoric. He is a huge fan of President Uchtdorf’s message of charity, tolerance, and the focus on finding personal happiness. My wife, on the other hand, finds President Eyring’s talks inspirational and reassuring. I love Elder Maxwell, and I miss him greatly every Conference. Thus far, no one has bested his turn of phrase and fascinating insights into the gospel. All four of us stay active in the Church. We’re taught not to pick favorites, but the more I live, the more I think it’s really unfeasible. And so, God sends a pantheon of messengers. Because sometimes, some of us are Peters, and some of us are Pauls. Yet, both apostles did good in the eyes of the Lord, who is no respecter of persons.

Or you could just, you know, love all of them equally and tattoo them onto your back.

Or you could just, you know, love all of them equally and tattoo them onto your back.

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Tender Mercies

Elder Bednar, upon his calling as an apostle, gave a blockbuster sermon concerning the tender mercies of God. The sermon itself is a great, powerful speech on the everlasting mercy of God. Most unfortunately, however, it spun off a new catch phrase that has gained a level of insipidness and inanity usually unseen within our church culture. Now, tender mercies, as my wife bitterly puts it, is attributing anything good that happened to you, from a timely green light to you finding ten bucks on the side of the street, to God. Everything is a tender mercy, and when everything is a tender mercy, the idea of mercy loses its potency. It also opens up a disturbing implication (Rebecca J discusses this in her blog post “Not Lucky, Blessed” if you want to read more of this).

The original scripture that spawned this cliche comes from the very first chapter in the Book of Mormon: “But Behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20). At the time, Nephi had fled to a promised land, but along the way, his family has seen horrible trials. They almost starve to death in the deserts of the Middle East. They barely make it to a new land alive after a large storm threatens to sink their ship. Nephi’s older brothers, after years of abuse and beatings, decide they don’t like their uppity younger brothers and determine to kill them. They enlist others to the point that the famous Nephite-Lamanite rivalry escalates into full blown wars (at the loss of thousands of lives). In the end, Nephi has a vision of his own people growing to a prosperous nation that ultimately disintegrates and destroys itself from within because of unrighteousness. How, exactly, is the Lord showing any sort of tender mercy?

Why does Nephi, the first author of the Book of Mormon, introduce his memoirs by speaking about mercy? And most interestingly, why does Moroni, the last author of the Book of Mormon, close his writings with a plea to ask God about the veracity of the Book of Mormon by speaking of mercy? He writes, “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts” (Moroni 10:3). It’s obvious at this point, that when a book opens saying, “I will tell you about mercy,” and ends with, “Now think about the mercy I have talked about in this book,” mercy is an important thing to the writers.

But this isn’t the warm fuzzies, feel-good tender mercies we hear about so much in church. One prophet dies by burning before he sees a single convert. Entire groups are conquered into slavery simply because God wanted to test them. There are terrible wars that result in so many dead that it chokes up the rivers. Judges are asassinated, governments crumble, sons go astray, daughters are kidnapped and raped, entire sects begin to persecute each other, people are thrown into jail for religious beliefs, others burn all of the women and children in town who believe in Christ simply to taunt the prophets. And in the end, despite a visitation by Jesus the Christ himself, Nephi’s vision comes true – an entire civilization crumbles into dust and are wiped out because they fail to heed the word of God.

Where is the mercy in this book? What mercy keeps Nephi, though seemingly abandoned in a strange, new world, full of hope for the mercy of God? What mercy keeps Moroni from falling into crippling despair as he wanders the hostile, new world alone, his entire family and friends slaughtered by the onslaught of merciless enemies? God certainly wasn’t making their proverbial stoplights turn green or helping them find any ten dollar bills on the sidewalk.

Jeffrey R. Holland succinctly sums up this mercy thusly:

“The principle character in the book is Jesus Christ…Christ is everything in this book.”

“We are supposed to be Christ-like, we are supposed to be charitable, we are supposed to demonstrate love, but he is saying that were it not for real charity, capital C, the one time in all the world that real charity was demonstrated, i.e., the pure love of Christ, if it were not for that, ‘we could not inherit the place which thou has prepared in the mansions of thy Father.’ This is the chairty that saves. This is the charity that faileth not. Ours does not always save and it does sometimes fail. As much as we try, we fall short. But one time, by one Person, the pure love of Christ was demonstrated. Real charity was given to this world. Christ loved us perfectly and it lasts forever. That’s why we can say that real charity never faileth. He never fails us. The message of the Book of Mormon is that Christ does not fail us. That’s what we’re trying to tell the world. That’s what we’re trying to say through this basic missionary text of this dispensation. Christ’s love is pure love. He is the only one who has ever really mastered it while the rest of us are still trying to do so. His salvation will not fail, His ordinances will not fail, His Church will not fail…Life has its share of fears and failures. Sometimes things fall short. Sometimes people fail us, economics fail us, business or government fail us. But one thing in time and eternity does not fail us, the pure love of the Lord Jesus Christ as manifested in His atoning sacrifice.”

Recently, a Facebook friend put up a quote for her status that basically said the adversary will have us focus on a lot of meaningless things rather than the few meaningful things that count. While the quote bothered me (the intent is usually to insinuate that what I like is important; what you like isn’t), I cannot deny it’s truthfulness. And I cannot deny the fact that our Church sometimes falls guilty of that. We have reduced a very powerful phrase – tender mercies – encapsulating the crowning achievement of God in redeeming his children from sin and sorrow, the demonstration of perfect charity, given freely and paid with a terrible price, so that God can shift the burden of responsibility of our sins from us to him to help us return back from miserable exile – to simple coincidence and happenstance that marginally improves our lives and helps us feel better. This is a terrible shame.

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Re-examining Priestcraft

One of the things our Church boasts is an incredibly dedicated lay clergy. It’s one of the hallmarks of our hierarchy – we do not pay anybody for what they do; the entire Church runs on volunteer work, an astounding claim since most non-profit organizations work night and day trying to scrounge up a handful of ragtag volunteers to help with this project or that. We provide no real compensation for the millions of hours put into running the Church organization and structure. It’s also the genius behind the seemingly constant bubbling energy in most members – President Hinckley even gave a famous talk concerning our lay clergy, insisting that a calling (a volunteer position) was one of the three essential things a member needs in order to stay active within the Church.

The idea of a lay clergy stems from a scripture in the Book of Mormon where one of the authors, Nephi, writes that God “commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Nephi 26:29). We cite this scripture as the underlying foundation of our lay clergy – we don’t participate to get gain, and nobody should be paid for doing the Lord’s work; the work itself is it’s own reward. More depressingly, some members choose to use this as ammunition in attacking other faiths and attempting to use it as “proof” of the truthfulness of our own Church. However, they are in for a shocking surprise.

I admit, it startled me when I ran into a scripture in Doctrine and Covenants that seemed to contradict the anti-priestcraft message:

“And the elders or high priests who are appointed to assist the bishop as counselors in all things, are to have their families supported out of the property which is consecrated to the bishop, for the good of the poor, and for other purposes as before mentioned; Or they are to receive a just remuneration for all their services, as either a stewardship or otherwise, as may be thought best or decided by the counselors and bishop. And the bishop, also, shall receive his support, or a just remuneration for all his services in the church” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:70-72).

This demanded further investigation into the meaning of priestcraft. It’s obvious from this scripture that God didn’t really have any qualms of the members pitching in to support the bishop and his counselors; after all, they certainly provided a great deal of service to the church. I volunteer at an English class at my church at the same time as when the bishop of my congregation walks into his office and starts working, whether it’s counseling members, interviewing people for temple recomends, or simply just the mandatory bookkeeping and paperwork. My father is the branch president (the equivalent of a bishop for smaller groups) of a small Korean congregation. I know for a fact that these people clock a large amount of hours in order to keep their congregations running smoothly. They would never ask for compensation in return, but certainly, it’s not easy to have to support yourself financially while basically taking on a second full-time job for free.
Nephi did mention that it’s wrong for priests to “get gain” while working for Zion. But the entire chapter provides a context for what exactly he meant by the elusive mention of getting gain. It’s important to note that several verses before, Nephi sets the example by describing Christ. “Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price” (2 Nephi 26:25). He explains the reason behind the priestcraft ban when he writes “Behold, the Lord hath fobidden this thing; wherefore, the Lord God hath given a commandment that all men should have charity…Where if they should have charity they would not suffer the laborer in Zion to perish” (2 Nephi 26:30). Nephi then finishes with this warning, saying, “But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish” (2 Nephi 26:31).

There are two basic dangers to compensating Church leaders, according to Nephi. The first is that your heart will not be in the right place; after all, the love of money is the root of all evil, Paul warns (1 Timothy 5:10). Secondly, there is the very real danger that priests will start charging admission – contrast Christ’s attitude towards humanity that all can come to him without money and without price and he will give freely to the attitudes of a specific sect in the Book of Mormon called the Zoramites:

“And it came to pass that after much labor among them, they begin to have success among the poor class of people; for behold, they were cast out of the synagogues because of the coarseness of their apparel – Therefore they were not permitted to enter into their synagogues to worship God, being esteemed as filthiness; therefore they were poor; yea, they were esteemed by their brethren as dross; therefore they were poor as to things of the world, and also they were poor in heart” (Alma 32:2-3).

Moroni, another Book of Mormon prophet, had some particularly harsh words to say about this subject:

“Yea, it shall come in a day when there shall be churches built up that shall say: Come unto me, and for your money you shall be forgiven of your sins…And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities; and your churches, yea, even every one, have become polluted because of the pride of your hearts. For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor, and the needy, the sick and the afflicted. O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers, who sell yourselves for that which will canker, why have ye polluted the holy church of God?” (Mormon 8:32, 35-38).

However, we can derive from the fact that the Lord had no problem with the Saints banding together to compensate for the work bishops put into making sure the Chuch runs smoothly. Therefore, it is not simply the act of being paid that is the sin. I have met many preachers, pastors, priests, what have you in my day, and they come in an array of motivations. Certainly, some are motivated by pride, by more crude, monetary concerns. They preach what is popular and exhibit all of the gaudy trinkets that money can buy. Others are faithful, loving, motivated by a desire to do good. They live in modest circumstances, and use the money wisely. They have not only refused to follow the siren call of greed and pride, but gained a healthy respect for the sacrifices of their members and love them all the more for it. Their ministry reflects that of Christ’s charity and compassion towards humanity.

While serving a mission in Oklahoma, members of other faiths often showed incredulity when we talked of a lay clergy. I thought this fact would impress people; instead, most became horrified when we told them we didn’t compensate our bishops and other local church leaders. They felt the idea cruel – why force people to do all of that work and provide for their family by their own hands? You would most undoubtedly work your leaders to death! Many found the idea of an unpaid clergy repungnant – it lacked charity towards the church leader and his family; we seemed content living off the labors of our leaders without providing any kind of compensation or support in return. I had never thought of it in this light and when I first heard their arguments, I dismissed them entirely without thinking. However, this recent discovery of the Doctrine and Covenants passage had me revisit the issue after I’ve calmed down and become more mature.

Once again, we start to see that it’s not really the act itself that is immoral – after all, Nephi mentions very clearly that while priestcraft for gain is wrong, it’s important to remember that “if they [the members] should have charity, they would not suffer the laborer [the leaders] to perish.” And Mormon reserved his harshest words for the byproducts of paying priests – the lack of love for the poor (reflected also in the Zoramites), restricting God’s mercy only to those who had the funds to pay up (a sick, twisted version of the already sick, twisted Gospel of Prosperity), the pride manifesting itself in priests who preach for the glory of men and not the glory of God. We should be careful separating the two. There is nothing wrong if a bishop should receive monetary compensation. In fact, as the son of a branch president, a first hand witness of the unannounced, rarely celebrated sacrifices made for members, I wish it were so. However, the real danger lies within the powerful allure of money. After all, Paul makes the important distinction that it is not money per say that is the root of all evil, but the love of money. They reflect two very different attitudes concerning the idea of compensation. Money, unfortunately, is required for survival, but all too often the need for money leads to a love for money, and rather than a tool or medium for trade, it becomes a vice and a master. Like politics, the safest route is a separation of church and bank, as to avoid the Church from becoming, as Mormon aptly describes it, polluted. However, if we avoid this sin entirely, could we also commit the sin of abandoning our church leaders, that after using them up, we discard them to the wayside without any thought? We provide much lip service towards the idea of sustaining our leaders – how many of us are willing to put our money where our mouth is?

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The Lamanite Perspective

Whenever we read the scriptures, we like to identify with the good guys. We’ve heard many times how we should identify and imitate Nephi’s simplicity, Alma’s faith, Moroni’s rhetoric, Mormon’s tranquility and humanity. However, listening to Hugh Nibley’s speech “Leaders and Managers,” he brought up a good point made by a perceptive BYU student:

In my latest class, a graduating honors student in business management wrote this – the assignment was to compare oneself with some character in the Pearl of Great Price, and he quite seriously chose Cain:

Many times I wonder if many of my desires are too self-centered. Cain was after personal gain. He knew the impact of his decision to kill Abel. Now, I do not ignore God and make murderous pacts with Satan; however, I desire to get gain. Unfortunately, my desire to succeed in business is not necessarily to help the Lord’s kingdom grow [a refreshing bit of honesty]. Maybe I am pessimistic, but I feel that few businessmen have actually dedicated themselves to the furthering of the church without first desiring personal fratification. As a business major, I wonder about the ethics of business – “charge as much as possible for a product which was made by someone else who was paid as little as possible. You live on the difference.” As a businessman will I be living on someone’s industry and not my own? Will I be contributing to society, or will I receive something for nothing, as did Cain? While being honest, these are difficult questions for me.

I’ve noticed that. I once spoke in Sacrament meeting about my mission recently after my release, and said the missionary in the scriptures I identified with the most (when being perfectly honest) was Jonah. My brother, a more radical and thoughtful Mormon than I can ever find, said the Book of Mormon heroes he could not identify because they were too sanitized, they were too clean. Were they great men? Yes. But how often do we feel as great as Moroni or Alma? How often do we feel as prideful and stubborn as Laman and Lemuel, or as reckless as Coriantumr?

I’ve been meaning to re-read the Book of Mormon for months now, but had no real focus. Suddenly, I found one. What if I read it from the Lamanite perspective? Not only the racial Lamanites, but the cultural and intellectual Lamanites, the Korhiors, the Nehors and the Amlicites. Of course, I want to pay attention to the “good” Lamanites, too. Why did Lamoni convert when his forefathers were so stubborn? What traits do I find in myself, and how can I purge them? The goal, of course, is not to follow the Lamanite philosophy, but to find Lamanite aspects within myself and to fight them. But in the process, perhaps we may find a more humanistic view of the Lamanites, who seem so much like us – easily confused and scared, impulsive, proud, flawed, but with great potential, if only harnessed correctly.

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