October 15, 2008

Sacred Sorrow

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.
       I'm no expert on sorrow per se; perhaps no more so than anyone else in a similarly blessed situation. I've experienced a measure of sorrow, probably most deeply when brain cancer took my dad. I was only 15 years old and it's been ten years, how much of that experience have I been carrying with me?

       I do believe that God (and in my case more specifically God as understood through Mormonism) has the potential to make beauty from ashes. At the same time, I believe some of the ashes themselves can actually be the beauty, and that too often we may overlook the potential within the ashes as they are. Talk of enduring to the end and finding peace through Christ is good, but perhaps more attention can be given to grief itself. Find meaning in it, something more than viewing it as a placeholder until it can be replaced with joy.

       The metaphor of God giving those who mourn "beauty for ashes" indicates that He can take from us the burned and destroyed remains in exchange for the whole and beautiful. Such assurance means that believers can find meaning in suffering, that justice will bear on the arsons, and that mercy will recompense the humble.

       Still, in the actual moment of sorrow God's promises can be helpful, but the ashes aren't always lying dormant; they are often blown right into our eyes. LDS culture sometimes places emphasis on happiness as a fruit of righteousness. If we are righteous, we are happy. Brigham Young often spoke of being happy as though it was an ultimate Christian virtue and a state which the righteous can somewhat easily and practically attain:
I have learned enough to be happy, when I am in the enjoyment of the blessings of the Lord. That is a great lesson for a man to learn…Will you make yourselves happy? You are greatly blessed of the Lord, all the day long, and should be happy; but we are apt to close our eyes against this fact, and fancy ourselves miserable, when we are actually blessed. I have learned not to fret myself about that which I cannot help...This makes me happy all the day long. I wish you to learn the same profitable lesson. Who hinders you from being happy?1
      Taken at face-value, this view of happiness as an easy decision can actually short-circuit the healthy and normal process of grief. Even Brigham couldn't avoid sorrow. In the summer of 1875 three of Brigham's closest friends died unexpectedly. The last, George A. Smith, was Brigham's friend of 42 years, and was serving as his first counselor in the first presidency at the time. Brigham couldn't simply make himself happy. He openly wept at the funeral, which was the first time many of the Saints had ever seen the man cry.2 

      In all of scripture I can find only one circumstance in which sorrow is considered sinful. It is called the "sorrowing of the damned." Such sorrow is sinful in that it lacks hope, it lacks faith, and it results from the realization that the sinful cannot always be happy in sin.3 Sorrow itself is not a sin. The God in which Mormons place their faith is a weeping God.4 Jesus Christ experienced sorrow; he was (and thus is) a man "acquainted with grief."5 It was not a sin for Him, it was a condition, and it can be sanctifying and even beautiful, though perhaps not so beautiful in the moment. Granted that sorrow should be experienced with care, and allowing it to slip into despair is a real danger. Still, I believe there is something sacred, important, and righteous in sorrow. "Jesus Wept."6

Journal of Discourses 1:1.

See Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses, p.371

Mormon 2:13

Moses 7:40

Isaiah 53:3

John 11:35. I believe the sacred aspect of sorrow certainly deserves further investigation in LDS thought. The frustrating thing for me is, in the actual face of the ashes in others' lives I wonder how much my thoughts here can actually help; how much do these words help me mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who need comfort? Either way, I'd like to develop this much more.

"And when I go to sleep, she'll be waking up..."

October 13, 2008

"Likening With Care" Series with Brant Gardner

"...for I did liken all scriptures unto us, 
that it might be for our profit and learning" 

Brant Gardner is an LDS scholar and Mesoamerican specialist who recently published Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon with Kofford Books. A pre-publication version of the commentary is still available at archive.org (though it is more outdated than the published volumes). Gardner recently spent some time with me discussing his work. Our conversations resulted in this twelve-part series on the Book of Mormon.

Part 1- Introduction to Second Witness 
Provides a brief review of LDS scholar Brant Gardner's new 6-volume work Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon.

Part 2- Putting Blood in the Veins of the Text
Gardner discusses his goals, efforts, and hopes regarding his Book of Mormon commentary.

Part 3- Gardner on Ostler's Expansion Theory
Interacting with several theories on how the Book of Mormon translation resulted in the text we have today, Gardner posits an interactive process.

Parts 4 through 8- Top Five Book of Mormon Myths 
Gardner confronts conceptual myths about the Book of Mormon. He believes some popular understanding of the book should not overrule what the text itself claims.

Part 9- All Are Alike? On Racism and the Book of Mormon 
In calling racism an "ancient norm," Gardner differentiates the meaning of "racism" in terms of our current understanding from what the ancient writers likely understood regarding a "skin of blackness."

Part 10- Method and Skepticism (and Quetzelcoatl...)
Gardner responds to criticism that a Mormon scholar's beliefs will influence the results of their findings, thus making the scholarship questionable or lacking.

Part 11- A quick discussion on "others" in the Book of Mormon 
In this post, Gardner exemplifies his approach to the text by answering questions from one who is skeptical about the possibility of "others" (non-lineal Lehites) in the Book of Mormon.

Part 12- Reading With New Eyes
Concluding post, describing how Garder attempts to draw meaning from the text in regards to how its authors understood it rather than constructing a theology back into the text from current LDS understanding.