Thursday, April 28, 2011

Making Peace with Abraham

For as long as I can remember, I've had a problem with the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. It has always made me supremely uncomfortable for multiple reasons.
  • First, I'm uncomfortable with the notion that God would command what would in any other context be a premeditated murder.
  • Second, I'm uncomfortable with the notion that God would command something and then basically say "just kidding" at the end. It seems like a really manipulative trick that isn't part of the character of the God I love and worship.
  • Third, I dislike how the story is used to justify all sorts of situational ethics. Basically, people cite the story as precedent for doing all sorts of horrible acts in the name of God.
For a while, I put this concern on the shelf. [1] Over the past few months, though, it's fallen off my shelf. I've been wrestling and struggling with the story, and I think I've come to a resolution.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Feminist Mormon Housewives Community Spotlight

I've been spotlighted over at Feminist Mormon Housewives. I'm honored to be part of such a great online community.

You can read the spotlight here. I'm closing comments on this post, so if you want to comment, please do so at fMh!

God of the Oppressed, Part 2

Part 1, available here, discussed what we can learn from the story of Hagar in the desert. Today's installment will discuss what we can learn from the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus.

The following will be a familiar story, celebrated every Easter. Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb of Jesus early in the morning and found the tomb empty.
But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,
And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.
And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.
And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.
Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.
Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
John 20:11-17

There are many people Christ could have chosen to appear to first. He could have appeared to the leaders of the government or the synagogue. (Honestly, that would have been awesome. Talk about taunting them with the whole "you killed me but I came back to life" thing. But obviously, Jesus is way more humble than that and not prone to gloating.) He could have appeared to the apostles. Instead, He chose to appear to Mary Magdalene.
Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
Mark 16:9
Society at that time was heavily patriarchal, so it is definitely worth noting that Christ chose a woman to be the first person to see Him after His resurrection. I also find it interesting that Mark notes that Christ had cast seven devils out of Mary. The number seven is often used in the Bible to indicate totality or completeness. Mary had been seriously afflicted (either by demonic possession as the text indicates, or perhaps by mental illness, since people in ancient times often attributed mental illness to possession), and Christ healed her. Another interesting point, which I only noticed a few days ago, is that Christ appeared to Mary even before he went to see God the Father.

The first living being to witness the resurrection was not a king or a priest. The first living being to witness the resurrection was a humble woman who had been healed by Christ and who sought Him out early in the morning while others were presumably asleep.

Monday, April 25, 2011

God of the Oppressed, Part 1

I had planned on getting this post up on Saturday, with part 2 up on Sunday for Easter, but it's been a busy weekend with family stuff and church stuff, so I'm late.

There are two big concepts in scripture that we focus on at church. The Abrahamic covenant and the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I would like to focus on two scriptural stories that discuss these concepts and what we can learn about the nature of God from these stories. The first is the story of Hagar in the desert, and the second is the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus.

God made the following covenant with Abraham:
And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.
And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.
Genesis 17:6-7
At church, the common interpretation of this promise is fulfilled through Isaac and then through Jacob and his sons, and then to all of us as followers of Christ who have been adopted into the house of Israel. I don't disagree with this interpretation; it's beautifully universal in that anyone who accepts the gospel becomes a partaker of this covenant.

However, I think there is more to be learned. Later in the story, after the birth of Isaac, Abraham casts Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. The desert is a harsh place, and they eventually ran out of water. Ishmael was near death, and Hagar prayed. The following occurred:
The angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is.
Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.
And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.
Genesis 21:17-19

There are several things that stand out to me in this passage. This is the same covenant promised to Abraham. There is no Biblical record of Hagar having any other children, so a promise that her only son would be made a great nation is the same as a promise that she would be made a great nation.

Hagar didn't have an easy life. She was Sarah's slave. When Sarah couldn't conceive, Hagar was "given" to Abraham in order to bear his child. (Hagar does not appear to be consulted on this decision, besides, if she wasn't free, she couldn't really give meaningful consent anyway.) Then when she got pregnant, Sarah became jealous and was rather unkind. After Sarah was able to give birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael were sent into the desert at Sarah's insistence.

The angel appeared in response to Hagar's earnest prayers and called her by name. Although everyone else abandoned her, God did not. God remembered her and spared her life and the life of her son. From this story, we can learn an important lesson. God does not concern Himself with rank or power or privilege. He covenants with people of any social standing and he reaches out to save those who have been oppressed.

Tomorrow I'll post part 2, the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus (in a rather belated Easter message).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A House of Prayer

There is a room on campus in the student center that is set aside for prayer and meditation. Upon walking in, there is a sign instructing visitors to remove their shoes. There are holy books from various faith traditions that people can read. There is a fountain that creates a peaceful ambient sound, the lights are dim, and there are places to sit. I usually prefer to sit on a cushion on the floor, but there are also benches and chairs.

I visit the room when I have a need to take a breather from the hustle and bustle of law school and re-center myself. Yesterday I had some heavy things weighing on my mind, so I went there to pray.

When I entered the room, it was empty. Every time I've gone there, I've been alone. I have often wondered whether anyone else took advantage of the space. (There is a guest book near the door, and many people have written in it, so obviously others use it, just not at the same time I do.)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Thoughts on General Conference - Updated

This past weekend was General Conference. (If you missed it, you can watch it here.) I generally enjoy conference, and this one was particularly good, for the most part. So, I'll start with the one thing that bugged me, and then I'll go into a much lengthier summary of what I did like.

One thing I realized is that church leaders really have no idea what the lived experience of the single member is. Several talks chastised single members for putting off marriage, basically saying that we're being selfish and worldly for being single. I would invite them to spend some time talking to and listening to those of us out here in the mission field, where Latter-day Saints are a minority. There are only so many other church members around, so it's not like there are tons of options. It's not like in Provo, where if you aren't compatible with the people in your ward or stake, you can just go down the street and meet thousands more. Out here, if I'm not compatible with the few single LDS men in my area, I'm left with the choice of staying single or dating outside the church. It's not a matter of priorities, it's a matter of population. [Update: ks has a post at Beginnings New about the marriage talks at General Conference. She asks how we can teach the youth of the church the importance of marriage.]

As a nice transition, I really appreciated Elder Holland's remarks. I'm not normally a big fan of his talks; he's usually a bit too fire and brimstone for my tastes. However, I liked what he had to say yesterday. He said that he knows that not everyone is avoiding marriage. I'm sure most people will interpret that as an apology to the married people listening that they had to hear the single people get chastised. However, I interpreted that to mean that he knows there are plenty of people who are single and in good standing with God, and that the remarks of the prior speakers were not directed to people like me.

There was a lot more Jesus at this conference than there has been in the past. I'm quite pleased with that. Elder Grow's talk was particularly great in that regard. He talked about the cleansing power of grace, and he shared a poignant story of his brother's return to the fold. I also liked Elder Perry's talk and Elder Richards's talk. Elder Richards made the excellent point that not all of our suffering is our fault, and that Christ can heal us from the sins of others as well as forgive our own sins.

I also noticed a theme of caring for the poor and needy. President Eyring, Bishop Burton, and Sister Allred all spoke on this topic. Two things stood out to me. Bishop Burton said that caring for the poor and needy is more important than missionary work and temple work. Sister Allred said that caring for the poor and needy is pure religion. (Although she didn't quote the scripture, that comes from James 1:27.)

I've been thinking a lot more lately about prophets. During the sustaining of the church officers, I had a realization. When we raise our right hand and declare before God that we believe that the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are prophets, seers, and revelators, that's a big deal.