Weakness and strengths

I gave a talk similar to this today.

Twenty years ago today, I woke up early in the morning. After showering and getting dressed I fixed myself the same breakfast that made every morning for the next eighteen months. Baguette with Nutella and hot chocolate. I read the Book of Mormon for half an hour, studied my French Gospel lessons and then sat down with my fellow-traveler to study a handbook of Missionary practice designed to hone our proselytizing efficacy. There in the cold apartment near the French-German boarder we were the apex of a century-long process that transformed every facet of Mormonism.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Progressive movement swept the nation. Progressives were idealists. They believed that by implementing the proper system, people and their work could be elevated. Poverty, illness, and immorality could be eliminated. Prohibition was just one of the policy initiatives designed to better humanity. A key tool in this revolution was “Scientific Management,” where measurement and systems control lead to dramatic reforms in industrial engineering, social work, and clinical medicine. Progressives believed that education, efficient government, and righteous volunteers could transform America’s poor and degenerate into productive, virtuous members of society. [n1]

These ideals sound familiar because Church leaders throughout the twentieth century were progressives, and they molded the Church into an archetypal progressive institution. The stories we tell of young Heber Grant throwing a baseball at the side of a barn and practicing his penmanship reinforce the narrative of self-improvement through systematic practice. But it was far more than young Heber. The Relief Society established hygiene, education, and social programs. Church leaders established church welfare and associated with the Boy Scouts. But it was the missionary program that became the prime locus of progressive management. After several iterations informed by organizational and behavior management, the most recent missionary handbook, Preach My Gospel, quotes President Monson’s progressive anthem: “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.” [n2]

In broader America, progressivism waned except for business and industry, which became the repository of progressive ideals. Mormons became leaders in organizational and behavior management. Stephen Covey’s famous Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is the consequent Holy Grail. And I am a believer. The fruits of dedicated and systematic labor are ubiquitous. I have prayed that my children will find a fire within themselves sufficiently bright to fuel their submission to a regimen requiring hours of labor, and the desire, hope, and confidence to rise in the face of failure. As a scientist it is futile to argue against the power of Taguchi and the statistical methods that transform weakness into strength. But in the twenty years since my mission, I have also become convinced that while effective, these systems and programs of ours are insufficient to establish Zion. Zion will not be constructed when we are effective enough—when we implement our programs perfectly. It will come as it came to Enoch: in our humble faith Christ will stitch up our broken and fractured lives in an inversion he modeled Easter morning. The great triumph of the Messiah came when the world’s strongest power overwhelmed him—when all his friends and family lost hope and despaired.

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Nancy Towle was an evangelist who had travelled nearly 20,000 miles by the time she arrived at Kirtland in 1832. She sought to bring people to Christ in twelve states, Canada, England, and Ireland. At Kirtland Towle witnessed Joseph Smith lay on hands to confirm and bestow the Holy Ghost, and she was disgusted. In her own words she “turned to Smith, and said, ‘Are you not ashamed, of such pretentions? You, who are no more than any plough-boy of our land! Oh! blush at such abominations! and let shame, forever cover your face!’ He only replied, by saying, ‘The gift, has returned back again, as in former times, to illiterate fishermen.'” [n3]

It was Paul who wrote: “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen…That no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” (1 Cor 1:21-30)

Despite the centuries of polishing, we still find reflections of Joseph in Towle’s remarks, a man we understand to have struggled with language and writing. He did better than most think, though. It was the mighty Brigham Young, whose poverty deprived him of a formal education and whose writing is barely functional. As in former times, when the Lord wanted erudition, he did not send Peter, James, or John to school. He appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus. Yet Paul too had his weaknesses.

Many may think that their weakness is fundamentally different than Christ’s or the prophets. And truly Christ was without sin. Perhaps our weaknesses are not a lack of education or poor penmanship, or an inability to throw a baseball. Perhaps our weaknesses are darker—even depraved. Joseph Smith’s diary includes a summary of his May 21, 1843 sermon. Said Joseph: “I have not an idea there has been a great many very good men since Adam. There was one good man Jesus… I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm. and administ[er]ing to the poor & dividi[n]g his substance. than the long smoothed faced hypo[c]rites I dont want you to think I am very righteous. for I am not very righteous.” [n4] When he was the President of the Church, Lorenzo Snow told the Quorum of the Twelve, “I saw Joseph Smith the Prophet do things which I did not approve of; and yet…I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had these imperfections the power and authority which He placed upon him…for I knew I myself had weaknesses and I thought there was a chance for me. These same weaknesses…I knew were in Heber C. Kimball, but my knowing this did not impair them in my estimation. I thanked God I saw these imperfection.” [n5]

The question then becomes how we find our Easter morning. Paul resonated with Moroni through a mechanism we don’t fully understand. I think Moroni’s extended meditation on faith at the end of Ether is one such example. Moroni stated what he repeated elsewhere: “For if there be no faith among the children of men God can do no miracle among them” (Ether 12:12) and he offers a litany of miracles elicited by faith. Faith broke up prisons, faith resulted in mass conversions, the three wanderers were translated by faith, and by faith the Lord appeared to the brother of Jared. Then Moroni confesses his anxiety about writing. He worried that people would discount the Book of Mormon because of his weakness, and the voice of the Lord came to him: “if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

After hearing the voice of the Lord describing the rehabilitation of our weaknes through faith and humility, Moroni added one more miracle to his list: “the brother of Jared said unto the mountain Zerin, Remove—and it was removed. And if he had not had faith it would not have moved; wherefore [the Lord] workest after men have faith.” Perhaps our weaknesses seem equally as immovable as the mountain.

We are the body of Christ and we have this promise: that the mountain of our weakness will be made into mount Zion, where the Lord himself shall stand, and where the saints of God “shall sing the song of the Lamb, day and night forever and ever.” Somehow, Christ will fold our broken and fractured lives into the mortar of Zion’s assemblies, upon which there shall be “a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night.” If we are faithful in persisting with Christ, and each other, He will bind us up in ways that cannot be broken. This will surely be in spite of ourselves. But I have faith that God takes us and uses us in ways as disparate as Peter of Bethsaida and Saul of Tarsus, turning our darkest hours into light. And if our pen and our hand fails us, there will be a scribe. May God preserve us in faith.

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  1. For a quick primer on Mormonism and Progressivism, see Matt Bowman’s Slate article.
  2. Thomas S. Monson, June 2004 Worldwide Leadership Training Broadcast, as quoted in Preach My Gospel, 150. This appears to be a variation of pithy quotes attributed to Progressive Karl Pearson, or Lord Kelvin.
  3. Nancy Towle, Vicissitudes Illustrated. In the Experience of Nancy Towle, in Europe and America (Portsmouth: John Caldwell, 1833) 157.
  4. Joseph Smith, Journal, May 21, 1843, Journals, Volume 3: May 1843-June 1844 (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2015), 20.
  5. George Q. Cannon Dairy, January 7, 1898, in Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian, 4. My understanding is that a transcript of this document will soon be made available by the Church Historian’s Press.

Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this here, so I am saved the effort of summarizing your amazing talk for Scott! I wouldn’t have done it justice.

  2. Thank you, J. This is wonderful.

  3. So great, J. Thank you!

  4. Strong work, J.

  5. great talk — would have loved to be there for it!

  6. I want to live in a ward where the talks are like this every week!

  7. This deserved many more comments than it received. A great address. I’d love to breast something like this from the pulpit locally. I hope the congregation appreciated this gift.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks all.