Refugees in The Book of Mormon: Ancient Light for a Modern Crisis

By Alicia Alba[1] (ed. Mel Henderson)

refugee: noun. ref· u· gee \ˌre-fyu̇-ˈjē\ An individual seeking refuge or asylum; especially: an individual who flees for safety (as from war), usually to a foreign country.

The Book of Mormon begins with a refugee story: Lehi was a wealthy landowner in ancient Jerusalem at a time of social and political unrest. Among the first things we learn is that Lehi was a good man who tried to share what he knew—but enemies emerged in his own community, men who “sought his life, that they might take it away” (1 Ne. 1:20). Lehi and his family were forced to flee. [Read more…]

We Should REALLY Argue More at Church

Image resultI hope I will be forgiven for co-opting Sam Brunson’s excellent post and title (found here), but I wanted to investigate the WHY a little bit more. Ardis points out that debate used to be a staple at church (at least for the men of the YMMIA) during the early part of the 20th century. We also know that in the earliest days of the church, the School of the Prophets was known for hearty discussion and debate (as well as tobacco spitting and smoking). Based on my own memories, growing up in the church in the 70s and 80s, church classes used to involve more debate than they have in my advancing years. That could be the nature of the ward I grew up in, but I suspect that it’s a byproduct of the calcification of correlation that has continued since its introduction. The church–like every organization–becomes more bureaucratic with growth, not less. I’ll explain what I mean. [Read more…]

Risky Religion, or, The Terrors of Love

Keep the commandments; in this there is safety and peace.
—Barbara A. McConochie, Hymn 303

The world’s a tumultuous place, no doubt about it: roiling with uncertainty. No wonder, then, that we seek safety. Mormonism has a strong discursive bent toward treating the gospel as the means to safety in a perilous world. Get on board the Old Ship Zion, we say, and you’ll weather the storm. The watchmen on the tower will warn of impending danger, and, if we heed their precautions, we can sleep soundly at night.

On the cosmic level, I believe that this is right, and in some more proximate ways as well: trying to steer clear of sin is probably a good idea. Even so, I think that the safety the gospel affords turns out to be more painfully paradoxical than we usually like to let on.

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Receiving Grace: Mozart’s Great Mass

51nbxoelzl-_ss500Becoming familiar with Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor (K.427) is a good way to both deepen one’s appreciation for WAM, especially his church music, but also to find a way into understanding the rich and ancient eucharistic liturgy of the western church. The Great Mass, composed in 1782/3, is unfinished* but the missing parts are often added for modern performances and recordings.

In the Great Mass we proceed in stages through music until we receive the grace of God in the Eucharist.

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Lesson 6: “I Will Tell You in Your Mind and in Your Heart” #DandC2017

This week’s lesson is a continuation of the aborted Oliver Cowdery translation attempt. Bummer for you teachers who rotate weeks with another teacher; there’s a BIG overlap in chapters here with both this week and last week’s lesson focusing on the same three sections of the Doctrine & Covenants: 6, 8, and 9. This one throws section 11 in the cart, but really, the majority of the lesson is still focused on the same material as last week. You’re the loser who drew the short straw because your rotating cohort got first dibs on the good stuff.

The first “attention activity” is the suggestion to bring a radio to class. Apparently, a radio is an old-timey electronic device that was used to receive transmitted sound waves from the air. People used to use these devices to listen to talk show programs as well as music, all interspersed with housewives gushing about the newest dish washing soap and doctors recommending their favorite brand of cigarette “for your health.” Radios were also used in the Netflix series Stranger Things to communicate with the Upside Down. Since it’s probably impractical to drive your car into the classroom, perhaps there are some functional portable radios at the Desert Industries or in your grandfather’s attic you could pick up for your object lesson. [1] [Read more…]

Columbus and Accountability

“And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles,
who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters;
and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man;
and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren,
who were in the promised land.”

1 Nephi 13:12

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (source: http://tinyurl.com/zrkzztj)

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (source: http://tinyurl.com/zrkzztj)

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an opinion piece by David Tucker, a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio, in which Dr. Tucker is willing to go part of the distance in reducing cultural adoration of Christopher Columbus. After acknowledging many of the negative consequences for native peoples of Columbus’s actions — and rehabilitating Columbus by arguing that we only condemn him now because of the European values that he brought to the New World, primarily the notion of Equality (?!) enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — Dr. Tucker states “[t]his Columbus Day we need no triumphalism. Let it be a day instead to ponder the human capability for good and evil and wonder how we might encourage more of the good.”[1]

I don’t think this goes far enough in dealing with Columbus’s legacy — especially for me as a Mormon who has so deeply internalized the Church’s teachings about the importance of the principle of accountability in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But for the past few years, I’ve posted my thoughts about Columbus and Columbus Day on social media and I’ve received substantial push back on my criticism of Columbus, specifically from Mormon friends and family. Again, today, I’m aware that many are claiming that denouncing Columbus is just an example of political correctness run amok. [Read more…]

Poetry as Theology: Reading George Herbert’s “Prayer [I]”

Update: each phrase of the poem below now links to its corresponding post. All of the posts can still also be found here.

Readers of this blog (and people who know me) will be aware that devotional poetry is close to my heart. (See this post on George Herbert, in which it was all I could do not to include at least twenty poems, or this one on Gerard Manley Hopkins, or any of the Sunday Morning Poems I’ve posted.) It would be very hard for me to have a spiritual life without poetry—and why should I have to? Yet if all God-talk is theology, what are the implications of having that theology take poetic form? Some time ago I read a book arguing that poetry in the Early Modern period handled the realities of conversion more effectively and accurately than did prose theological treatises. At stake here is nothing less than Pilate’s famous question: “What is truth?” Is truth contained in rigorous arguments moving logically from proposition to proposition, or is there something more evasive about it, something toward which we can only hint through images and metaphors? Or, conversely, are images and metaphors a cheat, deceiving us into the belief that there’s an easy way around working carefully and patiently to reason out the truth? [Read more…]

Prayer: “Something understood”

Part 28 in a series; see other parts here. This concludes the series.

Being seen as we are is a basic human need that all too often goes unmet. We understand each other only imperfectly, try though we may. Although such limitations do allow for people to surprise us, they also mean that we inadvertently hurt each other. We live our lives caught in this web of understanding and misunderstanding, and the more we wrestle with it, the more entangled we can become.

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Prayer: “The land of spices”

Part 27 in a series; see other parts here.

Life is not really as dull as it sometimes seems. A richness runs through our everyday, but its flavor can become so familiar that we forget to taste it. Prayer exists to draw out that taste, to let it rest on our tongues so that we can exult in its savor. Our lives are great gifts, but it’s easy to let the time pass without tasting them fully. We need to spice them frequently with prayer.

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Prayer: “The soul’s blood”

Part 26 in a series; see other parts here.

Without prayer there can be no spiritual life. Fortunately prayer takes many forms, and we grow spiritually by discovering and developing different forms and learning how to use them, which is why Sarah Coakley likes to describe a theologian as the one who truly prays. Prayer is quite literally the medium in which we work out our God-talk. That said, prayer is not something we master, but something we practice. Prayer ought to be a discipline, a form of spiritual exercise or ascetic practice. The need for form, even in extempore prayer, makes prayer an art: the pas de deux we dance with God.

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Prayer: “Church-bells beyond the stars heard”

Part 25 in a series; see other parts here.

Sometimes life closes in, and we feel very small, like isolated atoms bouncing through an indifferent universe. We sense time passing on toward the moment when it will cease to matter for us. We begin to doubt that anyone or anything will truly hear us, however far our cries may carry.

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Prayer: “the bird of Paradise”

Part 24 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer can feel like a kind of death. So many of our waking hours, and especially the restless hours of night, we spend shouldering our burdens and trying to take one more step forward, when that is the price of life against the stasis of death. In prayer, though, we let the weight press us down to our knees, and even onto our faces, as we try to lay the burden down before God.

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Prayer: “The milky way”

Part 23 in a series; see other parts here.

The relationship between mothers and babies affords an intimacy perhaps unparalleled in human experience. The baby begins life as something simultaneously part and not part of the mother, and only slowly dissociates itself, as it must. Early in this process of separation, the baby nurses, [1] living now outside of the mother but still drawing nutriment from her in an experience of bodily nearness. And, as recent studies of lactation have shown, nursing is not a one-way experience, in that the baby’s saliva communicates chemically with the mother’s breast. Nursing is thus our first instruction in negotiating intimate relationships. It is our first instruction in prayer.

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Prayer: “Man well drest”

Part 22 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer often finds us* at our worst, or at least what can feel like less than our best. We sob convulsively, shout angrily, plead earnestly—or we engage in an activity so rote that we can forget we’re doing it, embarrassed at how many of our prayers are thus. True, there are those moments of pure, blissful praise, or the times when grace’s undertow pulls us suddenly into the depths of divine love, and perhaps in such moments we could think ourselves spiffy, if only the familiar pride were not suddenly and mysteriously out of reach.

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Prayer: “Heaven in ordinary”

Part 21 in a series; see other parts here.

The idea of heaven usually stands in contrast to our everyday lives. Heaven is supposed to be where all that we have done and all that we have left undone finally gets sorted out, where at last we can give proper time to everybody and everything we care about, precisely because time is no more. In heaven, we at last escape the temporal for the eternal, which alone has ample room for our loves. Heaven becomes the projection screen for the unrealized imperfections of life, our photographic negatives in need of development.

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Prayer: “Gladness of the best”

Part 20 in a series; see other parts here.

Although our world roils with its share of ugliness and violence, it also brims with beauty and goodness. Everything from a child’s hug to Duruflé motets to an insalata caprese with perfectly ripe summer tomatoes and basil fresh from the garden, good fresh mozzarella, a little sea salt, a robust olive oil, and aged balsamic vinegar purchased at an acetaia in Modena—such things enliven our world and carry with them the savor of divine life.

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Prayer: “Exalted Manna”

Part 19 in a series; see other parts here.

We wander in this wilderness of life, sojourning strangers for our threescore and ten, our time marked out by the recurring cycle of hunger, whether for the fleshpots of Egypt or the milk and honey of the promised land. Hunger leads us into a strange temporality, its present pangs bound up in memories of past satiety and the hope for future feasts. Sometimes we can almost even taste what is no longer there or what soon will be, and thus we pray, straining to bring near what still feels so far away.

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Prayer: “Bliss”

Part 18 in a series; see other parts here.

So much of prayer feels like a lover’s quarrel, hashing out a messy but committed relationship. Love provides the foundation, but manifests as struggle. Like any relationship, ours with God has its ups and downs. But oh how high are the highs! With feet on the ground and arms raised to the heavens, our souls, in ecstatic elevation, can mingle with the rich fires of star-birthing nebulae or rise with the morning fog as it clears out of a cold spring canyon.

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Prayer: “Love”

Part 17 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer can be both an immersion in love and an education in it, precisely because prayer is a central venue in our ongoing repentance, or turning toward God. Nothing illustrates love’s richness in paradox quite like prayer, for in prayer the experience of being overwhelmed by grace and acceptance can coincide with that of feeling deeply that serious things in our lives need to change. Adding to the complication, sometimes in prayer we learn that we need to accept the things we thought needed to change and that we need to change things we’ve long accepted. Love is always both simpler and much more difficult than it appears.

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Prayer: “Joy”

Part 16 in a series; see other parts here.

So often, prayer means wrestling with the angel, refusing to let go until God leaves us with a blessing. For all that, though, sometimes prayer is pure joy, the sun clearing the horizon and driving out the shadows. If there are prayers of anguish, there are also prayers of exultation, when we find ourselves so awash in grace as to be overwhelmed. Through heaving sobs of joy we can find no other words than: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

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Prayer: “Peace”

Part 15 in a series; see other parts here.

Peace is the prayer on our lips that our own hands must answer. As human beings we are capable of great evil, but also great beauty and goodness. We live most of the time not altogether resolved between them, and sometimes we purchase a sham peace by dissociating ourselves from the evil around us. “Not I,” we say, instead of “Lord, is it I?” To which the answer, if we’re really being honest, is usually at least partly “yes.” We are of a species with the human horrors we see, and there will not be peace so long as we deny that fact.

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Prayer: “Softness”

Part 14 in a series; see other parts here.

Prayer is quiet, but never quite silent. So much of prayer involves learning how to calm the noise in order to hear properly—or learning how to hear through the noise. We often call the Spirit’s voice still and small, but it is also soft, in volume, tone, and affect. It manages to be gentle and unobtrusive while also pervading everything, and in prayer God teaches us how to listen.

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Prayer: “A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear.”

Part 13 in a series; see other parts here.

The notion of prayer as a kind of melody sung in unison with God can give great comfort—until we realize that we’re trying to match pitch with a thunderbolt. It’s not that God is out to get us, but that the music running through all of creation is so immense and powerful that it inspires awe, and, if we’re paying attention, not a little terror. Prayer connects us to the music of vast overhanging cliffs, of entire oceans being lifted by the moon’s gravity, of nebulae swirling with newborn stars. Our lives and deaths seem like insignificant pinpricks on such a scale.

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Prayer: “The six-days’ world transposing in an hour”

Part 12 in a series; see other parts here.

The music of our lives often seems to demand the skills of a Franz Liszt to play, as though only the capacity to fly through a torrent of impossible notes with an obscenely graceful sprezzatura will do. Amidst our busyness a voice (the ghost of piano teachers past) whispers, “Keep time! Keep time!” and we promise we will, once we can exchange this molto allegro for andante. Too often, though, such promises end up obliterated by thirty-second-note runs tangled in a barbed wire of accidentals, and when we emerge on the other side, dripping sweat, the voice continues: “Keep time!”

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Prayer: “Christ-side-piercing spear”

Part 11 in a series; see other parts here.

Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. 2v (France, 1225) Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. 2v (France, 1225)
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

There’s a long history of seeing Jesus’ side wound as a special route to his heart: I especially love this 13th-century depiction of the Church being born from his side. Herbert also has a deliciously strange poem called “The Bag” that puts the image to good effect in relation to prayer:

If ye have any thing to send or write,
I have no bag, but here is room:
Unto my Fathers hands and sight,
Beleeve me, it shall safely come.
That I shall minde, what you impart;
Look, you may put it very neare my heart.

And, lest this all begin to seem too odd, too non-Mormon, it’s in our hymnal, too:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me:
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy riven side which flowed
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

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Prayer: “Reversed Thunder”

Part 10 in a series; see other parts here.

Feeling a divine thunderbolt tear through one’s spine en route to its ground cannot be called a pleasant experience. Typically in its aftermath, as smoke rises from our hair and electrical remnants spark from our fingertips, we can do little but sit still in a state of, well, shock. At times, though, our eyebrows tingle with premonition, and we manage to send the bolt back upwards with a forehand sharp enough to engender hubristic self-comparisons to Rafael Nadal in his prime.

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Prayer: “Sinner’s tow’r”

Part 9 in a series; see other parts here.

We all know the terrible feeling that follows the realization of a mistake: it’s a human experience whose commonality ranks somewhere between waking up and breathing. Sometimes this experience provokes defensive anger, as we try with all the violence we can muster to make the mistake stick to somebody else. Even when we manage the necessary legerdemain, though, the gnawing at our hearts remains. Even if most mistakes aren’t exactly the Furies pursuing Orestes after he killed his mother, they can still be nastily persistent ghosts.

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Prayer: “Engine against th’Almighty”

Part 8 in a series; see other parts here.

In prayer, God values our candor, meaning that God honors even words like these of Job’s:

If I summoned him and he answered me,
I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.
For he crushes me with a tempest,
and multiplies my wounds without cause;
he will not let me get my breath,
but fills me with bitterness. (Job 9:16-18, NRSV)

Sometimes our relationship with God is such that no prayer short of battering rams and catapults loaded with shrapnel and explosives will do. Herbert wrote a poem that figures tears and prayers as artillery, but I’m thinking more of the rage he expresses toward God in “The Collar” (where “choler” is one of the many puns in the title): “Have I no harvest but a thorn / to let me blood?”

So, it’s okay if our prayers beat and kick at God’s door—which really can seem closed to us at times—and it’s okay if we scream and swear in the process. Anger has a way of focusing our sights on the precise target we mean to hit, which paradoxically means that we rarely think of God so intensely as when we rage at the heavens. In quiet meditation we long to approach the throne, but in anger we can feel near enough to close our fingers around the divine throat, and when we attain such proximity God can the more easily reply: “My child.”

Prayer: “The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth”

Part 7 in a series; see other parts here.

Being an adult means spending quite a bit of time metaphorically at sea, not quite sure whether we’re in or out of our depth. Certainly we only rarely see to the bottoms of things. Herbert’s claim that prayer can find the bottom and measure its depth thus seems like a stretch. After all, the mere fact of praying doesn’t exempt anybody from occasional or even systematic cluelessness. What’s the use, then?

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Prayer: “Heart in pilgrimage”

Part 6 in a series; see other parts here.

Augustine famously wrote that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. (Herbert has a poem about that, too.) Our lives consist of so many cordial peregrinations as we seek to love and be loved, and while saying that all our loves are best founded in God’s love is easy, the practicalities tend to be messier. Devout Jews pray twice daily to love God with all their heart, soul, and might; so serious and difficult is the task of love that only that much prayer will do. In prayer we are pilgrims for love—a destination we never quite seem to understand.

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