Wednesday, August 12

A rock, small and simple

There's been a lot of hoopla lately about Joseph Smith's seer stone. I'd already known about many of the less-mentioned details surrounding the translation process of the Book of Mormon, but I understand why people would be surprised by the images of the seer stone. After all, it's a rock.

I have to know the purpose behind things. I have to understand the "why" in order for my soul to be at peace: I need to know why it's good to pay tithing; I need to know why I'm asked to avoid coffee and tea; I need to know why (and how) there was death 'before' the Fall of Adam and Eve (btw, feel free to ask me about that one; I have an answer worth considering, and it has nothing to do with aliens). Luckily, I live in a dispensation of abundant revelation, and I have faith that God answers honest questions. With that faith, I've been able to find answers to the questions that are important to me. At the same time, I am human, so I'm also open to correction if my interpreted answers someday prove to be incorrect.

I'm excited about the Church becoming more transparent about its history. This transparency enables us to ask more specific questions and seek revelation. But I'm also wary about the folly of presentism and am hopeful that people won't cave due to biased assumptions. Since I believe the Book of Mormon to be a work of revealed scripture, and since it has made such a positive impact in my life, I'm naturally interested in how it came to be and why. I accept that I'll never get to witness this part of history in person, and therefore will never have the type of answer that appeals best to my skeptical brain, but that's just how history works so let's deal with what we have.

Anyway, here's my take on the seer stone. I've said it once already: I think it's a rock. However, due to Joseph's use of it and the Lord's acceptance of his primitive faith, it should rightfully be considered a ‘seer stone’. It played a sacred role in the process that brought us the Book of Mormon.

During the 19th century, the Church was run by converts – people with a colorful variety of backgrounds and beliefs. Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Brigham Young – they each came with a mixed bag of faith and traditions. Yet they each moved forward to gain greater light, contributing what they could to the development of Christ’s kingdom on earth. I remember my mission president once counselled the missionaries not to get on people's cases about their idols and old traditions when they converted from Catholicism to Mormonism.  Candles, saints, memorized prayers - those things represented the initial faith of those converts and would still hold spiritual significance for them even after baptism. But as they would immerse themselves further into Christ's restored gospel they'd learn to discern the differences between pure doctrine, false doctrine, and mere tradition, and would govern themselves according to their evolving understanding. I have a very similar view in regards to Joseph Smith's use of seer stones. He came to the Lord with what faith and knowledge he had, and the Lord accepted him and led him to greater things. When Joseph Smith stopped using the Urim and Thummim later on in life, he told Elder Orson Pratt that "the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit, and did not need the assistance of that instrument."

Let's go to the scriptures now: Ether 2:22-25 and Ether 3:1-6. The Lord instructed the brother of Jared to lead his people across the ocean in a bunch of vessels. Fair enough, but soon the brother of Jared ran into a couple of setbacks: the vessels were built in a manner that would quickly asphyxiate humans, and there was no obvious way to produce light inside of them. But instead of despairing, the brother of Jared decided to take these issues to the Lord in prayer. The Lord promptly answered his question about not being able to breathe, revealing a logical solution involving holes. However, the Lord didn't immediately resolve the light dilemma, testing the asker's faith. So the brother of Jared prayed again, saying "O Lord, behold I have done even as thou hast commanded me; and I have prepared the vessels for my people, and behold there is no light in them. Behold, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness?" The Lord then responded with another question: "What will ye that I shall do that ye may have light in your vessels?" The Lord put it back into the asker's hands, letting the brother of Jared try to work out his own solution. After visiting the mount Shelem, the brother of Jared returned to the Lord with sixteen small stones, saying "I know, O Lord, that thou  hast all power, and can do whatsoever thou wilt for the benefit of man; therefore touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness; and they shall shine forth unto us in the vessels which we have prepared, that we may have light while we shall cross the sea. Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men." And the Lord "stretched forth his hand and touched the stones one by one with his finger", causing them to illuminate. The brother of Jared probably could have brought the Lord anything, but the best he could come up with were a bunch of rocks. And the Lord accepted this. 

When Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon he still believed in using seer stones. Naturally, he decided to use his own seer stone as an aid in the translation process. The Lord didn’t reject him – He was willing to work with what Joseph had at the time. I think this reflects how God works with us – He’s willing to take imperfect, limited people and work with whatever talent or knowledge they have. He understands how difficult it is to "walk by faith" (2Cor. 5:7). He won’t reject us for our imperfections. Rather, He'll help us develop our weaknesses into strengths (Ether 12:27). 

When the Church released images of Joseph Smith's seer stone, I responded by going home and finding an old river rock I'd kept in my closet since I was a kid. I took that rock and put it in my backpack to carry around as a reminder that the Lord can use me as an instrument for good despite my limitations. After all, Jesus Christ used a 'rock', even Peter, to help establish the primitive Church. 

"By small and simple things are great things brought to pass" (Alma 37:6).

I’m open to more miraculous revelations about the seer stone, but for now I’ve got what’s been written in church history and a couple pictures of a rock. So I think it’s a rock. A rock that helped prompt Joseph Smith to seek the Lord’s guidance to translate the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.

Joseph the Seer - this is a great article if you're interested in learning more about Joseph Smith's role as a Seer.

Wednesday, August 5

Found in space

A profound and poetic doctrine that was clarified with the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ involved a few verses written by Paul the Apostle:

"There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terristrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory." 1 Cor. 15:40-41

In Corinthians chapter 15, Paul was trying to explain the doctrine of immortality. This doctrine is hard for our mortal brains to comprehend, much like the concept of having a physical body was probably difficult for us to understand in the premortal life. As Paul explains, our natural, "earthy" bodies will be changed when resurrected into something "heavenly"; the spirit and the body will no longer be distinguishable, but will become one - a "spiritual body". There has been much debate among Christians about the nature of God in relation to whether or not He has a body. Paul clarifies that the Lord does indeed have a body, for lack of a better word, but goes on to explain that it's something transcending our current understanding. When resurrected, Jesus Christ made a point to show His disciples that He had indeed overcome death, emphasizing that He wasn't merely a spirit by letting them touch His hands and feet. He then reinforced His physicality by eating fish and honeycomb (Luke 24:36-48). He was showing the disciples that He had completely overcome death, both physically and spiritually, as He stood before them as a perfected Being. All that is good about having a mortal body will be restored and perfected when we are resurrected.

I'd now like to explore what Paul touches upon in verses 40-41. Here Paul introduces us to the logical truth that there are different glories. There are varying degrees of faith, valiance, and understanding for each son and daughter of God. Likewise, there will be different degrees of glory assigned when we meet with the Lord on Judgment Day. This assignment will be merciful and just, reflecting our true desires; having a perfect understanding of ourselves we will be our own judges.

Paul mentions the celestial and terrestrial glories. Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord expanded our understanding about this doctrine and introduced a third glory to match Paul's "sun, moon, and stars" metaphor: the telestial glory (D&C 76:50-113, D&C 88:20-32). I've pondered this doctrine quite a bit and have gained somewhat of an understanding about what these symbols and metaphors may mean.

Celestial - (Latin: caelestis) "heavenly, pertaining to the sky"
The celestial glory/kingdom is represented by the sun. The sun is the brightest object most people can relate to, and is an appropriate metaphor to use when trying to explain the glory of God the Father. The sun is our source of light and life. Without it there would be no possibility to sustain life on earth. Jesus Christ, the Son, is the source of light and life for our eternal souls. Our solar system revolves around the sun, which I like to think parallels how our lives should be centered around God and His truth. When we keep the first and great commandment (Matt 22:36-38) everything else will work together for our good. All else will fall into the right order when God is our first priority. One way to appropriately show our devotion to God is by setting apart the first day of the week as a day of concentrated worship. Though I don't think Sunday's name was dedicated specifically to express this (the word Sunday derives either from Egyptian astronomy or Roman paganism), I like it anyway. The Latin word caelestis is also used in reference to the sky (consider the Spanish word cielo, also meaning "heaven" or "sky"), placing celestial things symbolically above the earth. Likewise, to obtain a celestial glory we must consciously let our souls be converted to a state that ascends above our natural state of worldliness.

Terrestrial - (Latin: terrestris) "earthly"
The terrestrial glory/kingdom is represented by the moon. It might at first seem incongruous that the "earthly" glory has the moon as its symbol, but the meaning works out brilliantly when considered carefully. First of all, Paul mentioned the moon to introduce a body of light that's less glorious than the sun. The moon produces none of its own light; it is a reflector, gathering all of its light from the sun. The moon orbits around the earth, waning and waxing in its shadow. "Behold, many are called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world..." (D&C 121:34-35). In contrast, the earth orbits around the sun. Per D&C 88:25-26, "the earth abideth the law of a celestial kingdom, for it filleth the measure of its creation, and transgresseth not the law - wherefore, it shall be sanctified". Another interesting scripture to consider is Helaman 12:15: " appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun". Worldliness and the natural man cause us to move away from God. Sometimes prophets tend to say that when we sin the Spirit withdraws itself. I think it makes more sense the way King Benjamin described it in Mosiah 2:36 when he said that when we sin we withdraw ourselves from the Spirit. We have the gift of moral agency; we are endowed to decide where to go and what to become. We can move away from God or towards Him. Heavenly Father won't force us to participate if we do not desire eternal life. But He'll always be there for us, constant as the sun, no matter what we decide.

Telestial - (Greek root: tele) "far, far off, at or to a distance"
The telestial glory/kingdom is represented by the stars. The word "telestial" is unique to Mormonism. If you Google the word you'll be taken to a bunch of resources referring to the LDS Church. Joseph Smith was inspired to associate this word with "the glory of the stars". Paul chose stars to symbolize the least degree of glory because they appear (from our distant perspective) to have even less light than the moon. The word telestial denotes an element of distance. Think telescope, telephone, telegram, teleport - all of these things involve being able to do something from a distance. Those whose hearts are distant from God will receive a telestial glory, "for how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?" (Mosiah 5:13).

I think the Lord's prophets often receive revelation by studying patterns in the physical world. Like them, we can receive new revelation when we remember that "all things denote there is a God" (Alma 30:44).