Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Wise Took Oil In Their Vessels With Their Lamps

Jesus had just finished telling his disciples about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world.  Looking out from the Mount of Olives, He related a few parables about watching for His return.  He began with a story of ten young women invited to a wedding, who waited for the bridegroom to pass by so that they could follow him in procession to the feast.  “Five of them,” we know, “were wise, and five were foolish.  They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them.  But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps” (Matthew 25:2-4).  

“While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.  And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.  Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps” (v. 5-7).

Finding the oil in their lamps was exhausted, “the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out.”  The wise virgins refused, telling them to “go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.  And while they went to buy,” a futile mission, to be sure, for all the shops would be closed at that hour, “the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.”  The foolish virgins arrived late, and cried out, “Lord, Lord, open to us.  But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.” (v. 8-12).

And the foolish virgins, it must be assumed, turned away, sorrowing.  

It’s a puzzling parable.  Why couldn’t/didn’t the women share their oil with their compatriots?  Why couldn’t everyone walk in the light of the five lamps that were lit?  And why does the bridegroom so cruelly turn away the guests who arrive late?

In Church discourse, the oil represents spiritual strength gained from years of righteous living.  As Spencer W. Kimball put it, “the oil of preparedness is accumulated drop by drop in righteous living.  Fasting, family prayer...control of bodily appetites, preaching the gospel, studying the scriptures--each act of dedication and obedience is a drop added to our store.”  Sometimes we say that the oil is testimony, and that testimony cannot be shared with others.  Except, of course, that one person’s flame of testimony can light another’s lamp, that one person can lean on another when they are weak

I don’t doubt that consistent good works gives us spiritual strength that can sustain us in times of darkness, of doubt, of waiting for the Bridegroom to come.  I don’t doubt that strong testimony can act as a bulwark against temptation.  But I don’t believe that a person could ever do enough good to be ready, could ever amass enough oil of testimony to light their way through the mists of darkness that will encircle us all, at some point in life.  

It is interesting to me that the parable lists two containers for oil, two sources of power: the lamps that each of the virgins carried with them, and another set of vessels, separate from the lamps, that held an extra reserve of oil.  The parable doesn’t say that the wise virgins had more oil in their lamps than the foolish virgins.  It appears that both sets of women had lamps, both filled with oil, but that only one set had an additional vessel filled with oil that they carried with them, “their vessels with their lamps.”  They knew that they would need more oil than they could fit in their lamps. and so they sought out another source, a reservoir deeper than their own.  

The kingdom of heaven is like two groups of people.  Both were waiting for the Savior to return.  Both passed through many nights of darkness as they waited.  Both knew the importance of spiritual preparation and had spent their lives studying the scriptures, doing their home teaching, bringing casseroles to their neighbors and raising good families.  But there came a time in each person’s life, a time that comes in all of our lives, when their spiritual strength was tested.  There came a time when the darkness they passed through overcame them.  There came a time when their spiritual strength was not enough.  There came a time when they were not enough.

One group was mystified.  Hadn’t they been faithful?  Hadn’t they known all the right answers in Sunday School?  Hadn’t they served the Lord well in every calling they’d been given?  Why were they being overpowered by the darkness?  Where was the strength that had sustained them all these years?

The other group was not surprised when they awoke in darkness.  They knew that their efforts, though necessary, would never be enough for the days ahead.  They had brought another source of oil, another vessel to fill them up when they were empty.  When the cry to be ready rang out, their alarm was only momentary.  Then they arose, trimmed their lamps, and filled them with the oil from a source outside themselves.  Their vessels were a gifts from a man they knew well, a man they called a friend.  Over the years, he had often given them extra oil when their lamps had gone out.  They had dined at his table and learned at his feet.  And now they were going to the wedding banquet of his son.

The first group was in a panic.  The wise ones told them of their generous benefactor, but they were too embarrassed to go begging for oil to a man they did not know.  So instead of accepting the oil offered “without money, and without price,” they went to those that sell.  They bought self-help books.  They read advice from Oprah and listened to televangelists.  They meditated and practiced self-actualization.  They found strength in support groups and service projects and never thought to look for the man who gave real light.  And when, their lamps newly illuminated, they rushed on to the wedding feast, the response at the door was one of regret, not condemnation, “Good people, I never knew you!”  Their host lamented that they had never spent time with him, that they were never at home to answer their doors when he knocked, that there had always been a project or a cause or a diversion more worthy of their time, and so his letters and phone calls had gone unreturned.  And when they looked back, they were forced to admit he was right.  He had never known them, though he had tried.  And they had never known Him, not really.  They had no relationship with the Master that they could draw on in times of hardship, when their strength was gone.  They had never taken his proffered gift of oil.  They had thought the dim light that sputtered from their tiny lamps would be all they would ever need, but now they stood in the presence of greater light than they had imagined.  The lamps that filled this room burned with a bright, steady flame, while their little lamps sputtered and smoked, filled with old cooking oil and wicked with scraggly straw.  

And the wise men and women danced and sang, congratulated the newlyweds, and thanked their host for his generosity, in a room filled with light.  They remembered that Isaiah had promised, “Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness and hath no light?  Let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God” (Isaiah 50:10).

And the foolish left, hanging their heads in shame, the words of the prophet Isaiah ringing in their ears, “Behold all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks, walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks that ye have kindled.  This ye shall have of my hand: ye shall lie down in sorrow (v. 11).

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Behold, Their Husbands Love Their Wives

I think it’s interesting to look at Book of Mormon narrators as real people, as characters in their own stories with their own personalities, styles, and reasons for writing what they did.  Sometimes we make the mistake of assuming they are omniscient and unbiased historians, and we forget that there’s a story behind the story they’re telling—there are details they’re leaving out, there are perspectives of which they are not aware.  Far from discrediting their writings, this approach takes the authors seriously, as it assumes, first and foremost, that they are real people.  Omniscient, unbiased narrators belong in the realm of fiction, and the Book of Mormon is anything but.  Book of Mormon authors, just like normal people, have their own biases and experiences that color the way they write.

For instance, whenever a Sunday School class gets to the war chapters of the Book of Mormon, we’ll often have a discussion about why so many war chapters are included.  Common answers include the idea that we’re engaged in latter-day warfare, or that we should expect physical and/or spiritual war before the Second Coming, etc.  Often overlooked is the simpler answer: there are a lot of accounts of war in the Book of Mormon because Mormon, who was abridging and editing the history, was a soldier and a general—Mormon knew war really well.  He had seen war all his days, and so when he went back to the historical record, he found the accounts of battles particularly gripping.  We see the way he treats the account of Captain Moroni, almost falling all over himself to lionize him, excuse his actions, and hold him up as a standard for others to follow.  He even named his son after the man.  As you read, you can almost see Mormon, with the wreckage of his wicked, embattled people all around him, with the death toll mounting daily, daydreaming in the library as he pores over the records of an earlier time—the last time when his people, the Nephites, were righteous and victorious in battle.  As he envisions what life could have been like if there had been a few more men like this Captain Moroni he’s read so much about, he writes, “if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men” (Alma 48:17). 

Every story has context.  Sometimes we have to read between the lines to see it.  I’ve been working on that this year, and I’ve been amazed at how my perspective of the Book of Mormon stories has changed.

Nephi is another interesting character to look at.  We hold him up in children’s songs as a paragon of virtue, the ultimate Mr. “I-will-go-I-will-do.”  But I’ve often thought he came off a little rude to his brothers, and had some sympathy for them—after all, he was always running around quoting scripture at them, telling them off for their unfaithfulness, and haughtily interpreting prophecy.  If I had a snot-nosed little brother doing that all the time, I’d probably want to tie him to the mast, too.  I’m not saying he wasn’t in the right—just that maybe he could have used a few more people skills.

While his family is in the wilderness, the family patriarch (and Nephi’s father-in-law)  dies, and Nephi records his death and his daughters' words of sorrow: "And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness; and they did murmur against my father, because he had brought them out of the land of Jerusalem, saying: Our father is dead; yea, and we have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger" (1 Nephi 16:35).

It's interesting to me that Nephi frames this encounter quite negatively.  The girls have been uprooted from their home, lost their father, and they list their afflictions, but Nephi dismisses their concerns as "murmuring against" Lehi.  He sees the women's trials so much differently: "And it came to pass that we did again take our journey in the wilderness; and we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth. And we did travel and wade through much affliction in the wilderness; and our women did bear children in the wilderness. And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings" (1 Ne. 17:1-2). 

Nephi's brothers, who we label wicked and contentious, saw their wives' suffering differently, "we have wandered in the wilderness for these many years,” they said, “and our women have toiled, being big with child; and they have borne children in the wilderness and suffered all things, save it were death; and it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions." (1 Ne 17:20).  It occurs to me that perhaps Nephi was the one in the wrong here: perhaps he was guilty of a lack of empathy.  Perhaps his over-zealousness to inherit the promised land led him to ignore the very real suffering of his wife and his sisters-in-law, who bore children in the wilderness without the benefits of ultrasounds and infant formula. Maybe it appeared to Nephi that the women “began to bear their journeyings without murmurings” because they got tired of talking to someone who refused to listen and reprimanded them for their unfaithfulness when their backs got tired of carrying their children across the desert.

I find it interesting that Nephi records three responses to the same women's suffering: his own, his brothers', and their wives'.  And yet it doesn't occur to him that one of these things is not like the others.  Many years later, Nephi's brother Jacob chastised his people for their callous behavior toward their wives, and commended the Lamanite men for the care and love they showed theirs, "Behold, the Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father—that they should have save it were one wife, and concubines they should have none…Behold, their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and their wives love their children; and their unbelief and their hatred towards you is because of the iniquity of their fathers; wherefore, how much better are you than they, in the sight of your great Creator?" (Jacob 3:5-7)

I wonder if it's too much of a stretch to say that the dynamic manifested there was already emerging as the family was crossing the desert.  I'm not saying, of course, that Nephi was guilty of concubinage--or that Laman and Lemuel were great guys I'd want to go on a road-trip with.  Just that perhaps they were better than Nephi in this, at least--they listened to their wives.  They took their concerns seriously.  They defended their wives and stood up for their needs. And it hurt them to see their wives go through so much pain.

I've been amazed since I got married at how loving and good Chandler is to me.  It has been hard for me to adjust to all the changes that have taken place in the past few months, and a few weeks ago all the stress and pressure boiled over again and I was crying and heartsick.  But when I looked in Chandler's eyes and saw how heartbroken he was to see me so sad, how willing he was to do anything at all to make me happy, I was filled with so much love for him, so much gratitude that I'd been given this good man who truly loved me, more fully and deeply than I knew or deserved.  He's the kind of man who would stick up for me when I was most vulnerable, who would say, "Screw you, Nephi, we're not leaving this campsite until my wife recovers, and I don't care how good you think raw meat is for nursing women or how much you think we'll be blessed for getting back on the camels *this instant*!"  (Actually, he's far more diplomatic than that, so he'd probably find a nice way to say that, but still, he's got my back.)  And then he would come stroke my hair and rub my feet and hold me as I sobbed incoherently, and most importantly, he'd listen to me and validate my concerns and mingle his tears with mine and help me know that really, everything would be okay.  I know it sounds like some odd combination of cheesiness and blasphemy to thank God for a husband who complains like Nephi and loves like Laman and Lemuel, but, well, there it is.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I love the Book of Mormon.  It’s an endless source of fascination to me—especially when I look for the story behind the words on the page.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Simon and Matthew and Jesus...and Pants

During Jesus’ ministry, He attracted an interesting crowd. He claimed Pharisees and Saducees, harlots and peasants and merchants and centurions and tax collectors as His disciples. Even among His apostles there were men on opposite ends of the political spectrum. One was a man named Simon, called Zelotes. His moniker tells us that he was a Zealot, a rebel against Roman rule. The Zealots led the revolt against the Romans in 66-73 AD that culminated in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the capturing of the Jewish fortress at Masada. Another of Jesus’ apostles, Matthew, was a publican, a man reviled by his fellow Jews because he was employed by the Romans to collect the taxes they levied. The cooperation of men like Matthew made Roman rule both possible and onerous. I have often thought that there must have been some interesting—and heated—discussions around the campfire when the Apostles traveled with Jesus. 

But His tent was big enough for both of them. His message of redemption and atoning love was for both of them. His fire gave enough light and warmth for both of them.

And for all of us.

And when they argued, He condemned their contention. And when they disputed who was the greatest, He put a little child in their midst, and told them to serve each other, to wash each other’s feet, to bear each other’s burdens, to love one another the way He had loved them.

By this, all men would know that they were His disciples. By their love, not their manner of dress. By their humility, not their declarations of righteousness. And the sign of discipleship hasn’t changed.

I have been overwhelmed, this past week, by the reactions from other Mormons—from people I call my friends—regarding a proposal that this Sunday, in support of greater gender equality in the LDS church, women should wear dress slacks and pantsuits to church. I saw people question their neighbor’s testimonies and understanding of the gospel, their integrity and loyalty to God. I saw people dismiss out of hand the legitimate concerns and very real pain that their neighbors felt. I saw accusations of apostasy and directives to leave the church. I saw death threats.

I am not accustomed to such vile words hurled by my own people against those whose burdens they’ve covenanted to bear. 

I am taken aback to see people who claim to follow a Savior who rejected out of hand the arbitrary standards of the religious leaders of his day, who cling so strongly to modern-day cultural values, who seem so threatened by any deviation from a dress code that had its heyday in the 1950s that they’re willing to denigrate the character of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

I am saddened by the smug displays of self-righteousness I see from my friends. I don’t mean that condescendingly—it honestly makes me sad. Sad, and worried, and perplexed. I admit I have a hard time understanding what could motivate someone to so flippantly cast aspersions on the characters of others, to claim that their manner of dress or their lack of feminist pain makes them morally superior, more righteous or possessing greater gospel understanding--to declare, essentially, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican” (Luke 18:11). 

Or even as this feminist.

I admit I share some of the event organizers’ concerns over gender equality in the church. And still, I love the church. I love its doctrines. I love its prophets. I love its people. I believe this is where God wants me to be. But the pain it causes me is very real. It isn’t because I haven’t prayed as much as you have. It isn’t because I don’t understand the gospel as well as you do. And it definitely isn’t because I want to tear down the church and dance on its smoldering ashes.

Maybe you don’t feel as I do. Maybe it doesn’t bother you that women don’t pray in General Conference, that widows can’t marry their second husbands in the temple, that CES fires its married female teachers when they give birth. Maybe you think this is small potatoes. Maybe you believe that God has divinely ordained the gender roles we see today, and you are perfectly satisfied with that. Maybe you’ve never gone to the temple and felt the sharp stab of pain that seems to pierce your heart as the words you speak go against the deepest yearnings of your soul. Maybe you’ve never gone to God sobbing over the deep inequity you feel in the church you still believe is His.

The bottom line: I suspect there are many of you who are not like me. And there is room enough for all of us in the fold of God. There was room for Simon and Matthew. There is room for you and me.

Friends, I will be wearing a navy pantsuit to church on Sunday. It is the nicest, most professional thing I own, and I believe it is respectful of the house of God and the ordinances of the gospel. I will be wearing it because I long for the day when the talents of God’s daughters will not be constrained by their gender. But mostly I will be wearing it because I long for the day when we will all embrace one another as children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ, charged with bringing forth His kingdom and building Zion. Because I long for the day when we will cease judging one another by our outward appearance or life circumstance, when we will more fully fulfill our duty to bear one another’s burdens, to lift up the hands that hang down and strengthen the feeble knees. And because the level of reaction to this event has convinced me, more than ever, that the church I love needs less judgment and more acceptance, less social pressure to conform and more ministering to the one.

I hope that you’ll love me anyway. I hope that you’ll listen to me, anyway. I hope that you’ll seek to understand me and all those you’re called to love, to bear their burdens instead of invalidating their pain. I hope you’ll sit by the marginalized, and break bread with the different, drawing circles that bring people in rather than shutting them out. 

I hope you’ll let me love you, in my own very imperfect way, whether you’re like me or not. Whether you’re single or married or widowed or divorced, Republican or Democrat, gay or straight, feminist or patriarch, I hope you’ll join with me in sacred community. There is room enough for you in the fold of God, and room enough for me, too. If you’ll share your burdens with me, I’ll help you carry them. You and I have a place in the church that bears the name of the God we worship, the God who called all to come unto Him, black and white, bond and free, male and female, the God who declared that He is no respecter of persons—and is certainly no respecter of clothes.