Sunday, November 29, 2015

1 Nephi 17-18 - Into the Winds of Adversity

If you haven't figured it out yet, by the end of these two chapters you should know with great clarity that while God helps us to our respective Promised Lands, the journey there is never easy nor without travail and adversity. He has to help us because the trip is overwhelmingly daunting otherwise. And that's by divine design.

In chapter seventeen, Nephi is trying to build a boat. His labor pool consists of his brothers and Ishmael's sons. Laman and Lemuel think the idea is ridiculous and fight him. Only divine intervention saves Nephi's life and gets them to help.

Then, in the boat, they forget all the miracles and mutiny, wresting control of the boat from Nephi and Lehi. It's not until they face certain death in the face of a terrible storm, do they relent. Only when they come face to face with the reality that there is much in their lives over which they have no control that they finally get it.

So it is with us. God grants us agency, the ability to choose what we do and think. But we are not in control of our lives and environment. Death, illness, accidents, the actions of others near and far can destroy our world in an instant. The only thing we really control is how we choose to respond.

We see from these two stories, the correct choice is to be grateful to God and acknowledge He is in control and do our best within that context.

Monday, November 23, 2015

1 Nephi 15-16 - The Incense Trail

If you’ve ever wondered how Lehi obtained his wealth, these chapters give a powerful clue. He was likely a Frankincense trader. In the first millennium BC two routes were used transporting spices to the Mediterranean nations. The later was by boat sailing from India along the southern coasts of the Arabian peninsula then up the Red Sea and the Nile river. The other earlier one was via camel caravan following the same route down to Yemen and then to a region in Oman which produced Frankincense.

One of the interesting aspects of the trail is it passed through Marib, Yemen, which two and a half thousand years ago was known as Nahom or Nihim. There it turned East across the barren quarter of Arabia until it hit Wadi Al Sayq which Nephi and Lehi named, “Bountiful.”

Critics of the Book of Mormon's authenticity resort to calling these alignments of archeology with the book, random, lucky guesses. Yet, fifty years ago they scoffed at the preposterous idea of the narrative’s course and way points. Today, the preponderance solid archeological evidence can't be swept away.

While Lehi had the Liahona, he also had the knowledge of how to survive in the desert from years of experience. It still must have been a daunting task to lead a caravan of women and children into some of the most desolate stretches of land on this planet. But that’s what he did.

The other thought I have about this is Nephi’s explanation to his brothers not of the vision but of how to get the information for themselves. By the time he wrote this, his brothers were long gone… left behind when he fled from them. Written for us, it explains how we can learn and experience for ourselves the things he saw and learned.

Included in 1 Nephi 14:27 is Nephi’s observation that his father didn’t notice all the things he did because he was distracted by other things. It’s telling to us because it shows while God may give us great things in visions, it’s still up to us to observe, think and analyze what we see. Lehi missed things Nephi didn’t. I suspect Lehi saw some things Nephi didn’t see, but we don’t have his account. It’s a valuable insight into how revelation works.

Friday, November 20, 2015

1 Nephi 13-14 - The Apocalypse of Nephi

In these two chapters Nephi is shown the history of America to our day, the origins of the Bible and how it came to be what it is today, and an exposition on the great and abominable Church of the Devil. It ends with the tantalizing declaration that the rest of Nephi’s vision would be recorded by John the Apostle of Jesus Christ.

First a comment on that, while Nephi says no more about what he saw, he quotes a LOT of Isaiah in the rest of his record. He spoke of the future too. In my opinion, Nephi quoted Isaiah to say what he couldn't say himself. When he quotes him at length in the rest of his record, he did so with a clear recollection of what he saw in this vision. In other words, it all made sense because he saw how all the prophecies of Isaiah fit into the narrative he’d seen. So while he couldn’t say what he saw, he quoted Isaiah in a way to fit with what he’d seen. So, if you want to understand what Revelations has to say about our future, read the Isaiah passages and Nephi’s commentary on them in First and Second Nephi.

Another interesting point is the Angel’s declaration there are but two churches in the world. This struck me as odd because there are hundreds if not thousands of different churches in the world today. All preach their own brand of dogma and salvation. Yet, here in chapter fourteen, the Angel says there are but two. He then defines what God meant. All who are humble followers of Jesus Christ (note again there’s no mention of dogma or doctrine) are members of the Christ’s church. Everyone else is in the Devil’s church, the great and abominable one.

It should give members of the LDS church pause for reflection. While the only organization on the earth today where the ordinances of salvation can be authoritatively performed is the LDS church, its members of record do not have exclusive access to membership in “Christ’s church.” According to 1 Nephi 14: 10, membership in this “church” is determined by how you live, your devotion to Christ, and your commitment to being His disciple. The subtext is it’s possible to be a member of record but due to life choices not be a member of Christ’s church. That’s sobering, heavy doctrine, but I see no other way to read and understand that verse. It makes me wonder, “which church am I really in?”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

1 Nephi 12 - A little something in between

In chapter twelve, we get the condensed history of the Nephites and Lamanites. The main event is the appearance of the Savior to the Nephites. This account of the visit is the chiastic counterpart to chapter 10 which tells of the Savior’s visit to the Jews.

We also get the interpretation of the river, the spacious building and the mists of darkness. It’s interesting to me to see these definitions given in the context of the history he saw. I’m sure there’s a lesson there but what it is evades me at the moment. It’s something I get to ponder upon. I do think however, it’s an example of how Heavenly Father teaches us about Him and His works using images we understand and our experiences. Again, the concept of taking us from where we are to higher states of awareness.

I just have to add this… it has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, but with the temple. I go weekly on Wednesdays. What struck me today is how alike men and women are treated in the temple rituals. Many ordinances are performed by women upon women. The ritual clothing with all their symbolic meanings are virtually the same for all. It’s something to think about.

That’s all for today. Stay tuned, Nephi gets apocalyptic next when we read through Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

1 Nephi 11 - The Lamb of God

If you recall my earlier post about 1 Nephi being a chiasmus, this chapter, eleven, is the apex. And what does it teach? Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God, who was sent to earth to die for the sins of all men. He is the personification of the love God has for us. Hence, He is also represented as the Tree of Life.

When  you think of 1 John 15, where the Savior uses the image of Him being the vine and we are the branches? This image of the tree becomes more complete. There are powerful and life changing concepts being portrayed here. As I ponder this and how He did this willingly for us, the impressions become deeply moving.

Jesus Christ is not only the Tree of Life, He is also the Fountain of Living Waters. His love, the Father’s love, is sweeter than anything the world has to offer. Having experienced and felt it when forgiven for past sins, I can attest to this. The fickleness of human nature being what it is, I have to be constantly reminded. Sigh. Fortunately, God’s patience is as deep as His love.

It’s not surprising this is the apex of the chiasmus or of 1 Nephi. This was new doctrine for him and he has done everything he can to emphasize its importance to whomever reads it. I can only wonder what Mormon included in the Book of Lehi. Had Joseph not lost the manuscript, this would likely have been a summary retelling of the entire Book of Mormon. As it is, it sets the stage for what follows.

It is a second witness of Jesus Christ, reaffirming and clarifying the scriptural testimony of God contained in the Bible.

1 Nephi 9-10 - It's all personal

What I find interesting here is how Nephi introduces his desire to see the things his father saw. After Lehi told them about the vision of the tree, he recounted coming events. It’s obvious he saw more than just the tree.

In particular, it’s how Lehi mentions the Savior that’s instructive. He speaks of the coming of a prophet and Messiah. My impression is this was new doctrine for him. As an observant Jew, he knew the Messiah would come, but he didn’t fully understand His role or His reason for coming. This vision opened his mind to that.

It’s an example of Heavenly Father approaching us at our level and raising us from there. It’s also why the doctrines taught by the Church today are the basics: faith, repentance, baptism and the Holy Ghost. Even the epitome of public worship in the church, the temple ceremonies, are rote and repetitive: everyone sees and hears the same things.

The beauty of the Gospel and doctrines is despite all this sameness, when it comes to living it, it’s all intensely personal. That’s the great lesson of the visions here. Lehi saw and experienced something amazing. Nephi wanted to learn for himself. Heavenly Father shows them the same information, but their experiences were different… they learned different things.

It’s the same for us. Through the teaching power of the Holy Ghost, study of the Book of Mormon will be a unique experience for each of us. We get what we’re willing to receive and can comprehend at that time. Even as I go through it again, I’m seeing different things. While there is a lot of repetition, there are many new insights too. When I go to the temple, and I go every week, I learn something new each time. Such is the power of the Gift of the Holy Ghost.

This personal experience, this personal relationship with God, is what He wants for us all. This is the Book of Mormon’s subtext.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

1 Nephi 8 - Lehi's Vision of the Tree of Life

The Vision of the Tree of Life is unique in scripture. I can’t think of anywhere else where you get two people’s accounts of the same vision. First, Lehi experiences it and we have Nephi’s record of his account. We then get Nephi’s.

A comprehensive dissertation on this would take a book, so you won’t get that here. I’ll touch the differences when I review Nephi’s version later. Instead, I’ll write about what stood out to me. The first thing is, if you didn’t already know, the Tree of Life is a representation of Jesus Christ. He is The Love of God manifest to us. This is the same vine spoken of in John 15. There is more joy and meaningful living, beyond our capacity to comprehend even, if we remain “attached” or wholly committed to following Him.

The proximity of the river to the tree is deliberate. It represents the filthiness of Hell and a life in opposition to the Savior’s. It was placed there, not by God, although He allowed it, but by Satan. A life of sorrow, enmeshed in sin is no further than a single choice away. That’s how close it is to us, so we must be ever vigilant to always stay by the tree.

Today, especially with the Internet, we live enveloped in the mist of darkness or the deceptions of Satan. While the image of clinging to a rod in profound darkness is compelling. I was especially struck by the realization that it is by feeling the rod that we hold on to it. When we study the scriptures, it’s what we feel that gives us guidance and strength. The world, Satan, demands we be “rational” in our approach to the things of God. He insists we must see, touch, hear or taste things to believe in them. But the senses can be deceived.

The evidence of the Gospel on which we make life choices, is not seen nor touched. Rather it is felt within the confines of our hearts and minds. It may evoke powerful emotions, but the evidence of the Spirit is not emotion. For that reason, we will be considered duped, mindless minions of a cult, disconnected from reality and not altogether with it. Oh well.

Monday, November 9, 2015

1 Nephi's Chiastic Structure

If you don't already know what a chiasmus is, I'll give this short description. It's a Hebrew literary art form using repetition combined with parallelism. Envision if you will a stair case which goes up to an apex and then back down to the ground floor. There are an equal number of steps going up and down.

This is a visual representation of the structure. Now, instead of steps you have a phrase or short passage which contains a meaning. The repetition comes into play with each step and its mirror on the other side saying a similar thing or the same thing using different words. The parallelism comes because they sequence of the sayings is reversed so each list of expressions is a mirror. They lead to and enhance the apex, the highest step which doesn't repeat.

With this in mind, this is the chiastic structure of 1 Nephi
a. Chapter 1 - Lehi has a dream and he warns the Jews.
  b.  Chapter 2 - Lehi flees Jerusalem for the Promised Land
    c.  Chapters 3-5 - Nephi miraculously gets the plates
      d.  Chapter 7 - Ishmael joins the group along with his family
        e.  Chapter 8 - The vision of the Tree of Life
          f.  Chapter 10 - The Prophecy of the coming of the Lamb of God to the Jews
            g. Chapter 11 - The Spirit of God testifies of the coming of Jesus Christ
          f.  Chapter 12 - Prophecy of Jesus appearance to Nephi's descendants in the New World
        e.  Chapter 15 - The interpretation of the vision of the Tree of Life
      d.  Chapter 16 - The marriages of Ishmael's daughters to Lehi's sons and Zoram
    c.  Chapter 17 - Nephi miraculously builds a boat
  b.  Chapter 18 - Lehi's group, now led by Nephi leave the Old World for the Promised Land
a. Chapters 19-22 - Nephi warns the Jews of the latter days of the destruction of Satan's followers

And all this was thought up by a 22 year old farm boy from upstate New York who could barely read, a minister and a school teacher who culled all this from the bible, a history book and a novel. Ah... right.

The truth of it is this: It's less of a leap to believe it was revealed by God than to think they dreamt all this up. You have to keep in mind, once Joseph started translating, it was just him, the scribe, the plates (under a linen), the stone or stones and the hat. They did it in a room where others often stood by and watched. Hours on end, day after day they did this. So, if there really were years of preparation... he still had to memorize all of this so he could recite it to the translator. Keep in mind there were people in the room who never joined the church, yet they said the same thing about what happened.

Emma never outed her husband even though she had cause to do so. The Whitmers, who were eye witness to the effort never renounced or denounced the process. Ockham's Razor (the simplest explanation is often the correct one) demands accepting the translation of the Book of Mormon by the power of God as fact. Nothing else is even plausible. Which is why critics twist themselves and their logic into pretzels to try and explain it away as something man-made. It can't be done.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

1 Nephi 7 - Split families

Tucked between the end of the prologue and the first act of 1 Nephi, the visions of the Tree of Life, is a kind of an out-of-the-way chapter where Lehi’s party is fleshed out. For those who live in families split along lines of religious dogma or politics, this chapter will be worth reading and pondering.

The headline event of this chapter is Lehi sending his sons back to Jerusalem to persuade Ishmael and his family to join them in their trek to the promised land. Ishmael has two sons and five daughters. They are the yin to Lehi’s yang in that he has four sons and Zoram in his group. I can’t help but wonder if the wives of Ishmael’s sons were Lehi’s daughters. Else why would they come? But that’s just a curious question.

In this group we see these fault lines: Laman as Lehi’s first born son is the leader of the group which thinks Lehi is a “visionary” man. In case you are wondering, in the 1828 Webster’s dictionary, “visionary” has a less than flattering connotation. It is, one given to daydreaming and somewhat disconnected from reality.

In Laman’s group you find him, Lemuel and Ishmael’s two sons. Everyone else, consisting of Lehi, Ishmael, Nephi, Sam and Zoram follow Lehi. You’ll note, in the Book of Mormon culture women barely appear. If you add them, two daughters of Ishmael and maybe the wives of Ishmael’s sons are also in Laman’s camp. The rest are in Lehi’s. From this split grow two nations: the Lamanites and the Nephites.

The chapter, even all of First and Second Nephi, show you must love and reach across this divide without surrendering your values. They show you must pray... a lot and go the second and third miles as the need arises. They show you never quit... you always follow God. They don't promise ease... only that the rewards will be worth the effort. While they show ultimately we are accountable only for our own actions, part of our required actions is reaching across that divide.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

1 Nephi 5-6 - The Preamble to the Story

Up through the end of 1 Nephi chapter six, Nephi is just laying the ground for what follows. He introduces us to himself, his father, his family, and the various roles his older brothers will play in the context of his story. Then in chapter six, he states why he’s writing: he’s persuading people to come unto God. This is a missionary tract written to not only his posterity, but to the world.

You need to keep in mind, this is not a journal written in “real time,” it’s a narrative written many years after the actual events occur. It’s carefully edited and composed to weave a story and argue for a particular view of events. What is that view? That God lives. That He blesses the faithful and that being faithful requires sacrifice, commitment, determination and a lot of sweat and tears. It’s rarely easy, usually painful and difficult but always worth the effort.

We all have our promised lands to which God would have us travel and enjoy. Nephi promises us getting there will take everything we have. For Lehi, it was a real land. For Nephi is was knowing God and safety for his people. Yours is different, but no less real as is mine, yet the commitment to get there is the same. Nephi’s promise is the God who helped him is unchanging and that He’s there to help us too. The message in 1 Nephi chapter’s one through six is a preamble to the journey which starts in earnest in chapter seven.

Are you ready?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

1 Nephi 3-4 The Lesson of the Brass Plates

This is a different take on this story in that it delves not so much into what Lehi’s sons did, but the pattern of their actions with regards to faithful living. Nephi’s declaration of faith to his father in 1 Nephi 3:7 is inspiring and comforting. The following events show the typical pattern we take when we try to achieve that ideal. It’s an opportunity for us to be wiser than the Nephites were.

Lehi’s sons make three attempts to get the plates from Laban. Laman and Lemuel do so, not because they expect success, but out of a respect to their father. They think he’s the one behind the mission. Nephi is going because he wants to be obedient to God’s commandments. Sam is invisible in this story, showing up only when Laman and Lemuel take out their frustration and anger by beating him and Nephi.

The first two attempts fail. The first is probably Laman’s idea. It’s a simple approach, he asks for them. Afterwords, Nephi rallies his brothers by preaching to them and reminding them of the Lord’s faithfulness to the obedient. Then, they do thing’s Nephi’s way, they try buying them. After that fiasco, Laman and Lemuel beat Nephi and Sam with a rod and are stopped only when an angel appears to them.

The third time, Nephi does things the Lord’s way. 1 Nephi 4:6 is the epitome of this… “I was led by the Spirit, not knowing before the things which I should do.. Nevertheless, I went forth…” This was still not an easy thing to do since Nephi is told to kill someone, something he’s never done before. He shrinks from it in horror, yet follows through with the deed after the Spirit reminds him what’s at stake.

This is the faithful living which the Book of Mormon teaches… doing your best while trusting God’s wisdom over your own. It’s living not in the comfort-zone but in the faith-zone.