Thursday, January 5, 2017

Change of the Branches

Frankly, there are times in my life when I need a solid shot of optimism. For various reasons this is one of those times, and when I find myself in this situation I tend to turn to certain scriptures that I rely on to give me hope. My hope is, essentially, that the world is gradually getting "better" (from a spiritual perspective) and will continue to do so until the return of Christ. This runs counter to what I've been exposed to growing up in the Church specifically and Christianity generally, but I think it is a viewpoint that's strongly supported in the scriptures, and more particularly in the Book of Mormon.

For me, it starts with Jacob 5. This particular chapter in the Book of Mormon is one of the few "optimistic" apocalyptic scriptures in the LDS cannon. The dream recorded in Daniel of a stone cut out of a mountain without hands is another. In that dream, the stone grows and it rolls until it fills the whole earth. There is no stopping/restarting; the stone grows continually, which to my mind suggests the "good" in the world will be constantly increasing. In Jacob, we have a similar scenario, with the added bonus of the allegory being in chronological order (chronological order, or perhaps more precisely cause/effect are fairly strongly implied in Daniel as well). Pretty much every other apocalyptic scripture lacks a chronology, so this attribute sets Jacob 5 apart in my mind as a uniquely Mormon contribution to the apocalyptic literature.

The "good stuff" starts around verse 57 in Jacob 5:

Jacob 5:57-59

57 And the Lord of the vineyard said unto the servant: Pluck not the wild branches from the trees, save it be those which are most bitter; and in them ye shall graft according to that which I have said.

58 And we will nourish again the trees of the vineyard, and we will trim up the branches thereof; and we will pluck from the trees those branches which are ripened, that must perish, and cast them into the fire.

59 And this I do that, perhaps, the roots thereof may take strength because of their goodness; and because of the change of the branches, that the good may overcome the evil. [emphasis mine]

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Most of the last days narratives I'm familiar with essentially posit that the world is constantly getting worse, and will continue to do so until the coming of Christ. This doesn't really give us much to do, other than try to amass as many "good" people as possible and hope that we dodge the shrapnel of the collapsing Babylon.

In Jacob 5, the Lord is joined by laborers in His vineyard, and they have specific things that they are asked to do to assist in the process of saving the trees of the vineyard. For instance:

Jacob 5:61

61 Wherefore, go to, and call servants, that we may labor diligently with our might in the vineyard, that we may prepare the way, that I may bring forth again the natural fruit, which natural fruit is good and the most precious above all other fruit.

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This is not a time to hunker down in bunkers, circle the wagons, and await the impending apocalypse. Rather, it is a time to "prepare the way" for the natural fruit to appear again. As I reflect on history up to this point in time, it appears to me like "The Day Dawn is Breaking" (lyrics here), albeit over the course of centuries. I see it as beginning at the end of the Dark Ages, with the dawning of the Renaissance and the Reformation that lead to Protestantism. Us Mormons tend to view that as the "start" of the Restoration of the Gospel, a period of time in which events in history led up to those fateful years in upstate New York when Joseph Smith would either rock Christianity to its core or become one of the most successful charlatans of all time, or both (or neither?).

Anyways, somewhere around that time Mormonism seems to have taken a turn towards the apocalyptic. I think it began with the constant moving, being driven westward. The times certainly seemed apocalyptic, and as the pioneers marched off out of the United States and into Mexican territory, they may have envisioned themselves as marching into oblivion. I certainly would have thought that. Laman and Lemuel probably most accurately summarize how I might have handled that time in LDS history; our father/leader is crazy, and I'm really not interested in setting off to some strange land where I will die and everything I've known will die with me.

Thankfully, those who actually made that journey were built with stronger stuff, and despite all indications otherwise somehow found enough hope to creep through the crevasses of the rocks and into the valleys of the Rocky Mountains. Considering their experience, I can't fault those who might read Mormonism as a pessimistic take on human nature and the destiny of the world.

I like to read the book of Moroni with all that in mind. His time was similar, only a whole lot worse in many ways. He lost all of his family, all of his civilization, and then spent some amount of time (probably decades) wandering where he could to find safety and sustenance while avoiding those who would most likely kill him on sight. That is not exactly the recipe for optimism, so I find it interesting that, near the end of his own book, he quotes at length a speech given by his father Mormon in chapter 7 that is anything but dreary. We get to the meat of it around verse 20:

Moroni 7:20

20 And now, my brethren, how is it possible that ye can lay hold upon every good thing?

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Indeed, I wonder this myself sometimes. Not just good spiritual things, but all the good stuff in the world. The 13th Article of Faith challenges us with "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things." It can really be a challenge, not that there is a dearth of good things, but sometimes I lack the motivation to go out and find them, or support them, or do them, or incorporate them into my life. While I consider myself an optimist w.r.t. the "last days", there still are lots of branches bearing bitter fruit. Worse still, these branches aren't plucked off until they are fully developed. I think a lot of the nasty apocalyptic stuff in the book of Revelations in the New Testament applies here; as these branches grow and develop, they will cause lots of problems before they're pruned. But, they will all eventually be pruned if they don't develop good fruit.

This is why, I believe, they're allowed to stick around on the tree. Part of the job of those called in Jacob 5 to prune the trees is to keep the "tops" and the "roots" of the trees equal. The purpose of this is to overcome the "loftiness" (I read that as meaning pride, but it could be other things as well) of the vineyard generally. In other words, the things that I see that are wrong in the world are there to help me be humble. They do this by reminding me that I have more work to do, especially within myself. Also, who knows how the branches will develop until they're fully grown? Who am I to judge if a branch is good or evil during this process? After all, that bitter fruit could be me; nothing is set in stone in this process and the pruning has to happen in my own life too.

To that end, Mormon provides guidance on how to become a "good" branch. As he explains it, this is the role of faith, hope, and charity in the religious life of a disciple of Christ:

Moroni 7:26-32

26 And after that he came men also were saved by faith in his name; and by faith, they become the sons of God. And as surely as Christ liveth he spake these words unto our fathers, saying: Whatsoever thing ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is good, in faith believing that ye shall receive, behold, it shall be done unto you.

27 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, have miracles ceased because Christ hath ascended into heaven, and hath sat down on the right hand of God, to claim of the Father his rights of mercy which he hath upon the children of men?

28 For he hath answered the ends of the law, and he claimeth all those who have faith in him; and they who have faith in him will cleave unto every good thing; wherefore he advocateth the cause of the children of men; and he dwelleth eternally in the heavens.

29 And because he hath done this, my beloved brethren, have miracles ceased? Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither have angels ceased to minister unto the children of men.

30 For behold, they are subject unto him, to minister according to the word of his command, showing themselves unto them of strong faith and a firm mind in every form of godliness.

31 And the office of their ministry is to call men unto repentance, and to fulfill and to do the work of the covenants of the Father, which he hath made unto the children of men, to prepare the way among the children of men, by declaring the word of Christ unto the chosen vessels of the Lord, that they may bear testimony of him.

32 And by so doing, the Lord God prepareth the way that the residue of men may have faith in Christ, that the Holy Ghost may have place in their hearts, according to the power thereof; and after this manner bringeth to pass the Father, the covenants which he hath made unto the children of men.

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We are aligned with the purposes of God and His angels by doing the things mentioned in vs 31 and 32, i.e. declaring the good word of God. The thing that makes God's word good is what He can do for us (more on that point below) and how we may respond to His gifts. There is a larger picture, though, which consists of helping all around us to "lay hold upon every good thing."

What are those good things? I think this list will vary, and should vary, by person. I see supporting real news as a good thing. I see supporting science and the process of inquiry as a good thing. I see providing emotional and physical support to help those around me experience peace and joy in their lives as a good thing. The nice thing about the Gospel is a.) everyone will have a different version of this list, and because of that b.) we're far more likely to actually cover all the good things as people with different viewpoints work towards promoting the good things that they feel are important in their lives. One reason I try to avoid politics/current events on this blog is I feel the Gospel is far larger than any human container we can devise to hold it. Thus my views of what's right and what's wrong are going to always be incomplete, and my human limitations are such that I can only do a limited number of things. Again, I feel this enjoins humility because people with whom I may strongly disagree in some ideological way can and do have vital contributions to make in promoting good in the world.

And, when I'm in that place where I'm accepting and being humble, I can then have hope:

Moroni 7:40-41

40 And again, my beloved brethren, I would speak unto you concerning hope. How is it that ye can attain unto faith, save ye shall have hope?

41 And what is it that ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise.

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The mechanics of "ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ" are, for me, the real meat of the Gospel and the crux of how these scriptures and the Gospel generally help me to have hope. My understanding of God is He's not interested in condemning people. Rather, He wants us to have joy, and to that end He sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross so that we could access His power in our lives, especially when we're not perfect. For a long time I felt that I had to be perfect before the "cleansing" of the Atonement applied, so this was a thing that would happen after I died and my purpose on earth was to do the best job I could at keeping the commandments and doing good things. I believe that a tally was being kept in heaven with a score of all the good and bad things I'd done, and if I got enough points on the "good" side then I'd finally receive the reward of having the stuff on the "bad" side eliminated from the tally. A number of years ago I had several experiences that changed my views, so that now I see God as wanting to partner with us to help us be better people, no matter where we are in our personal growth process:

Ether 12:27

27 And 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.

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As I read it, this verse has a lot of a.) me asking, and b.) the Lord doing work. Humility is the main prerequisite, not perfection, in seeking and getting help from the Lord to change things that we can't change for ourselves ("then will I make weak things become strong unto them"). Why is it that way? Why do I have to rely on the Lord to do things that I can't do for myself, especially when it comes to my own spiritual growth process? As I mentioned above, the "bitter" fruit and the branches that produce that fruit help me in the process of being humble. So too does the grace of God, because He's doing the work and I am in no position to claim that I have changed myself. That's a really fundamental idea, having the humility to accept that my human nature prevents me from doing certain things, and I need God to step in and change my nature. No matter how hard I "work" spiritually, I can't change those things. The Lord has to do it, and because of that I am simply a beggar before God asking, and hoping, that He will.

Hence the pure love of God is expressed through His grace. He isn't helping me because I've earned His help, or I've done anything to be "worthy" in his eyes, He's helping me because He loves me. Humility in this context is more like acceptance; accepting ourselves as imperfect and accepting that someone else has to help us. For me, when that happen, my natural reaction is to then be that much more forgiving and charitable towards other people:

Moroni 7:46-47

46 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—

47 But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.

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I see charity as the ultimate "good fruit" that a branch on the trees in Jacob's allegory can produce. I believe the process of living and using the Gospel and the Atonement is designed to cultivate charity, and from that the natural actions of people fall into line with the will of God. Continuing on with Jacob 5, we can see what the natural result of this process will be:

Jacob 5:66-69

66 For it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard; wherefore ye shall clear away the bad according as the good shall grow, that the root and the top may be equal in strength, until the good shall overcome the bad, and the bad be hewn down and cast into the fire, that they cumber not the ground of my vineyard; and thus will I sweep away the bad out of my vineyard.

67 And the branches of the natural tree will I graft in again into the natural tree;

68 And the branches of the natural tree will I graft into the natural branches of the tree; and thus will I bring them together again, that they shall bring forth the natural fruit, and they shall be one.

69 And the bad shall be cast away, yea, even out of all the land of my vineyard; for behold, only this once will I prune my vineyard.

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I see this happening on multiple levels. The Lord works this way in me; he's not out to destroy me, but to help me change for the better through His grace. The church is also going through this process, in that the "good" within the church will continue to grow and, as it does so, the "bad" will gradually diminish. The world is doing this as well. Consider, for instance, how far people have come in the last 200 years of history. Huge swaths of us once accepted slavery as "normal", and those who didn't had it imposed on them in a massively terrible trade that formed one of the main pillars of the global economy. While slavery still happens to day, it is on nowhere near the same scale, nor is its toll nearly as high. This trend will continue (perhaps with some bumps along the road) until the practice is completely abolished. Many, many other things are following a similar trajectory. Despite recent setbacks, generally speaking human "freedom" has steadily expanded over the last 200 years and continues to do so. Economic well-being has also spread, along with a number of advances in medicine and science, that have and will continue to improve life for everyone. As that happens, slowly but surely many of the drivers of negative human behaviors will diminish. I also see a strong trend towards establishing a morality of sorts that transcends religious divisions. Another example is Pope Francis, who has done God's work IMO in changing the tenor and practice of the Catholic church for the better. These are just a couple of many of the "arrows" of history that point towards a glorious conclusion. Our job is to help them along by using God's grace in our lives and expressing charity towards others, and according to Jacob's recounting of Zenos' allegory, we will:

Jacob 5:74-75

74 And thus they labored, with all diligence, according to the commandments of the Lord of the vineyard, even until the bad had been cast away out of the vineyard, and the Lord had preserved unto himself that the trees had become again the natural fruit; and they became like unto one body; and the fruits were equal; and the Lord of the vineyard had preserved unto himself the natural fruit, which was most precious unto him from the beginning.

75 And it came to pass that when the Lord of the vineyard saw that his fruit was good, and that his vineyard was no more corrupt, he called up his servants, and said unto them: Behold, for this last time have we nourished my vineyard; and thou beholdest that I have done according to my will; and I have preserved the natural fruit, that it is good, even like as it was in the beginning. And blessed art thou; for because ye have been diligent in laboring with me in my vineyard, and have kept my commandments, and have brought unto me again the natural fruit, that my vineyard is no more corrupted, and the bad is cast away, behold ye shall have joy with me because of the fruit of my vineyard.

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Hence I have hope, despite current circumstances in many places, that things will get better. It is the will of God, and by using the tools He's given me I hope to assist in various small ways in that process.

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