Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lesson 13: Joseph Smith

Think about all the doctrines, ordinances, and publications that Joseph Smith brought into the world between his First Vision in 1820 and the day he was killed in 1844 -- it's a long list. The breadth and depth of the knowledge and luminance we now have because of his work stretches literally from eternity to eternity.

For example, the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses give us greater insight into the pre-creative council of heaven than any other source. And Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants (originally called "The Vision" because of its grand scope) lets us glimpse the heavens that await us.

In addition, and in between those two extremes, Joseph Smith gave us the Book of Mormon, the rest of the Doctrine and Covenants, the rest of the Pearl of Great Price, and all the doctrines and ordinances that come with them. He also provided us an example of an imperfect man who gave his all, even his life, to defend the Church, its members, its teachings, and ultimately Jesus Christ himself. He was flawed -- his divine chastisements are published for the world to see. But to his friends he was completely loyal, and to his enemies unflinchingly kind.

I know of no other human who provides such a great example of doing his best to live according to God's will than Joseph Smith Jr. In everything I have studied about his life and his character, I can only conclude that (1) he was human -- imperfect, flawed, and mortal -- and (2) he was a prophet of God -- inspired, authorized, and guided to do a work much larger than himself.

He was a powerful tool in the hands of God. I don't blame him for his human foibles. I honor him for his dedication and loyalty to the cause of his Creator.

* * *

Here's one of my favorite stories of Joseph Smith. He was imprisoned, with a few other Church leaders, for the entire winter of 1838-39 in Liberty, Missouri -- near Independence, Missouri (of all the ironically named places) -- and also in Richmond, in Ray County, while on trial. At Liberty Jail they were confined to a cellar of sorts: a dirt floor, very little light, some straw on the ground to sleep on, and thin blankets for warmth.

They were held in this place for months while other members of the Church were being persecuted to the extreme: mobs stole or destroyed property, severely beat men, did even worse to women, and were given virtually free reign by two successive governors to do what they will with the the point of them being "exterminated or driven from the State."

Three days after that infamous order was issued, some 200 men descended on Haun's Mill and massacred 18 men and boys, while the women and other children fled into the woods.

Shortly afterward, Joseph and others Church leaders were jailed. For months he could only sit and listen to the horrific reports of what was happening to his people outside. He was powerless to do anything other than plead to the Almighty for reprieve.

While they were in Richmond, Joseph and six others were chained together, from ankle to ankle, with padlocks. During the two weeks they were on trial, they were confined to a room without beds or chairs, guarded by ten men at all times, with loaded guns ready to use at a moments notice. At night, the chained men stretched out on the wood floor, still chained together, on their backs. They were mostly unable to sleep, due to the hard floor, the cold, the inability to change positions because of the chains, and the loud guards just outside.

It was one of these tedious nights we had lain as if in sleep until the hour of mid-nite had passed, and our ears and hearts had been pained, while we listened for hours to the obscene jests and horrid oaths, the dreadful blasphemies and filthy language of our guards, Colonel Price at their head, as they recounted to each other their deeds of rapine, murder and robbery which they had committed among the Mormons, while at Far West and vicinity.

I had listened until I became so disgusted, shocked and horrified and filled with the spirit of indignant justice that I could scarcely refrain from rising on my feet and rebuking the guards, but had said nothing to Joseph, or anyone else, although, I lay next to him and knew that he was awake. On a sudden he rose to his feet and as near as I can recollect, spoke the following words:

"SILENCE, ye fiends of the infernal pit! In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you and command you to be still; I will not live another minute and hear such language. Cease such talk or you or I die THIS INSTANT!"

He ceased to speak. He stood erect in terrible majesty. Chained and without a weapon; calm, unruffled, and dignified as an angel; he looked upon the quailing guards, whose weapons were lowered or dropped to the ground; whose knees smote together, and who, shrinking into a corner, or crouching at his feet, begged his pardon, and remained quiet until the change of guards.

I have seen ministers of justice, clothed in magisterial robes, and criminals arraigned before them, while life was suspended on a breath in the courts of England; I have witnessed a Congress in solemn session to give laws to nations; I have tried to conceive of kings, of royal courts of thrones and crowns; and of emperors assembeld to decide the fate of kingdoms; but dignity and majesty have I seen but once, as it stood in chains, at mid-nite in a dungeon in an obscure village in Missouri. (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, pp. 228-230)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Stake Conference -- the Great Minnesota Shake-up

Big news this week: the creation of the St. Cloud Stake. It might not sound like it, but this is a big, big deal. Especially since the decision means changes for every other stake in Minnesota. Some of them are major.

More on that later, but first some explanation on what it takes to make a stake.

Ingredients for a good stake
A new stake doesn't just happen. You need about 3,000 members, plenty of active Melchizedek priesthood holders to run the thing, and final approval from the First Presidency. This is serious business.

A stake is usually made up of 6 to 12 units (organizational-speak for "wards or branches"). Any less than about 6 and it just doesn't make much sense. And 12 is usually the upper limit probably because that's how many are on a stake high council (and they have to visit their assigned ward each month). Plus any bigger than that and it starts to get really hard to run.

How we got to St. Cloud
Now some specifics. A number of years ago, the St. Cloud District was dissolved in order to help create the Anoka Stake. (A district is like a proto-stake, but lacks either the membership or the leadership required for a full stake -- or something like that.) When the St. Cloud District was dissolved, the members were promised that they would not be forgotten, and that a stake would come to St. Cloud someday.

That day is Sunday, May 3, 2009.

A special stake conference will be held on that date for the new St. Cloud Stake members. In that meeting, a new St. Cloud stake presidency will be sustained, along with the new high councilors and probably a whole bunch of other stake callings. I'm not really sure, because I've never experienced it before. Like I said, this doesn't just happen every day. Last year only about 20 new stakes were created in the entire Church.

I believe Patriarch Hill will be the new St. Cloud stake patriarch, since he lives there. Note: "patriarch" is an office in the Melchizedek priesthood, not a calling -- so you're never really released, as you would be if it were simply a calling.

The new Anoka Stake patriarch will be Tom Hawes from the Crystal Ward (one of the wards we're stealing from the Minneapolis Stake). This means the Minneapolis stake will be getting a new patriarch, too.

Stake activities
The new St. Cloud stake is invited to the multi-stake dance on May 16. The YM Encampment in June and girls' camp in August are going to proceed as planned. The girls in the new St. Cloud Stake will be part of the camp, and some of the girls from our "new" wards might join in, too. It sounds like the priest/laurel trip is still being worked on, so I'm not sure who, what, or when that will be.

The bottom line
Here's what the three new stakes in our area will look like. Hold onto your hats. In order, roughly, from north to south:

St. Cloud Stake
• Brainerd Ward
• Alexandria Ward
• St. Cloud Ward
• Granite City Ward [Young Single Adults from the St. Cloud Stake]
• Princeton Ward
• Elk River Ward
• Buffalo Ward
• Willmar Branch
• Hutchinson Branch

Anoka Stake
• Andover Ward
• Anoka Ward
• Maple Grove Ward
• Elm Creek Ward
• Shingle Creek Ward
• Crystal Ward
• Medicine Lake Ward
• Cedar Lake Ward
• Dinkytown Ward [Young Single Adults from the Anoka and St. Paul Stakes]
• Twin Cities 4th Branch [Hmong speaking]

Minneapolis Stake
• Plymouth Ward
• Minnetonka Ward
• Uptown Ward [Young Single Adults from the Anoka and Minneapolis Stakes]
• Twin Cities 1st Ward [Spanish speaking]
• Lake Nokomis Ward
• Bloomington Ward
• Eden Prairie Ward
• Waconia Ward

Like I said, this was a big shake-up. The Duluth and Burnsville Stakes will require new stake presidencies as a result. Our stake presidency will need a new 2nd councilor, since Randy Baker is going to be part of the new St. Cloud stake.

Note: no ward boundaries are changing -- only the arrangement of which wards belong to which stakes. Also, I wouldn't be surprised if the St. Cloud Ward is split very soon. It's huge.

Behind the scenes
President Paynter told us that this has been years in the making. All the stake presidents in Minnesota have been discussing different possible scenarios with our area authority, President Hansen, for a long time.

On November 11, 2008, they came to an agreement, and the application for creating a new stake was submitted. It was reviewed by the Church's boundaries and organization committee, which then passed on their recommendation to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. The application was approved in January, and President Hansen contacted all the stake presidents about a month or so later. All the bishops were contacted about a week before the announcement.

You might be wondering why it is important to keep this kind of thing confidential. I can think of a couple reasons. First, you don't want anyone to stop doing their job/calling if they think/know they're going to be released anyway. Second, you don't want people complaining loudly in the hopes of stopping or altering the decision. Neither are productive, and in fact could be quite damaging. Such great changes are made carefully and deliberately by wise men who constantly seek guidance from the Holy Spirit.

This was a very long post. I wanted to give you as much detail as I could. It's a big deal and there's a lot of information to share. Plus, I've never experienced the creation of a new stake in my life, so this is exciting for me, too. I tried to anticipate any questions you'd have. Feel free to ask more in the comments.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

General Conference - April 2009

This weekend we tune in to Conference. And it's easier than ever. Live, streaming, high-quality video straight from the Church's Web site.

Watch every session all the way through, or review individual talks from a certain session. Your choice.

If you didn't know this yet, there are five total sessions:
1. Saturday morning
2. Saturday afternoon
3. the General Priesthood session on Saturday evening (not available as a video, but the text of the talks should be online in a couple days)
4. Sunday morning (the only one you went to as a kid)
5. Sunday afternoon
Bonus: you can also watch the General Young Women session from last week.

Check out the 179th Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lessons 10-11: Revelations given to Emma Smith, Joseph Smith Sr., Hyrum Smith, and others

Beware of pride
(Told to Emma D&C 25:14; to Oliver CowderyD&C 23:1; to the Saints in a conference of the Church D&C 38:39; to the First Presidency of the Church D&C 90:17; to the Saints in Kirtland D&C 98:19–20)

What is pride? It's putting me ahead of God.
It's like listing my priorities:
1. Me
2. God

Pride is nothing more than pure selfishness. Me before you. What I want is more important than what you want.

The exact opposite of pride is love. I set God as my number one priority. If I love God, I let his will direct my decisions.

If you love another person, you are effectively setting their needs ahead of your own. Love is nothing more than pure selflessness -- also defined as charity, or the pure love of Christ. Think about it: he gave absolutely everything he had, including the last remnants of his life, he literally died for your sake. That is pure love. Not a speck of pride (selfishness) was in him.

Ezra Taft Benson was the president of the Church from 1985 to 1994. (FYI, he was followed by Howard W. Hunter, who was president for about a year, then Gordon B. Hinckley, who was president from 1995 to 2008.)

Anyway, President Benson delivered a timeless talk on pride. It's been quoted ever since. It's a classic. Here's some of what he wrote:
"Most of us think of pride as self-centeredness, conceit, boastfulness, arrogance, or haughtiness. All of these are elements of the sin, but the heart, or core, is still missing. The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means 'hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.'

Pride is essentially competitive in nature. We pit our will against God’s … in the spirit of ‘my will and not thine be done.’ Our will in competition to God’s will allows desires, appetites, and passions to go unbridled.

Our enmity toward God takes on many labels, such as rebellion, hard-heartedness, stiff-neckedness, unrepentant, puffed up, easily offended, and sign seekers. The proud wish God would agree with them. They aren’t interested in changing their opinions to agree with God’s.

Another major portion of this very prevalent sin of pride is enmity toward our fellowmen. We are tempted daily to elevate ourselves above others and diminish them. Pride … is manifest in so many ways, such as fault-finding, gossiping, backbiting, murmuring, living beyond our means, envying, coveting, withholding gratitude and praise that might lift another, and being unforgiving and jealous.

Selfishness is one of the more common faces of pride. ‘How everything affects me’ is the center of all that matters—self-conceit, self-pity, worldly self-fulfillment, self-gratification, and self-seeking.

Another face of pride is contention. Arguments, fights, unrighteous dominion, generation gaps, divorces, spouse abuse, riots, and disturbances all fall into this category of pride.

The antidote for pride is humility—meekness, submissiveness. It is the broken heart and contrite spirit. We can choose to humble ourselves by loving God, submitting our will to His, and putting Him first in our lives" (Conference Report, Apr. 1989, 3–6; or Ensign, May 1989, 4–7).

To paraphrase Elder Marvin J. Ashton, former apostle, when others live in angry silence or vocal disgust, what a joy it is to see someone of good cheer. Instead of becoming resentful, critical, or defeated, if we can recall the Lord’s promise, ‘for I the Lord am with you,’ we will be able to face our problems with dignity and courage (in Conference Report, Apr. 1986, 84–85; or Ensign, May 1986, 66).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lessons 8-9: Restoration of the priesthood, and organization of the Church

Current priesthood organization
(For the benefit of young women or newer members or long-time members who are still confused about the whole thing.)

Aaronic Priesthood offices
Deacon [12+] (DQ president is from their own quorum)
Teacher [14+] (TQ president is from their own quorum)
Priest [16+] (PQ president is the bishop)

Melchizedek Priesthood offices
Elder (EQ president from their own quorum)
High Priest (HPQ president is the stake president -- that's why ward's have high-priest groups
Patriarch (forgot about this in class, not sure if there's a quorum, but it is an office in the Melchizedek Priesthood)
Seventy (used to be a stake-level office/calling, now it's an area/general authority-level calling; BTW the 1st and 2nd Quorums of Seventy are general authorities -- the 3rd through 8th are area authorities; as needed more of the area-authority quorums of seventy will be added as the church grows)
Apostle (usually only 12 in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, plus three in the First Presidency; the one who has been in the Quorum the longest [not the oldest!] traditionally becomes the next president of the Church; the new president traditionally chooses his counselors from the other Quorum members to create a new First Presidency; all 15 of these men are referred to as prophets, seers, and revelators -- the entire Church sustains them as such every April in General Conference)

It Will Fill the World
Wilford Woodruff records: “In April of 1834, I arrived, a newly baptized member in Kirtland, Ohio. It was the first time I have ever seen the Prophet Joseph Smith and he invited me home with him. The next evening the Prophet called on all who held the Priesthood to gather into a little log school house. It was small, perhaps 14 feet square, but it held the whole of the priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ who were then in Kirtland. That was the first time I had ever seen Oliver Cowdery or heard him speak. The first time I ever seen Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball. The Prophet called upon those present to bear testimony of this work. Those I had named spoke as well as many others. When they got through the Prophet said:
'Brethren, I have been very much edified and instructed in your testimonies here tonight, but I want to say to you before the Lord, that you know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap. You don’t comprehend it. It is only a little handful of Priesthood you see here tonight, but this Church will fill North and South America—it will fill the world.'"
(Wilford Woodruff, in Conference Report, Apr. 1898, p. 57).

The Standard of Truth
"The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done" (Joseph Smith Jr., History of the Church 4:540).

This statement is the closing paragraph of the Wentworth Letter, which is also the source of our 13 Articles of Faith.