Monday, August 10, 2009

Da lesson wot I taught,
The Relief Society: Insights for Priesthood Quorums

Howdy-do, friends. Sorry it's been a while. Here are some slightly expanded notes from a lesson I taught in Elder's Quorum yesterday.

1) Introduction
Morning, brethren. I have to confess that I accepted this assignment with no little sense of concern. First, when I am asked to teach, I immediately begin to think that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Why are we scraping the bottom of the barrel? Second, when I asked Drew (my roommate and a member of the EQP) what the subject of the lesson was, he replied (and I quote): "Oh... MWUHAHAHAHA! The Relief Society." Now, I'm not sure what was intended by the evil laugh, but as you sustained him last week, I thought you all ought to know. Finally, I was worried about how I could possibly make this subject really applicable to a priesthood quorum. What could I tell you? I once had an assignment in a RS lesson––there are no dark, esoteric secrets I can reveal to you. There was no animal sacrifice. (I can't say how disappointed that made me.)

However, as I did a little research on the subject matter, I started to see that there were some very interesting tidbits to be found.

2) Historical Background
Manual Reading 1: (p. 449)
In the spring of 1842, members of the Church in Nauvoo were busily occupied with the work of building the Nauvoo Temple. Two such members were Sarah Granger Kimball and her seamstress, Margaret A. Cook, who, while talking together one day, decided to combine their efforts in order to help the temple workmen. Sister Kimball said that she would provide fabric so that Sister Cook could make shirts for the men. The two women decided to invite other sisters to join them in forming a ladies’ society to further their benevolent efforts. Sarah Granger Kimball recalled: “The neighboring sisters met in my parlor and decided to organize. I was delegated to call on Sister Eliza R. Snow and ask her to write for us a Constitution and By-laws, and submit them to President Joseph Smith prior to our next Thursday’s meeting.”

After looking over the proposed constitution and bylaws, the Prophet pronounced them the best he had ever seen but then said: “‘This is not what you want. Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and he has something better for them than a written Constitution. I invite them all to meet with me and a few of the brethren … next Thursday afternoon.’”

Manual Reading 2: (p. 451)
Sarah Granger Kimball recalled that shortly before the Prophet Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society, he said: “I will organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood. … The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.”

When I read these two comments, I was a bit intrigued. First, we should note that the organization was woman-initiated. They went to the prophet, not vice versa. Second, the Prophet's comment about the "pattern of the priesthood" seemed a very interesting thing to say. I did a little digging on the subject, and found that it got more interesting yet.

On 30 March 1842, in a RS meeting, Joseph taught “that the society must move according to the ancient priesthood,” and that he would “make of this society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day––as in Paul’s day...”

On 28 April 1842, he recorded in his diary: “At two o'clock I met the members of the ‘Female Relief Society,’ and after presiding at the admission of many new members, [I] gave a lecture on the priesthood[, showing] how the sisters would come in possession of the privileges, blessings and gifts of the priesthood.”

Question: Why is this significant? Why this repeated focus on the priesthood? What does this mean? What does this mean, especially for us as priesthood holders? [Discussion ensued. Some of the thoughts shared: the priesthood represents an eternal pattern, godly in character; the organization is itself particularly suited to service; the organization is a sign of God's involvement, etc. Why is this important to us as Elders? At the very least, we might learn (by watching the RS) something about honoring our priesthood––about what our responsibilities are and how we ought to carry them out.]

3) The Great Naming Debate
The first reading mentioned writing a constitution for the organization, but that (though very good) it was not used.

Question: Why was it rejected? What replaced it?

On 17 March 1842, in a Relief Society meeting, the Prophet instructed: “Let this presidency serve as a constitution.”

Question: What does this mean? [Led by revelation. This is part of the priesthood pattern.]

And boy, did they ever lead––right from the start. There was actually a debate on the day of the organization of the RS about what it’s name would be. During the course of it, John Taylor actually recommended the organization change its name to the “Nauvoo Female Benevolent Society.” Having barely been made President, Emma started to argue against this suggestion pretty strongly. A number of objections were raised (even some by Jospeh). This discussion culminated in Eliza R. Snow, who (though in favor of “Relief") said that

“One objection to the word “Relief” is that the idea associated with it is that of some great calamity––that we intend appropriating on some extraordinary occasion instead of meeting the common occurrences.”

Emma had a brilliant reply:

Manual Reading 3: (p.450)
"We are going to do something extraordinary. … We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls."

Question: What is extraordinary about the RS? And what is this “extraordinary” need that they meet? [Extraordinary in scope; perhaps not huge individual projects, but meeting widespread and constant needs; the Society makes extraordinary women; extraordinary compassion. "Keep this question in mind. We'll be coming back to it."]

In any case, both the Prophet and Elder Taylor said that they could not "stand in the face" of Emma's logic, and that they were compelled to "concede the point." The name would be the Nauvoo Female Relief Society.

Well, enough history. The RS was organized, and has since made many, many centerpieces. (I would have said "resin grapes," but the class members are of the wrong generation.)

4) Prophetic Teachings & Theology
Let's bear in mind that some of JS’s comments in this section seem to be both prescriptive and descriptive. They address what the RS (and we) should do, and also what the RS does do.

Manual Reading 4: (p. 452)
“Said Jesus, ‘Ye shall do the work, which ye see me do.’ [See 2 Nephi 31:12.] These are the grand key-words for the society to act upon.”

Question: Have any of you seen Jesus recently? Maybe coming out of a Starbucks? (The minute I said "Starbucks" I knew I had stepped in it, due to the coffee association. Luckily, they laughed. I then suggested it might have been a better and less-caffeinated restaurant.) If not, then how do we see Christ? How do we see him in the RS? [We see him him in those that emulate him. We see him in the faces of those that serve. Also, let's not forget, "inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these..." We see the "suffering Christ" in the sick and the infirm, in the broken-hearted, in the despairing and hopeless, in those we ought to visit in prison. "Again, keep this question in mind. We'll be returning to it."]

Manual Reading 5: (p. 452)
“I attended by request, the Female Relief Society, whose object is the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of all benevolent purposes. … There was a very numerous attendance at the organization of the society, and also at the subsequent meetings, of some of our most intelligent, humane, philanthropic and respectable ladies; and we are well assured from a knowledge of those pure principles of benevolence that flow spontaneously from their humane and philanthropic bosoms, that with the resources they will have at command, they will fly to the relief of the stranger; they will pour in oil and wine to the wounded heart of the distressed; they will dry up the tears of the orphan and make the widow’s heart to rejoice."

Question: What words stand out here? [Eventually, we got to "stranger," "oil," and "wine."] Why these words? What is significant? [They are references to the parable of the Good Samaritan.]

5) The Hermeneutic of The Good Samaritan
What Joseph has given us here is an interpretive key––a lens through which we can understand the RS and their calling (and, consequently, our own).

A class member then summarized the parable (Luke 10:25-37), and we began to discuss its meaning.

Three Variations on a Theme by Jesus:
I) Historio-critical Reading––
-Jewish culture was deeply ordered by boundaries regarding one's duties. What were the limits of being a neighbor? To whom?
-The road was notoriously dangerous. 17 mi, descends 3,500 feet. Man traveling alone. What a moron. Even in the 4th century writers mentioned what a dangerous road this was and, how common it was to be robbed on it.
-Levite and Priest: Why did they pass by? Temple service? Ritual cleanliness (couldn't touch the dead)? Fear? Irony: they are ostensibly heading to temple to seek face of God, which they then miss in the face of their suffering fellow man.
-Samaritan: according to the storytelling "rule of three" (things go the same way for two iterations, and then change on the third; common in folklore and fairytales) the third character should have been a common Israelite male. (There is an interesting parallel here to the structure of the Jewish temple (Herod's): the Priests could approach the Holy of Holies most closely; the Levites could approach not quite as close; Israelite males could enter the next courtyard out; then women, then gentiles.) By making this character a Samaritan, Jesus is really exploding boundaries (as mentioned above). The Samaritan owes this man nothing, no allegiance whatsoever.
-Scholar and preacher, Ronald Knox, said:
"Is it for you, the beneficiary for all time of that unique act of charity (Christ's coming among us, to be our Good Samaritan) to haggle over obligations and to weigh out mercy on a scale? The world is your neighbor! Your enemy is your neighbor! The people who annoy you, bore you, rub you the wrong way, are your neighbors! Whoever needs your help, however unworthy, however ungrateful, however unwilling––that one is your neighbor!"

II) Patristic/Allegorical Reading––
-Man = Adam. He has left the garden (Jerusalem, the holy city), and fallen among thieves.
-Priest and Levite = the Law and the Prophets, which cannot save him.
-Samaritan = Jesus Christ.
-Inn = the Church.

III) A Modern Retelling––
[The following is taken from an essay published in Dialogue (Winter 1991), by Neal Chandler. It is called Book of Mormon Stories that my Teacher Kept from Me.]

When Jesus of Nazareth was asked [some important question], he did not quote from Mormon Doctrine nor from Answers to Gospel Questions. Instead, he told a story. And we, who have never very well understood why he did this, have ourselves long since lost the skill of storytelling. Jesus' stories to his first audiences were unheard of, striking, disquieting, unorthodox. To us, however, they ... have become the very soul of orthodoxy; we know the central ones by heart, and because we know them so well, we hardly know them at all. They are, to borrow a simile from Nietzsche, like coins so long in use they have lost their imprimatur and circulate among us as smooth blank metal. We know they are a unit of value, but no longer remember clearly what that value is.

[I]n order to be faithful to a story, sometimes it is necessary to be not quite so faithful to the text. I am not a Jew in ancient Israel. I am a [twenty-first century] Mormon, [so let us], for instance, speculate [the following]:
[The rest was read by various class members. It is presented here lightly edited. In the lesson, it was more heavily edited, both for time and not to cause trouble (i.e.: the bits about the High Priest and General Authority). I have retained those portions here, because you aren't bound to read this blog like my quorum members were bound to attend that meeting, and because I think it better preserves the really shocking character of Jesus' story.]

There was once a certain man, [living in Cleveland, Ohio,] who on a Saturday evening went into a part of the city into which respectable men normally do not go. Why he went there has not been determined, though this is a matter of concern to many among us who think his reason makes all the difference in the world. Still, whatever the reason, his trip ended in misfortune. He was attacked by thugs who took his money and credit cards, his dark blue blazer, and his late model car with the Bush bumper sticker. They left him beaten and filthy and unconscious in the gutter.

And then by chance a certain high priest drove by, (a former Mormon bishop and member of the stake high council), who was taking a short cut through that part of town because he was late for the priesthood session of stake conference. And when he saw the man lying in the gutter, he shook his head and said to himself with not a little disgust, Look at that, would you. Just look at that. The things people do to themselves. And because there were other men, black men, standing on the sidewalk staring at him, he pulled into the center lane and ran a yellow light at the next intersection.

Not long after, there also came that way a General Authority, traveling from the airport. He was a well-known official from a well-known family, and when he saw the man in the gutter, he too was troubled, though in a different sort of way, and asked, “Shouldn't we stop to help?” But the security man who was driving, and who was an experienced man who knew his business said, “That's not a good idea. This is a bad part of town. Anything could happen here, and besides, he's probably just sleeping it off. If you want to pick up this one, sir, what about the one on the next corner, and the next? You'd need a semi to pick up all of them.” So the General Authority sat quietly back while his driver moved into the center lane and got up speed to get him to conference on time, where he told the assembled brethren he'd been impressed by an experience he'd had that very evening to set aside his prepared text and speak instead about the importance of the Word of Wisdom in the last days.

At about this time, a certain aging hippie drove the very way the General Authority and the high priest had just come. He was a kind of middle-aged adolescent with a pony tail and an earring, who played lead guitar in a local rock 'n' roll band and drove a rusting VW van covered with bumper stickers promoting abortion rights, gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, and the making of love not war. And when he saw the man in the gutter, he put down his joint and stopped the van. And when he could not revive the unconscious victim, he dragged and lifted him inside the van and drove several miles to an emergency treatment center in the suburbs where the pretty girl behind the desk asked if he and the injured man were related. “No,” he said. And she frowned and asked what the patient's insurance carrier was. “Who knows?” he said. “I found him in the street. Maybe he doesn't have one.” To which she replied, while filing her fingernails, that in that case, unfortunately, they couldn't take him in, not without insurance. She was sorry, but it was policy, and there were no exceptions.

But the lead guitarist with the earring and pony tail lost his patience, and he yelled at the girl behind the desk, and at the physician on call, and at an administrator on the telephone until they became mute and embarrassed and agreed to do what they could if he would just quiet down and go away.

So he left, leaving his van in the parking lot and his wrist watch and van keys on the desk as a kind of unsolicited guarantee, and he promised to come back Sunday night right after his gig was finished and pay what he could of the charges. He took off down the street walking and whistling and smoking a cigarette and balancing his electric guitar on his shoulder like a ghetto blaster.

It was almost Sunday, and the Sunday School question which hovered in the air (and always has), though it's not often asked very well nor answered very carefully, is just this: who in that story was neighbor to the man who strayed into a bad part of Cleveland?

[The full essay (and the story in its unedited form) may be found here. Caveat lector: it may be a bit bitter for some of your tastes, though I found it interesting and periodically insightful nevertheless.]

Question: Why would this author (not to mention Jesus!) choose such a shocking character to be the wounded man's savior? What purpose could this have? [Also, let's remember that while the man in the story could only have been made more repugnant to LDS members had he been a registered Democrat, he still was not as shocking as a the Samaritan was to the original audience. The Samaritans had abandoned the covenant; they carried out apostate temple ceremonies on Mount Gerizim; they were both religious and political enemies; even during Christ's lifetime (ca. 6 - 9 AD), during the Passover itself they entered the Jerusalem temple and strewed its courtyards with the bones of the dead––the most terrible violation imaginable. However annoyed and angry we might be about unnamed demographics protesting outside LDS temples, we should reflect that they only use signs and shouts, and that they stand outside the fence. They have not forced entry, nor perpetrated gross desecration within the sacred precincts.]

6) Application
Ah, the hard part. This story constitutes a brilliant pincer attack on the comfortable, demanding a perfect balance (unattainable without grace). We are called to be Samaritans, little christs, for one another––to save both our own tribe and the stranger; also, we must be prepared to find Christ in “the other,” to have salvation reach out toward us from directions we do not expect, to see the Lord watching us even through the eyes of our enemy.

Question: How on earth do we do this? How can we meet this daunting call? [There are no silver bullets for this, only hard work; greater observance is required, we must strive (guided by the Comforter) to learn to look on the heart, to see what is needed; we need to show greater compassion and abundant charity. Taking a cue from "wine" and "oil," we have a particular responsibility to ensure that blessings and ordinances are made available.]

7) Conclusion
We have covered a lot of territory, and now return to our two guiding questions:

"What is this 'extraordinary' need for which the RS exists?"
And, "How do we find the face of Christ?"

We are led to the answers by another question: How did people know the resurrected Christ? What did he look like? Was he [cue Scottish accent] 7 feet tall, and apt to consume the English with lightning from his eyes? How did they know it was not Braveheart, but Jesus Christ?

In the New Testament, and (particularly) in the Book of Mormon account, we find that the disciples knew him when they touched his wounds.

So: The extraordinary need is simply our neighbor. It is every one of us. We are all fallen among thieves, all wounded. The scars are deep, and often unseen and unseeable. It’s mortality: nobody gets out alive! For some reason that I do not understand, there is violence and pain written deep in the fabric of our universe. Christ himself did not escape this brutality. Because of this, as Elder Holland has taught, SALVATION IS NOT CHEAP.

It comes only at the dearest price, and it answers our second question, because we only gain it when we find the face of the Lord.

We will see Christ as we serve like him. We see find him in the faces of those we serve, and those with whom we serve. And, one day, we will see him as he is... and on that day we will know that he knows us. We will know that he understands the terrible pain and the depth of our unseen wounds, because––in his hands, and in his side, and in his feet––he wears our scars for us. He wears them in token of promises he has kept, and promises he will yet keep.

Until that day then, let us watch the Relief Society. I hope that we will be observant, that we will strive to emulate, and that we will be grateful. Doing that, we cannot fail to remember the instruction the Prophet’s mother gave at one of their earliest meetings:

“We must cherish one another, watch over one another, [and] comfort one another ... that we may all sit down in heaven together" (Manual, p. 450).


I hope you find some of this at least interesting. If not, feel free to print it out and use it to start fires.

Note: I am (as usual) particularly indebted to Fr. Peter for sharing some of his insights (and the Ronald Knox quote) regarding the meaning of The Good Samaritan. He sent me that info way back in 2007, and I am pleased to be able to pass some of it along!