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Friday, April 19, 2013

The Soulful Apostle: Jeffrey R. Holland's Greatest Hits

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, LDS Apostle


In the Mormon faith, I'm not sure if we're supposed to have "favorite" apostles... but Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is my favorite. It's very easy to believe in modern apostles when you're hearing Elder Holland speak. His earnest spirituality; his erudite and beautiful use of language; his pops of humor; his emotional depth; his simultaneously dramatic, yet subtle expressiveness; and his educated, intellectual capacity...it is all a balanced, potent combination of spiritual power.

 During my high school years, I especially had an enthusiastic excitement when General Conference came around. I had a unique set of friends in high school... a wholesome, extremely intelligent, kind, spiritually alive group of amazing individuals. I was very lucky, as they nourished me with their faith, their love, their kindness, and were there for me in a very vital period in my development as a human being and a spiritual being.

I started a little bit of a tradition for a while there in high school, where we would make a big breakfast for the Saturday morning session of Latter-day Conference and watch conference together. During those years, I especially remember being touched by Elder Holland. His authentic words always resonated with a very tender, yet growing, part of my spirit. Ever since that early and pivotal part of my life, I have always eagerly anticipated Elder Holland's speeches in General Conference and have never been disappointed with the sincere spirituality, intellectual rigor, and deep compassion that he approaches his messages with.

"LORD, I BELIEVE":

This last Conference, Elder Holland once again pounded that hard to hit ball out of the park with his speech "Lord I Believe." I've been very pleased to see the response this particular talk has received on the Bloggernacle and on Facebook. This talk is unique in how many people it has been able to touch, and how wide a spectrum it was able to travel. Elder Holland achieved a difficult and exquisite balance. He was, first, able to promote the power of faith while, simultaneously, give comfort, empathy, and encouragement to those who have doubts about one part of Church policy/practice or another. These words were potently effective and connected on a deeply satisfying spiritual and intellectual level:
The second observation is a variation of the first. When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have, leading as it were with your “unbelief.” That is like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak! Let me be clear on this point: I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I am asking you to be true to the faith you do have. Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not! So let us all remember the clear message of this scriptural account: Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.
Here Elder Holland champions a spiritual, informed faith, while recognizing the need "to be candid about your questions." Thus he is not shutting down dialogue, he is not asking us to put our heads in the sand and blindly accept everything willy-nilly. And he is not even saying that the Church and its leaders haven't made their own fair share of mistakes, and they aren't liable to human fallibility, as he illustrates in this next statement:
So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all.10 Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.
 But what he is championing is the power of faith, the need to lead with that belief in things we have received spiritual knowledge on rather than being tripped up with the doubts we have about things we have difficulty in understanding or accepting:
In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited... When those moments come and issues surface, the resolution of which is not immediately forthcoming, hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes. It was of this very incident, this specific miracle, that Jesus said, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”6 The size of your faith or the degree of your knowledge is not the issue—it is the integrity you demonstrate toward the faith you do have and the truth you already know.
This is powerful, spiritually sophisticated stuff he is putting out there. Elder Holland dodges the temptation to give pat, easy answers, as well as the droning about inaccurate statements like "when the Brethren have spoken, the thinking is done." No, he says to keep working out your questions, keep asking and receiving, keep seeking and finding, keep knocking and having it opened unto you. Keep yearning towards the Lord, keep clinging to his Church. But Elder Holland doesn't lightly dismiss the struggle and opposition that we are taught are so vital to our learning and experience. Rather he gives comfort and shows that "belief" and "faith" have never meant complete certainty about every principle:
A 14-year-old boy recently said to me a little hesitantly, “Brother Holland, I can’t say yet that I know the Church is true, but I believe it is.” I hugged that boy until his eyes bulged out. I told him with all the fervor of my soul that belief is a precious word, an even more precious act, and he need never apologize for “only believing.” I told him that Christ Himself said, “Be not afraid, only believe,”12 a phrase which, by the way, carried young Gordon B. Hinckley into the mission field.13 I told this boy that belief was always the first step toward conviction and that the definitive articles of our collective faith forcefully reiterate the phrase “We believe.”14 And I told him how very proud I was of him for the honesty of his quest.
I personally have conviction that there is a spiritual knowledge that can be obtained. That there are times where people can say "I know" about certain principles they have gained revelation or personal experience about. It's unlikely that they know all the ins or outs of that principle, so they need to be humble even with that knowledge and need to be open to further light and knowledge. But there are times where that veil of ignorance is lifted slightly and we are given illuminating (if, at times, only partial) light.

But for everything else that lies outside of those bursts of personal conviction and revelation, we build up faith and understanding, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little. Even Jesus, "increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man" (Luke 2:52) showing that he had to progress to the point where he could utter the words  "O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done" (Matthew 26:42). We all grow from "grace to grace" in our experiential time here on earth, just as Jesus did despite his Divinity.  And faith is the necessary fuel to do make that kind of progression, giving us the courage to move through this twilight forest of life,  with the encouragement of what we do know or believe, despite those shadowed areas in the trees we can't yet see.

I am so grateful to Elder Holland for highlighting this kind of faith and belief, and not taking the easy route of judging or condemning or accusing those who struggle with apostasy.  That has never been the Christ-like thing to do. Christ said that it was sick, not the whole, that are in need of a physician. And, in the end, do we not all suffer some such ailment in need of that Great Physician?

ELDER HOLLAND's GREATEST HITS:

Having been so moved and invigorated by Elder Holland's last talk, to end I also wanted to share some of my personal favorite talks he's given.

"An High Priest of Good Things to Come":

This is one of my favorite talks. Ever. This was right before I left on my LDS mission to Australia and gave me some buoyancy and emotional encouragement in a needful time.

This talk about dealing with the adversities and pains that we are guaranteed to confront at one point or another in our lives is one of the best "comfort" talks out there, especially as Elder Holland  is never glib or dismissive about the poignant pain we encounter:
No, it is not without a recognition of life’s tempests but fully and directly because of them that I testify of God’s love and the Savior’s power to calm the storm. Always remember in that biblical story that He was out there on the water also, that He faced the worst of it right along with the newest and youngest and most fearful. Only one who has fought against those ominous waves is justified in telling us—as well as the sea—to “be still.” 8 Only one who has taken the full brunt of such adversity could ever be justified in telling us in such times to “be of good cheer.” 9 Such counsel is not a jaunty pep talk about the power of positive thinking, though positive thinking is much needed in the world. No, Christ knows better than all others that the trials of life can be very deep and we are not shallow people if we struggle with them.
Be sure to watch the end when he talks about a personal experience when he was a young, discouraged father. That poignant moment is seared upon my memory forever.

"A Teacher Come From God": 

Hearing this talk when I was in high school helped me to re-affirm my desire to be a teacher, professionally and in every day life, and to seek the Spirit that such teaching requires. As a consequence, I have been and am currently a teacher now, for high school and college, as well as a father and a teacher in some of my Church callings, (not to mention seeing my wife's teaching, professionally and personally) I can tell you there have been few things as difficult in my life than the principle of "teaching"... nor more rewarding, when you finally see its fruits. And, let me tell you, teachers of all sorts need more encouragement and appreciation than they're getting from the world these days:
Now, at a time when our prophet is calling for more faith through hearing the word of God, we must revitalize and reenthrone superior teaching in the Church—at home, from the pulpit, in our administrative meetings, and surely in the classroom. Inspired teaching must never become a lost art in the Church, and we must make certain our quest for it does not become a lost tradition.
Are Mormons Christian? :

In 2007 and 2008 Elder Holland gave two consecutive General Conference talks  that carried a continuing theme: he capably and boldly addressed Evangelical and other Christian groups who question Mormons' credentials in claiming to be Christians. In the first talk, "The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hast Sent," Elder Holland addresses the Mormon ideas of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost as separate beings, and the Father and Jesus being embodied ones. In the second talk, "My Words...Never Cease," he addresses the Mormon idea of continuing revelation.

Not only does Elder Holland ably defend the Mormon theology against our Christian brothers who want to throw us into a pit, he also challenges their own theology and how so much of it is based not on the New Testament, but rather post-Biblical creeds created by scribes and committees, not revelation:
videoSo any criticism that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not hold the contemporary Christian view of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost is not a comment about our commitment to Christ but rather a recognition (accurate, I might add) that our view of the Godhead breaks with post–New Testament Christian history and returns to the doctrine taught by Jesus Himself. Now, a word about that post–New Testament history might be helpful.
In the year A.D. 325 the Roman emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to address—among other things—the growing issue of God’s alleged “trinity in unity.” What emerged from the heated contentions of churchmen, philosophers, and ecclesiastical dignitaries came to be known (after another 125 years and three more major councils)4 as the Nicene Creed, with later reformulations such as the Athanasian Creed. These various evolutions and iterations of creeds—and others to come over the centuries—declared the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be abstract, absolute, transcendent, immanent, consubstantial, coeternal, and unknowable, without body, parts, or passions and dwelling outside space and time. In such creeds all three members are separate persons, but they are a single being, the oft-noted “mystery of the trinity.” They are three distinct persons, yet not three Gods but one. All three persons are incomprehensible, yet it is one God who is incomprehensible.

We agree with our critics on at least that point—that such a formulation for divinity is truly incomprehensible. With such a confusing definition of God being imposed upon the church, little wonder that a fourth-century monk cried out, “Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me, … and I know not whom to adore or to address.”5 How are we to trust, love, worship, to say nothing of strive to be like, One who is incomprehensible and unknowable? What of Jesus’s prayer to His Father in Heaven that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent”?6
 It is not our purpose to demean any person’s belief nor the doctrine of any religion. We extend to all the same respect for their doctrine that we are asking for ours. (That, too, is an article of our faith.) But if one says we are not Christians because we do not hold a fourth- or fifth-century view of the Godhead, then what of those first Christian Saints, many of whom were eyewitnesses of the living Christ, who did not hold such a view either?7
We declare it is self-evident from the scriptures that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are separate persons, three divine beings, noting such unequivocal illustrations as the Savior’s great Intercessory Prayer just mentioned, His baptism at the hands of John, the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, and the martyrdom of Stephen—to name just four.

The Book of Mormon:

Elder Holland's talk about the Book of Mormon, "Safety for Our Soul", was absolutely stunning. It was a particularly important talk as I have heard increasing chatter the past several years of cultural Mormons who want to draw back from the Book of Mormon, seeing it perhaps as a cultural icon in the Church, or as inspired imagination, or a modern apocrypha or myth.  Now, referring to Elder Holland's previous talk about allowing people to progress despite their doubts, I welcome such people in the Church and hope that there is warm room made for them, despite this problematic belief.

Personally, though, I cannot possibly separate, or even distance, the Book of Mormon from the religion it jump started. As Joseph Smith said, "Take away the Book and the revelations, and where is our religion? We have none" (The Teachings of Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997, p. 86).

As Elder Holland said:
May I refer to a modern “last days” testimony? When Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum started for Carthage to face what they knew would be an imminent martyrdom, Hyrum read these words to comfort the heart of his brother:
“Thou hast been faithful; wherefore … thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father.
“And now I, Moroni, bid farewell … until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ.” 7
A few short verses from the 12th chapter of Ether in the Book of Mormon. Before closing the book, Hyrum turned down the corner of the page from which he had read, marking it as part of the everlasting testimony for which these two brothers were about to die. I hold in my hand that book, the very copy from which Hyrum read, the same corner of the page turned down, still visible. Later, when actually incarcerated in the jail, Joseph the Prophet turned to the guards who held him captive and bore a powerful testimony of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. 8 Shortly thereafter pistol and ball would take the lives of these two testators.
As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness. In this their greatest—and last—hour of need, I ask you: would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?
Never mind that their wives are about to be widows and their children fatherless. Never mind that their little band of followers will yet be “houseless, friendless and homeless” and that their children will leave footprints of blood across frozen rivers and an untamed prairie floor. 9 Never mind that legions will die and other legions live declaring in the four quarters of this earth that they know the Book of Mormon and the Church which espouses it to be true. Disregard all of that, and tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator. In this I stand with my own great-grandfather, who said simply enough, “No wicked man could write such a book as this; and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so.” 10
Faith and spirit infused passages like this, coupled with his compassionate call for tolerance of those who are working through their doubts as he does in "Lord, I Believe," are part of the reason I love Elder Holland with my soul and will always pay rapt attention to what he tells us and prayerfully consider his counsel. He is a voice of both faith and reason. He moderates the line between humility and integrity, compassion and boldness, spirituality and wisdom, mind and heart.  He is a man of the Spirit, a man of God, and is a good example to our Heavenly Parents' children. He shows how discipleship can encompass all those aforementioned good qualities, as we strive towards God.

1 comment:

  1. "Lord I Believe. Help me in my unbelief."

    We so often cannot believe. And run around as little gods thinking that we own the place. That we are in charge.

    Thanks.

    ReplyDelete