Monday, January 11, 2016

Receptivity to the Word of God--George's Post

A.   Receptivity to the Word of God

1.    The Word of God

For many years, I have loved studying the scriptures and found them to be bring me closer to God than anything else that I do.   What I read gets carried in my heart—almost like a continual prayer, and I find myself thinking about the scriptures throughout the day.   When I am the most faithful, I feel as though I am getting a little glimpse of God’s great plan of all of his children.   On occasion, it is almost as though I have, for a moment or two, second sight, allowing me to see and understand things far better than I normally can.   I know people are different, responding differently to the promptings of the Spirit—for some reading the scriptures is a chore or even painful—they are more easily moved through giving service, attending meetings, sharing testimonies.   But for me, the word of God, as found in both modern and ancient scripture, speaks directly to my soul—I love the insights into human nature; the complexity and symbolism built into the scriptures; searching to understand how they fit together; seeing how they reveal the grand design of the Lord Almighty; reading of the majesty and power of Jesus’ life; and reveling in the beauty of the poetry of scriptural language.    But most importantly, reading the scriptures softens me, revealing a side of my nature that I find “finer” than what I otherwise see within myself.   I think of what the Apostle Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”—attributes that I may not normally possess but that are slowly revealed, however obliquely, through studying the word of God—“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is now law.   And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.   If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.”[1]   I love the scriptures because they bring these feelings out in me.
It is hardly surprising for a believer to enjoy or to seek such an experience through study of the word of God.   Exposure to the word of God is expected to be transformative, changing the soul, however modestly.   Thus, the Apostle Peter said:   “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.  The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.   But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.   And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.”[2]   [3]   Life comes and goes, the glory of man is short-lived, but God’s word endures.   It is the “iron rod” leading to the tree of life, representing the greatest of the gifts of God to men.  Hence it is not an exaggeration to rank it above the transitory nature of human life or the vanities of human glory.   The one leads to eternal life.

2.    Observations about the Word of God

Many students of the scriptures find the first verses of the gospel of John to be puzzling.   “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.   The same was in the beginning with God.   All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”[4]   References to the “Word,” rather than to the historical Jesus Christ, sounds suspiciously Greek, philosophical, pompous and high-brow—perhaps an attempt to appeal to a secular world enamored with obtuse symbolism and imagery.   Certainly it appears as though references to the “Word” are to Jesus Christ, and a simple replacement of the one term for the other would seem to make sense.   
What is the purpose of referring to Jesus Christ as the “Word?”   A detailed discussion of this issue is certainly beyond the scope of this material, but here are some preliminary thoughts for consideration.   Jesus is given a host of different names in the scriptures: He is called the Son of the Morning; the creator; the only begotten of the Father; the Son of Man; the Prince of Peace; Alpha and Omega (the first and the last); Jehovah; “I am that I am;” the Redeemer; and the Saviour--to name just a few.[5]   Many of these names are used to describe either roles He played in God the Father’s majestic plan or characteristics or attributes that He possesses enabling He to play his central role in history.   When one refers to Jesus as the “Word,” the focus rivets on the “message” of salvation that comes through the atonement of Jesus Christ—as revealed through the legions of prophets to both the House of Israel and the Gentiles—which belief is essential to personal salvation.   Of course, it is impossible to separate the “message” or the “Word” of God from the historical figure—it is through His life (i.e., specific historical events) that Jesus fulfilled and will continue to fulfill His role in God’s eternal plan.   Jesus is the central actor in all of history, without whom neither the resurrection from the dead nor the salvation of mankind would be possible.   Yet, it is impossible to understand the plan of salvation without knowing both what Jesus did prior to His taking on a mortal, corruptible body, subject to pain, suffering and death, and during His earthly ministry and how those events fit into God’s eternal plan.   The most salient events in Jesus’ life, if merely witnessed from the outside, without context, including Jesus ‘suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross, or even His coming back from death, are not explicable in and of themselves; instead, their significance for all mankind can only be understood when viewed in a broader religious context as set forth in the basic principles and doctrines of Christianity.   In the case of Jesus’ suffering, an understanding of the event itself requires an appreciation for the fall of Adam; the estrangement of man from God due to sin; the need for an infinite atonement; and the like; and in the case of the resurrection, even that event, startling though it may be, requires an understanding what death itself is-- the separation of the body from the spirit; Jesus’ immortality because he is the Son of God, the only begotten of the Father; the power He, as the Son of God, had to break the bonds of death for all mankind (not just for Himself); that Jesus was the first fruits of the resurrection, ushering in the ultimate resurrection of all mankind, to be accomplished through successive waves, starting with the resurrection of the just.   
Hence, the word of God is more than the historical Jesus, more than a series of events, even more than a set of doctrines, beliefs, principles and precepts; it is the good news as revealed to man, over the generations, allowing the Apostle Paul to say:  “But what saith it?  The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach.   That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved…How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?....  So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”[6]   
Mormons think of the word of God as being embodied in the canonical standard works—the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.    An ever broader definition of “scripture” can be founded in Section 68:4 of the Doctrine and Covenants: “And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.”   And while this broader definition exists, Mormons do, nonetheless, think of the canonical scriptures as having primacy, certainly in that they represent the word of God to the entire Church and to all of mankind.   This does not erode the belief that other statements, when made under the Spirit, may be considered prophetic or representing the word of God for those to whom the statements are made.

3.    Literacy in Malawi

Malawi was one of the British colonies in Africa, first recognized as a British protectorate in 1889, when the British asserted a territorial claim to the Shire Highlands, and remaining under British rule until 1964, when Nyasaland (the British name for Malawi) became independent and was renamed “Malawi.”   There are many continuing evidences of the British influence in Malawi.     Malawians drive on the left side of the road, the Malawi legal system is modeled after the British common law system of justice, and English is one of the two official languages in Malawi.   The other official language is Chichewa, the dialect spoken by the Chewa tribe, the largest of the indigenous African tribes in the region, whose population is located primarily in the central region of Malawi, including the nation’s capital Lilongwe.   According to some statistics, youth literacy rates are on the rise, registered at 68% in 2000, but increased to 82% by 2007.   But as we have spoken with members, this increase in literacy in youth literacy may be specious, many saying that English proficiency was better in the past.   In the past, including the early years under Kumuzu Banda’s single party regime, the school curriculum required students to take all studies in English, starting in Standard 1 (the equivalent of First Grade in the United States), but now classes are not taught in English until Standard 5.[7]     
At least in our grass level experience working with members in Blantyre, most of whom come from humble backgrounds, it is clear English is a “second” language for almost everyone, and the range of literacy varies dramatically.   Generally speaking, youth speak better English than the older generation, men better than women, city folk better than the rural population.  Not surprisingly, returned missionaries from Malawi usually speak the best English, having worked with or had exposure to Western English speaking companions.    Rarely is English spoken in the home.[8]   Most members speak Chichewa and often speak one or more of the other local dialects, depending upon where their parents were raised.   Certainly English literacy improves with better education; hence, the Asians (primarily the Malawians of Indian descent) and the upper- and middle-class Malawians are the most fluent, many of whom went to boarding schools or college in South Africa and occasionally in England. 
Most Church meetings are conducted in English, but occasionally talks are translated from English to Chichewa.   There are however some notable exceptions.   Primary and Relief Society classes are frequently taught in Chichewa, given the low literacy rates among women and young children.     Members, when speaking in meetings and offer comments in classes, occasionally switch, almost seamlessly, between English and Chichewa, often in the same remarks.   And, when we or other Western missionaries are not in the room, the conversation tends to be in Chichewa, leading us to believe that most are far more comfortable speaking Chichewa.    Church announcements are usually made in both English and Chichewa.
Part of what ties the members to English is that virtually all of the Church materials are solely in English and English is the language used exclusively by senior Church leaders.[9]   The Bible used in Church meetings is the King James version, and while Chichewa translations of the Bible are available, they are not used in Church, nor are the sold or distributed by the Church.    Members are expected to read the scriptures in English.   Moreover, missionaries, whether working in Zambia or Malawi, teach the lessons in English, except in rare cases, when the missionary has picked up enough of the local dialects to speak one of the native tongues.  But clearly it is the policy of the Church to promote English as the common mode of communication.   This may come as a shock to some, because historically the Church has gone to great lengths, throughout the world, to preach the gospel in the native languages of the countries in which missionaries labor—hence, Japanese is used in Japan; German in Germanic speaking countries, Spanish in Spain and throughout Spanish speaking South America; and, the like.   Sharing the gospel through native tongues fills one of the latter-day prophecies about how the gospel will be spread among the peoples of the earth.[10]   One possible explanation for this practice is the belief that Malawians, living in a bi-lingual world, will fare better if they have greater mastery of English, and the Church can be a tool for improving English literacy within the ranks of the Church members, and hence improving the quality of their lives.      
But, at least for a while, the Church may pay a rather steep short-term price for insisting upon English as the common tongue.   Women, especially middle-age and older, are somewhat disenfranchised, rarely getting much out of Sacrament meetings or other formal meetings, where talks and discussions are conducted solely in English.   It is harder for them to learn about Church doctrines or to hold positions of leadership.   They may be more prey to inactivity, unless special efforts are taken to incorporate them into the mainstream of the branch’s activities.    Those women having the greatest English fluency tend to hold the leadership positions in Relief Society and Primary and to serve as District-level leaders.   Likewise, young children rarely speak English well.   Primary classes are invariably in Chichewa, unless taught by a Westerner.   But there is, of course, more hope for the school age children, as they continue with the school in Standard 5 and beyond.   Children are of course more inclined and equipped to pick up English on the fly from listening to Westerner missionaries, watching Western based programming on television and in the films, and participating in Church services.    For obvious reasons, most Western missionaries have more limited contact with non-English speaking members of the congregations, reducing their impact upon those members.   The language barrier is very real.   Carole and I certainly feel as though our influence upon non-English speakers in the branches has been sharply limited, for the simple reason that we can’t communicate with them--the reason we didn’t want a mission assignment to a non-English country.    Most congregations find activity levels highest among those who are between 15 and 35, and especially among the more fluent English-speaking young men.   In this way, the demographics in the Malawian congregations is different than what one finds in similarly sized branches and wards in the United States---there women and children, on a percentage basis, are frequently the most active.   
Despite the limited literacy of many, Malawians, as a general rule, are surprisingly knowledgeable about the bible.   Bible knowledge is one of the courses they study in school, so many, including the young, know basic bible stories.   Often they can recite scriptures verbatim, having learned them in school.   As a consequence, they respond with enthusiasm when hearing bible stories in Church.   Discussions of the scriptures are informed, better than one would expect, given the general level of literacy, and often as insightful and spirited as one would find in similar congregations in the United States.   Members are equally interested in the stories and scriptures found in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price.   Many investigators are drawn to the Church precisely because of the insights they get into the scriptures through the basic missionary lessons.  Malawian returned missionaries are particularly well-versed in the scriptures, and many teach seminary and institute classes in the congregations, classes well attended by branch members, both young and old.

4.    Implications for the Church and Members

One should never underestimate the power inherent in quoting or referring to the word of God, when talking about the message of the restored gospel, for there is great power in merely reciting the “word of God.”   The word of God is, of course, designed to draw the honest in heart to God.   “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep and am known of mine.   As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.   And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be old fold, and one shepherd.”[13]    And further in the 10th Chapter of John, we read:  “Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me.  But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you.  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:  And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.”[14]  What we say on our own never has that effect unless our words are somehow prompted by the Spirit.    “And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.   But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak.   For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.”[15]   
Malawians, in particular, yearn for the insights and knowledge that come from reading the scriptures and recounting familiar scripture stories.   Many have broken hearts and contrite spirits, making them very responsive to the promptings of the Spirit.    Far and away our best visits with members and non-members alike have been those when we shared messages from the scriptures and opened and closed with prayers.    Only in those encounters have we found something “edifying” to occur.   Visiting alone may let them know of our interest and concern, but it does not uplift, comfort, and instruct—or at least it does not do so with the same power.      At least for me there is a cogent, if simple, lesson here—whenever we are at a loss as to what to say, whether in a visit or a talk in Church, we should always go back to the scriptures, for the scriptures contain the “word of God.”   We should not rely upon our own understanding, but rely upon the arm of the Lord.   
We should remember that the scriptures contain the answers (or at least as much of the answers as the Lord has chosen to reveal) to the major questions we have about life.   So when we are stumped and don’t know how to proceed, we should go back to the scriptures for guidance, remembering there is no question that we are apt to have that has not be asked before.    Moreover, while the world has great literature, with wonderful, and in some cases, startling insights into mind and heart of man, I have never found that literature to move me in the way scriptures touch my heart.   I doubt I am alone in this.
Of course, the scriptures are, at their core, directed toward teaching one fundamental message—that of the Savior’s redeeming love for mankind, of the need to look to Him for salvation, and to follow Him by keeping His commandments.   This central message should never be lost, however, majestic, intricate, complex or fascinating the scriptures themselves may be.  This is, of course, why simple missionaries, with humble testimonies, can be effective, while those more gifted and learned in the ways of the word may struggle.    This reminds me of what the Apostle Paul said about the convincing power of the Spirit:   “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God.  For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.   And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.  And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit of and of power.   That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”[16]   The Apostle Paul himself may well have struggled keeping this simple lesson ever in mind, being one so well versed in the intricacies and complexity of the scriptures, and prone to intellectual arguments.   Frequently, the Apostle Paul is given to complicated arguments in his discourse.

5.    Purposes of the Word of God

From the scriptures it is clear that the word of God is intended to serve several distinct, yet essential, functions, and it is through the word of God that the Holy Ghost in turn works upon men’s hearts and minds.   It is important to keep these separate functions in mind, when reviewing the various passages talking about the word of God.   As one of its primary functions, the word of God, as revealed to men, leads, guides and directs, setting the course men are to follow.   It is easy to see how the “rod of iron” of Lehi’s dream is used symbolically to represent “the word of God,” since it is a tangible symbol showing, and indeed actually prescribing, the path men are to follow in order to obtain that most precious of all gifts--the gift of eternal life or “the tree of life.”[17]  That path is defined in terms of “commandments,” “laws,” and “saving ordinances.”   “And they said unto me:  What meaneth the rod of iron which our father say, that led to the tree?   And I said unto them that it was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction.”[18]   When used to convey this purpose, the word of God is something that men are to “heed,” “hearken to,” “hold fast,” and “obey.”  Hence, the scriptures speak in terms of “living by every word.”[19]
A second key function served by the word of God is “enlighten” men or convey to men essential truths.   “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”[20]   “That which is of God is light; and he that receive light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light, and that groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”[21]   The metaphor to “light” is compelling, easy to understand and suggestive of “second” sight men may actually obtain, allowing them to “see” with spiritual eyes things not apprehended with “physical eyes.”   Hence, those filled with “light” can almost see truths previously beyond their sight.   As we have spoken with new members about joining the Church, many have made similar comments.   They find the restored gospel to be plain and simple, to sound familiar, almost like something they had heard before, but perhaps forgotten; and, to make sense.   Many speak of being moved when learning of the “plan of salvation,” which makes sense of the overall purpose of life, or of finding answers to puzzling questions when learning about the restored gospels.   
Third, the word of God, in addition to revealing truth, and pointing the way, touches the heart in that it “edifies,” uplifts, gives “hope,” and “comforts.”   Indeed, the word of God may be said to lead to the “fruit of the Spirit” as spoken of by the Apostle Paul.[22]  Indeed, many gain a testimony of the Church, as they see the word of God working upon them, changing their nature, leading them away from the “works of the flesh” and toward the “fruit of the Spirit.”
Lastly, the word of the God is “prophetic,” meaning that through the prophets, God reveals to men a partial vision of what is to come.   Sometimes the prophecies are specific, but often they are generic, difficult to decipher, and sometimes potentially fulfilled at different times and in different ways.   Many prophets have spoken of the future and how God’s plan for mankind will unfold, none however more dramatically that John the Beloved in the Book of Revelation, where he provides a sweeping, if highly symbolic (and often cryptic), vision of all religious history, encapsulated in the unfolding of the seven seals.  Hence, we read in the scriptures of the “word of God” being “fulfilled,” meaning that what God has said will happen will occur in God’s time.      

[1] Gal. 5: 22-25.
[2] 1 Pet. 1: 24-25.
[3] The Apostle Peter was not the first to use their imagery to convey the potency of the word of God.   Using similar language, Isaiah says: “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all felsh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it:   The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry?   All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:  The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.   The grass withereth, the flowere fadethP but the word of our God shall stand for ever.”  Isa. 40: 5-8.   In Psalms we read: “For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heavn.”
[4] John 1: 1-3.
[5] A number of years ago, when teaching a gospel principles class, I assembled a list of all of the names attributed to Jesus and came up with close to fifty appellations.
[6] Rom. 10: 8-9; 14; 15; 16-17.
[7] We are not quite sure of the reason for the change in the English training, perhaps it was part of the continuing “Africanization” that has swept parts of Africa over the last severl decades—a desire to erase or minimize the effects of the colonial period.
[8] There is the occasional exception.   For several years, the Chikapas primarily spoke English in the home, because it was their common language:  President Chikapa, who is Malawian, spoke English and Chichewa, while Sister Chikapa, who is Ugandan, spoken English and Ugandan.   Now, however, as Sister Chikapa is getting more fluent in Chichewa, Time (the nephew) and Nimrod (the son) are exposed to a jumbled combination of Chichewa and English in the home, and Chichewa at school and with friends. 
[9] To our surprise, we discover several months ago that a few Church publications—including the Articles of Faith-- were originally translated into Chichewa, but those materials are not now distributed.   
[10] See, for example, D&C 90:11: “For it shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language, through those who are ordained unto this power, by the administration of the Comforter, shed forth upon them for the revelation of Jesus Christ.
[11] Most Malawians don’t get passports because of the expense.
[12] Of course, Westerners are equally ignorant about the history, geography, and peoples of Africa.
[13] John 10: 14-16.
[14] John 10: 25-28.
[15] Matt. 10: 18-20.   See also D&C 84: 85: “Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say, but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man.”
[16] 1 Cor. 2: 1-5.
[17] See 1 Ne. 15: 22.
[18] 1 Ne. 15: 23-24.
[19] See D&C 84: 44: “For you shall live by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God.”
[20] John 14: 6.
[21] D&C 50: 24.
[22] See Gal. 5: 22-26.