Thursday, November 20, 2014

Asking Questions (Part 2: with Hagar)

This post is the fourth in what will be my Explorations in Womanhood Series. Please understand that while I intend to write things that are consistent with church doctrine, this blog is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For this reason, I ask that you consider prayerfully interacting with anything published here.

Living Water by Elspeth Young

"But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give [her] shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give [her] shall be in [her] a well of water springing up into everlasting life."

John 4:14

If you read my last post, or have asked questions yourself, maybe, like me, you’ve concluded that growing in the language of personal revelation can be a challenge. But of course, it’s nothing to be disheartened over. Because we are the children of the Father of Lights, this language, the language of light, is innately within us. We were born to speak it.

Growing in revelation does require that we put our fears, our anger, our pride (and many other things) on the altar, if for no other reason than so that we can truly listen. But once those things are gone, what will fill the holes they’ve left behind?

Oh, I suppose their inverses. Faith, forgiveness, humility. But, if you’re like me, maybe it’s difficult to keep those virtues in their respective positions, especially when you’re again confronted with the problems that you responded to with fear or anger or pride in the first place.

A touchstone that continues to help me to maintain this balance is in 1 Nephi 11.  In this chapter, Nephi has one of the most amazing and hilarious (Something about all of the jumping around and the repeated, "Look!" "Look!" "Look!" always strikes my funny bone.) guided tours through the Plan of Salvation with the Holy Ghost. In verse 16, the Spirit of the Lord asks Nephi, "Knowest thou the condescension of God?"

And Nephi's response?

"I know that He loveth his children. Nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things."

God loves His (and Her) children. This is like the opening statement in the textbook for Foundations of the Gospel 101. Basic City, USA.

And although it is an easy thing for me to remember conceptually, somehow it is consistently one of the first things that I forget in my heart. Because sometimes it seems like all of the evidence has stacked up to the contrary—particularly when it comes to His (and Her) women children. How could God love His (and Her) children and allow so many injustices?

Let’s consider another of Nephi’s quotables. This one is in 1 Nephi 19:23.

“…For I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.”

We’ve been taught repeatedly that likening the scriptures to ourselves is a surefire way to find answers; and it’s worked for me. But sometimes only after a lot of pain. Because occasionally, when I put myself in someone’s scriptural shoes, it hurts a lot. This seems to be especially the case when the character I am likening myself to is a woman.

Take Hagar for example.

Genesis 16 gives us an ever so slight glimpse into Hagar's life. She was Sariah's bondswoman, of Egyptian descent. She was given, by Sariah, to Abraham to wife. When Hagar conceived she despised her mistress. Sariah reacted to this by being hard on Hagar—so hard on her that Hagar fled the camp. She ended up at a well.

It is here that something interesting happens. According to the Joseph Smith translation, an angel of the Lord (It was God, Himself, in other versions) appeared to Hagar and told her to go back to Abraham and Sariah. This angel also prophesied to Hagar about the son she was carrying. And then Hagar named God, calling him, "Thou God [that] seest me."

We next pick up on Hagar's story 14 years later in Genesis 21.  Sariah felt that her son, Isaac's, birthright was threatened by Hagar's son, Ishmael, so she instructed Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. God confirmed to Abraham that it was, indeed, His (and Her) will for Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. So Abraham gave Hagar and her son a bottle of water, and sent them into the desert. After the water was spent, Hagar cast her son under a bush, and began to mourn his death. But, at the critical moment an angel's voice reached Hagar's ears and a miracle her eyes. The promises of her posterity were again reiterated, and her eyes were opened to a well of water in front of her.

Until recently, every time I read this story, all I saw was something to this effect:

Hagar knew oppression. She was a bondswoman, a slave, far away from her home country (Her name means “stranger” in Hebrew). That’s rough. But it gets worse.

Her mistress, Sariah, gives her in marriage to Abraham. And although this marriage might have advantageously altered Hagar’s social status, it’s likely that it was neither Hagar’s choice, or even that it would have been, had she been given the choice. So now she’s a plural wife.

In this union she conceives Ishmael, and 14 years later, Ishmaelthe baby who was simultaneously wanted and unwantedis the cause of her banishment.

People say that God doesn’t always intervene.  That sometimes He (and She) just lets nature run its course. But here God did intervene. God sent an angel, twice! When I realized this, I was comforted. I was comforted because God had comforted Hagar.

I was at peace briefly. But then the entire construction collapsed in on itself because I had a belief about God. I believed that He (and She) must show Their love in rational, acceptable ways. And as I continued to process what Hagar went through, I didn’t know how to accept God’s mode of intervention.

The two major decisions that alter Hagar's trajectory in these stories (her marriage to Abraham, and her forced exodus) seem to have both been made by Sariah.  But upon further investigation, one discovers that both of these decisions were ratified by God.

And if that isn't perplexing enough, when God had the opportunity to release Hagar, to free her from these extremely undesirable situations, He (and She) didn't. God told her to return to Sariah. To go back into oppression. She stayed there for 14 years before God released her. And, as previously mentioned, the release from oppression wasn’t initially very faith-building for a future reader named Amber either.

As I have begun to realize this I've conjectured that maybe God couldn't free Hagar. Maybe the time she lived in was just too hostile to women. Or maybe by virtue of her being pregnant, it was too late. But then I remember that God sent an angel to Hagar. Which seems to confirm that anything is possible. And isn't that true about God?

What trouble I had gotten myself into because I had “likened the scriptures" to myself.

I decided to believe that God loved Hagar.

And with some time, just like Hagar, my eyes were opened.

Of course God loves Hagar. Why else would He (and She) send an angel to her twice? I love the way Diana Webb, author of Forgotten Women of God, puts it:

"Since there are so few annunciation scenes in the scripture, and since each is so significant, we can see what a great honor God pays to Hagar in Genesis 16. He has been especially mindful of her afflictions, and he tells her so. Hagar is a different woman from the one who has fled into the wilderness. She now knows that a power higher than herself notices her and that knowledge transforms her. She is now free in a way that returning to slavery can never eradicate. She is important to God, and that gives her a new sense of self-worth... Hagar has learned that God has a plan for her... She will tell her story to Abraham and Sariah and teach them things about God that they need to know: That God does indeed hear the cries of the suffering, the downcast, and the abandoned; that every human soul has dignity and worth. Hagar's new knowledge is empowering. If God is with her, she can survive anything." (pp. 141-142)

But why would God send Hagar back into oppression? I assume it must be for many of the same reasons we all must pass through trials. To grow, to be perfected. But in Hagar's case there was also something about "to fulfill among other things, the promises."

Typically “the promises” are associated with the Abrahamic covenant. Namely, that from Abraham would spring many nations. Hagar, while not really understood well among Christians and Jews, is revered as being the spiritual ancestress of the Muslim people.

Hagar was a righteous, favored, and strong woman. Hagar, named God, ‘Thou God [that] seest me.’ Nowhere in recorded scripture has anyone, much less a woman, given God a title. Fittingly, the spot where her first annunciation occured was called Beer-lahai-roni, which means “the well of him that liveth and seeth me.”

This may be the first time a woman at a well has appeared in the scriptures. I think we’re more aware of another of these moments. Consider the Samaritan woman who lived during Jesus’ day. Consider his teachings to her about that well, and about the Living Water that she also sat beside.

In both of Hagar's most pronounced deserts of life—not just literal deserts, but figurative ones—a well of water figures importantly enough that it is mentioned in the ancient text.

The Living Water was there for Hagar.

In a beautiful and tender moment of parallelism, my eyes, just like Hagar’s, have been opened to the well in her story.

As I now read Hagar's story with this knowledge in hand, her story changes for me. Admittedly, it still doesn't completely make sense. But there is a strength I derive from it. It seems to me that Hagar did change after her first visit with the angel. She became someone who no longer victimized herself. She became someone strong, someone who could endure. Knowing that you are beloved of God, and that you are watched over by Jesus Christ, can do that for a person.

And I guess that's Hagar's secret. She put her knowledge of God's love before the rest of the mess.

If you'd like to learn more about Hagar, try this great article at Women in the Scriptures (where I found the quote from Diana Webb), or this really phenomenal essay, "Hagar in LDS Scripture and Thought."

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Asking Questions (Part 1: with the Spirit)

This post is the third in what will be my Explorations in Womanhood Series. Please understand that while I intend to write things that are consistent with church doctrine, this blog is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For this reason, I ask that you consider prayerfully interacting with anything published here.

Goddess Looking Up by J. Kirk Richards
The summer after my freshman year at BYU, I went back home to Idaho for a month. The month of June. I was sad at the time, but just barely sad, I see in retrospect. It was the beginning of a very long period of worsening sad in my life, a period which I am beginning to believe has been poignantly refining.

I remember sitting at the top of the stairs, with my triple combination opened against the tightly knitted, dingy gray carpet. I had been sitting there scanning the Topical Guide, looking for the entry for Asking. I had this very strong feeling about the word. An impelling feeling. The scripture that I recall finding that day was this one: D&C 46:30.

"He that asketh in the Spirit, asketh according to the will of God; wherefore it is done even as he asketh."

By August, I still couldn't wrap my head around this verse. I had returned to my library job in Provo, so one afternoon while sitting at the LRC desk I asked my co-worker what he thought about it. Scott was an RM with an angelic singing voice that ran in his family. He said something about how the Spirit can help you know what you should ask for in your prayers.

That struck me as being pretty circular. Since then though, I've had a sizable handful of experiences that have followed that script, so I've figured that circular is okay.

That phrase "He that asketh in the Spirit, asketh according to the will of God" has taken on several meanings since my introduction to it. But lately I've wondered, what if asking in the Spirit is a condition of the heart?

In October of 2009 Richard G. Scott gave an address entitled To Acquire Spiritual Guidance in General Conference. He said a lot of wonderful things. I thought they were particularly wonderful at the time because they ideally (and divinely I believe) coincided with what I had been studying. Here's a quote that stuck out to me so well, that today while writing this (four years later) I searched for "Richard G. Scott grape jalapeno."

"The inspiring influence of the Holy Spirit can be overcome or masked by strong emotions, such as anger, hate, passion, fear, or pride. When such influences are present, it is like trying to savor the delicate flavor of a grape while eating a jalapeño pepper. Both flavors are present, but one completely overpowers the other. In like manner, strong emotions overcome the delicate promptings of the Holy Spirit." 

This little metaphor about the grape and the jalapeño became a bit of a landmark for me because it required me to start paying more attention to my own emotional state. As I did that, I began to recognize moments of anger, fear, and pride that did in fact seem to counteract my ability to hear the voice of the Spirit.

This seemed especially true in the realm of womanhood. In fact, I think that anger, fear, and pride are the three emotions that most often gush out of me as I ask questions about my gender. I feel anger when I recount the history of oppression that seems to be synonymous with the word woman. I feel fear when I explore the polygamy tradition, when I consider rape, abuse, pornography, genital mutilation. And the combination of these two feelings often adds up to pride. When I feel anger and fear, and I direct it at God, I effectively create a wall of enmity between myself and deity. Sometimes this enmity is loud, blaring, and unmistakably present. But most often it presents itself as little kernels in my heart. Almost imperceptible knots.

And that experience is, I think understandable. Asking, why on earth have you allowed these things to happen to your daughters, God?is in my mind an expected outcome of becoming acquainted with women's history. I recognize that this is not everyone's experience. But it is certainly mine.

And that is where another element of "asketh in the Spirit" comes in. I have found that the best way for me to communicate with the Spirit is to do so after the manner of the Spirit.

"The Holy Ghost teaches by inviting, prompting, encouraging, and inspiring us to act. Christ assured us that we come to the truth when we live doctrine and act accordingly. The Spirit leads guides, and shows us what to do."

-Matthew O. Richardson, Teaching After the Manner of the Spirit

The Spirit never compels, it never demands, never forces, coerces, pouts, or shouts. Likewise, I have found that if my approach to getting answers seems to fall into one of those categories, or if I am using such methods to convince others of the validity of my experiences and questions, I am not in a position to actually receive the answers I seek.

Fittingly enough, it is remembering a question that helps me to keep it all in balance.

"The Son of Man descended below all things. Art thou greater than he?"