“Learn How to Live and How to Die”
December 21, 2009 12 Comments
Much of Joseph Smith’s preaching about death was meant to compel his listeners to faith. Over the years of my own life I have seen death. Even if you don’t experience death as it was in the early 19th century, if you live long enough, you will see it impact your life.
I have buried a son, a brother, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and unrelated friends. Looking at death as inevitable has become a routine matter. But what is it for us survivors? It is first and foremost, loss. Whatever theology one subscribes to, or to no theology at all, this is the universal fact. The dead don’t come back. You don’t find him or her sleeping in their bed the next morning after the funeral.
They are gone.
When my own child died, I was half-way across the world. It took me days to get back to a grieving wife and children. I was sleepless, my heart rate stayed above 160 for those awful days. I was barely conscious. It took me years to fully wake up. When I did, I was a much different person, not necessarily a better one, but definitely different. There was a whole spectrum of change. You want change? An adventurous five-year-old can give you that.
“Learn how to live and how do die.” This is a phrase from Willard Richards’ report of a funeral sermon of Joseph Smith. What do we learn about living and dying from Joseph? Over the years, I’ve thought about this, and at this Christmas time, I offer you six principles, which occur in greater or lesser clarity in some of Joseph’s funeral sermons. Aside from my academic interest in the phenomenon, I take these personally.
1. You don’t begin, and therefore you don’t end.
This is Joseph’s no beginning, no ending doctrine. For him, man is eternal, in the sense that personalities, evolving as they do, nevertheless have always been around, and will always be around. Not in some abstract Plotinian way, but actually as thinking, feeling beings. I don’t pretend to understand this. But it is virtually sure that he believed it, and I follow suit. Your friends and family, and yourselves, can’t “wink out”. It’s not in the metaphysics of Joseph’s universe. This, by the way, is a remarkable bit of discursion grounded in his revelations.
2. Earthly affections have a heavenly component. This too is remarkable. Indeed, Joseph’s whole theological corpus is remarkable for taking the mundane and elevating it to the divine. Or, from his own point of view, seeing the imprint of the heavenly on the mundane. Since personality is eternal, so are much of its component parts as we see them. Embedded here is the doctrine of temple. Familial loving relationships are extensible beyond death. Not a comfortable thought for some, but for Mormons and their ilk, it feels right, it feels blessed. At least it does to me. I look forward to a reunion, whatever its form.
3. Resurrection. Embodiment is one of Joseph’s favorite themes. What is such a body? He never gives us scientific precision. But he does give us experiential insight: “strike hands with my father,” “embrace my friend,” “I saw them [in vision] rise up,” etc., etc. Though it didn’t make it into the “articles of faith” it was a pillar of Mormonism as he saw it. And of course, all that goes with it in the Christian didacticism of the atoning, saving, loving, God. Indeed, many have argued that this is the focus of the Book of Mormon– which may be viewed as the funeral sermon of a people. In this lies a primary meaning of the holiday we celebrate this week, whether you are “Christian” or not. Whether you see it from academic distance, or fervent belief.
4. Live by the direction of God. For Joseph, this included scripture, and the immediate, invasive, exciting, brillant, soothing and sometimes dreadful, revelation of heaven. He saw (and his long-time cohorts experienced it) the two as utterly compatible. Many of his fellow Protestants felt understandably threatened by this and got out their bibles and pulpits (yes, and sometimes torches) to rebut. Joseph’s interpretation of the parable of the virgins gives us some insight into Mormonism’s works doctrine. It may be summarized by the opening sentence. The oil in the lamps was the accumulated revelation of the Holy Spirit.
5. Magnify your “calling.” I don’t think Joseph would have meant this in the formal sense particularly. Although that was a necessary part of the injunction, it was not sufficient. The idea is easily placed in the context of the “parable of talents.” Take what God has given, and use it to maximum goodness effect.
6. Finally, Joseph clearly placed the idea of friendship and charity high on his list of principles for living. He valued even the smallest bit of good will. Joseph was capable of warfare. His anger could sometimes be ferocious. Joseph was no Christ, and placed himself far from that, despite a sometimes healthy ego. But he was a loyal friend, and a willing servant. Kindness was a hallmark of his nature for those who recalled personal interaction with him. His sermon for James Adams illustrates this. The administration of comfort within the context of the journeys, and seemingly commandment-driven hardship that was Mormonism was clearly a passion for him.
One may organize the first three of the six under the rubric of faith, the second group under “works.” Or, if you prefer, dying and living (though I think all of them apply in some sense to both categories). Some might quibble with this but I think argument can be marshaled for it.
Finally, for Joseph, all this falls naturally and fundamentally into place as Christian doctrine. It’s definitely an unusual characterization, and these six principles certainly don’t measure the whole ground. But I like them. I find them fundamentally useful and full of comfort, and for me at least, they are Divine.
Thanks, Joseph. And come Wednesday, Happy 204th. If a happy outcome awaits after my own funeral, I hope you’ll let me “strike hands.”
And for Heaven’s sake. Somebody preach me a good one!
A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you!