You know who I feel sorry for? Uzzah from the Old Testament who steadied the Ark of the Covenant (no good deed goes unpunished).
In ancient Israel, during King David's reign, Uzzah "put forth his hand to hold the ark; for the oxen stumbled" (1 Chronicles 13:9).
The Lord smote Uzzah and he died (but really, blame the clumsy oxen).
I think it's safe to assume Uzzah was an important person since he was entrusted with transporting the Ark of the Covenant (you don't let just-anybody drive the cart carrying the Lord's precious cargo; I can see the bumper sticker: "Cherubs On Board").
You may think the death penalty for something as minor as steadying the ark was a bit harsh (then again, we're talking about the law of Moses where you could be stoned for gathering firewood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36) ― especially when we consider Uzza's motives were well-intended. Would I have done the same? After all, nobody wants to see the ark tumble out of the wagon onto the interstate, dumping its contents of manna and rods and stone tablets and denting the angels' wings ("I know a guy who can buff that right out").
But you know the rules: only Levites could carry the ark and others were forbidden: "They shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die" (Numbers 4:15).
So what does this have to do with us? Well, the idea of "steadying the ark" has become a sort of urban legend ― a scary tale we tell our children at bedtime to caution them against questioning the way things are done in the Church.
And it's effective: just a nip of children's Tylenol, a bit of warm milk, and a terrifying tale about a vivid shaft of lightning coming to kill you if you complain. A winning combination!
"Today there are those who fear the ark is tottering and presume to steady its course. There are those who are sure that women are not being treated fairly in the Church, those who would extend some unauthorized blessing, or those who would change the established doctrines of the Church. These are ark-steadiers."
Oh dear; am I an ark-steadier? I toss-and-turn like a toddler in his Snoopy sheets, tucked in my bassinet so tightly I can barely breath, watching the mobile above my head circle endlessly. The official narrative, you see, is to get us to close our eyes and go to sleep; let the leaders take care of things.
And so we drift off to sleep, riding along on the dreamy cart with the ark tucked safely in the back, without a worry in the world ― untroubled by those nasty potholes up ahead.
But does that interpretation withstand scrutiny?
"Make Moses Great Again!"
What's the point of being "anxiously engaged" in good causes if the Church itself is off-limits?
It's like the Brethren are saying, "Go and make the world a better place: but not here ― not at Church where you spend half your lives. Hands-off the Church. The rest is fine, but do you see the NO TRESPASSING signs we've posted on the rusty barbed-wire fence around our prerogative? We recently electrified the fence, too ― concerned for your safety, of course, because we don't want you to contract tetanus."
Well, the Doctrine and Covenants weighs in on the matter in Section 85:
While that man, who was called of God and appointed, [Oh, oh, oh: so we're NOT talking about lay-members after all. This was a warning to those who were "called and appointed" ― which means it applies to the leaders, not the members] that putteth forth his hand to steady the ark of God, shall fall by the shaft of death, like as a tree that is smitten by the vivid shaft of lightning.
The point I want to make is that we have misused this metaphor by turning it on its head, giving it the opposite meaning than what the Lord intended. Why did we do that?
Not convinced? Take a look at this quote by Joseph Smith who personally interpreted it for us (how convenient). Joseph provided the earliest commentary we have, reported on January 1, 1834 by Oliver Cowdery in a letter to John Whitmer, specifically addressing the "steadying the ark" revelation (now D&C 85) and what it meant:
"Brother Joseph says, that the item in his letter that says, that the man that is called &c. and puts forth his hand to steady the ark of God, does not mean that any had at the time, but it was given for a caution to those in high standing to beware, lest they should fall by the vivid shaft of death as the Lord had said."
(Letter, Oliver Cowdery to John Whitmer, January 1, 1834, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.)
According to Joseph, who was the warning for? "Those in high standing."
Okay, does that refer to the nibbling, hungry waifs who sit under the table hoping for scraps? To us? Nope. So we can relax, because you and I can't steady the ark. Only the leadership can.
Summer School for the Prophets
It never ceases to amaze me how we can take things out of context to serve the interests of the establishment. A classic example of this is the Joseph Smith quote that says:
"That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly that that man is in the high road to apostacy." (History of the Church, 3:385).
Have you heard this quote before? I bet you have: its fingerprints are all over the official curriculum (you'd think they'd wear gloves to better cover their tracks; but no, they don't seem worried). Are you curious how the Church interprets this statement? Look:
"Joseph Smith taught the importance of sustaining our Church leaders." (Chapter 27, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith.)
Ah, I see; the Church is saying Joseph didn't want us finding fault with the Brethren and was telling us to not criticize them. Is that right?
Umm . . . it's actually the exact opposite. Joseph spoke these words directly to the Twelve Apostles; he was telling THEM to not find fault with "the Church." (That's us.)
Not convinced? Here's the historical introduction from The Joseph Smith Papers for the quote:
"JS and his counselors in the First Presidency went to the home of apostle Brigham Young in Montrose, Iowa Territory, where the presidency met with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the apostles’ wives, and members of the Quorums of the Seventy. This meeting was one of several convened to instruct the apostles."
So Joseph was conducting a Leadership Training; he wasn't talking about you and me; he was addressing the Twelve, instructing THEM to stop fault-finding.
Just to calm our minds on the matter, we read in Joseph's journal for the occasion that Joseph wanted the leadership to "guard against self-righteousness and self-importance."Id. (Was ego a problem among the Twelve then? Is it now?)
Well, the rest is history. The quote was turned inside-out and has imbedded itself in the Church's collective consciousness, being used to bludgeon the original meaning of what Joseph intended. I can't make this up!
In the same way, the Church uses the story about Uzzah steadying the ark to silence criticism of leadership, to disenfranchise common consent, and to clip grassroot efforts to build Zion ― when in fact, all along, it was a warning to leaders to not trust in their own wisdom or to get in the Lord's way by mangling the affairs of the Kingdom.
(Why are members always getting the bum rap?)
Is It Time to Steady the Ark?
Why do we fill Church curriculum with lessons about sustaining our leaders and with things like "dress modestly" ― as if the most pressing issue on the Lord's mind was whether women have exposed shoulders?
Why is our faith stuck in the past, living as if it were still 1200 B.C.? Why does the Church want us all to be like Joshua lifting Moses' hands while battling the Amalekites instead of lifting our eyes to Christ?
God is standing beside us with a firehose of light and knowledge and truth and we want to turn off the spigot, setting fires and quibbling over coffee and caffeine?
Recently I read online a post from a reddit user which explains our predicament:
"One summer we went to Utah with our son to visit BYU, thinking one day he might go there. We went to Deseret Towers, which is where I lived as a student. I was full of nostalgia. My [Catholic] wife was impressed. Our kid was delighted at the fare offered at the Morris Center cafeteria.
"As we were preparing to have lunch there, a BYU employee came up and tapped my wife on the shoulder and told her she would have to leave because she was wearing a sleeveless shirt!
"It was such a humiliating moment for all of us, disorienting and anti-climactic. We all skulked out of the Morris center and that was the end of our visit to BYU. Definitely the end of my kid’s interest in going there, and definitely the end of my wife’s willingness to entertain the idea of being Mormon.
"Ironically, my wife is such a conservative and modest woman. For her to be humiliated like that in front of our kid is something she has never forgotten."
Which is more important: a shoulder or a soul?
[December 2022: Church Magazines Give Mary a Lesson in Modesty. The Church photoshopped this painting of Mary (above) to remove her cleavage.
In response, the Church's Scripture Committee revised the King James Bible to now read: "Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the [bottle] which thou hast sucked" (Luke 11:27).
LDS Spokesperson goes on record and says the Church has no official position on whether Jesus was breast-fed, but Church members are now encouraged to use the term "fed pursuant to the mammary gland method" to avoid too-frequent mention of Mary's décolletage.]
"Keep the Commandments?"
Does preaching obedience to commandments produce a change of heart? Does shaming people improve their behavior? Then why do we shun wayward souls, thinking our disapproval will motivate them to repent?
Don't let the irony escape you: we think shoving "the law" in others' faces will produce life (when Paul told us it produces death) as if we were scripturally illiterate?
Here's the point: Preaching the gospel is the opposite of preaching the commandments (the law). That was Paul's whole message: we don't come unto Christ by obedience to the law, but through faith in Him. The gospel Paul preached was about Christ freeing us from the law, not yoking us to it.
Have we forgotten that Christ came, not to condemn the world, but to save it? Will we go on deluding ourselves by thinking our religious rigidity makes us licensed physicians to heal sick sinners, when we're just placebo-pill pushers snorting cocaine from a razor blade's edge that we've imagined to be God's own two-edged sword?
Case in point: My young daughter came to me the other night as I was watching a cooking show on TV in my bedroom; she saw on the television that one of the chefs had a sleeve of tattoos covering his arm. She said, "Daddy, can you go to heaven if you have tattoos?"
I nearly fell out of bed. I assure you she didn't pick that up from me; so where would my daughter learn to think that way?
Oh yes: at Church, from her teachers; from ward leadership at "Standards Night."
"Honey," I said. "Of course you can go to heaven with tattoos! Christ has engraved us on the palms of his hands. Maybe one day I'll get one of your name, written on my heart, because I love you so much."
She hopped away happily, but I was left wondering, when did we start measuring a person's worth to be proportional to their ability to "keep the commandments"?