Saturday, December 8, 2012

Sunday School Lesson: Ether - History and Faith

We covered the last half of Ether today.

1) We went back to Chapter 1 to start the lesson and looked at the lineage verses that trace the leadership of the people. I showed them that there are about 25 named "sons" and three other points where the people named are "descendants". I told them that we have absolutely no idea how many generations got skipped with the use of "descendants" - that it might have been as many as 1,000 years or more, given the average length of time covered in a typical generation. I pointed out again that the rest of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Ether are VERY different records. We listed all of the named writers in the Book of Mormon and ended up with around 20; I mentioned that Ether and Moroni are the only named writers in the Book of Ether. We talked about having a fairly thorough "religious history" of the "Nephites" but only a tightly-focused "dynastic history" of the Jaredites. I mentioned that thinking of the Book of Ether as a traditional history of all of the descendants of Jared, his brother and their friends would be like reading a history of the US Presidents while they served in Washington, DC and thinking it was a history of the American people - but one of the students gave a different example. He said it would be like reading a history of the English monarchy successions or the changing of German rulers and thinking it was a history of the European people. Given the general length of time being discussed and the way some of those changes occurred, Europe is a much better example than America.

2) We read the chapter headings from 7-11 and established that 3,000 years or more could be summarized in the following way:

"People fought for control of the kingdom from the beginning of the kingdom to the end of it. Control of the kingdom changed constantly, with some kings being killed and others being held captive."

I pointed out that, from strictly a standpoint of military control tactics, holding a former king captive and allowing him to have children and grandchildren in captivity is stupid - but it fits perfectly other historical records we have of the cultural practices of political intrigue and rule that occurred in some ancient societies, especially those from the same general area from which I believe the Jaredites originated.

3) We read quite a few verses from Chapter 12, and we focused on faith, repentance and human weakness.

a) I asked why witnesses only come after trials of faith - and why it is important that they only come then. One of my students said it was because of the definition of faith itself - believing in something for which we hope but can't see. He said that getting a witness without having to exercise faith would eliminate faith itself.

We talked about a specific, simple example - of believing there was a room next to the one in which our class meets without ever having seen it. I asked what I would have to do in order to receive a "witness" that my belief was correct. A student said, "Buy some explosives." I nodded and added, "or do something else to break through the wall and actually see whether or not there was a room." I said that doing what it took to see something previously unseen is the "trial" - and that we can't expect to see the currently unseeable unless we are willing to walk the talk, so to speak, and take the journey we believe will lead to what we want to see - that it's not God trying our faith in some magical way as much as us putting our faith to the test and living in a way that we believe will bring what we desire.

b) We read the verse that says the people didn't believe the wonderful things Ether prophesied. I had the student re-read the verses that explained what Ether prophesied and asked them why the people might not have believed it - and I asked them to think about the chapter headings we had read from the previous chapters while they thought about why the people couldn't believe Ether.

Ether said the people could avoid destruction, be sure and steadfast, have hope for a better world, abound in good works, etc. When I asked again why the people might not have been able to believe Ether, one of the students said, "Those things hadn't been part of their history for thousands of years. They had never seen any of those things, so they didn't believe they were possible." I asked one of the students point-blank if it would be easy to accept it if I listed specific things with which he struggles mightily - really deeply ingrained inclinations or characteristics - and told him he could change and be a totally different person than the person he sees when he looks at himself. He said it wouldn't be easy at all - that it would be very hard.

I told them that it is easy to read the scriptures and judge or even condemn people who are described as making bad choices or as lacking faith, but it's important to fight that tendency - that we have to try to learn what lessons we can from their lives while not judging them in any way, since we have no idea how hard it might have been for them and since we believe the Atonement pays for all natural transgressions and weaknesses we didn't choose intentionally and consciously.

c) That led directly to verses 23-26, in which Ether laments the weakness of his writing and his inability to write powerfully due to the "awkwardness of our hands" and how he feared that the Gentiles would mock him as a result. We talked about what that phrase might mean in detail. The Bishop mentioned that it can be really hard to take what's in our minds and put it into words on a page; one of the students mentioned the difficulty of engraving words on plates and stone tablets; I mentioned how hard it is for Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard to shoot free throws, since their hands are so huge (like the students trying to shoot free throws with a baseball). I emphasized that Ether had to let go of that fear and have faith that the words would be powerful somehow to those who would read them - that the words would NOT be powerful if Ether let his recognition of a weakness keep him from writing the words - that the "trial of his faith" in that regard was doing what it says in verse 27 - relying on the Lord to make his weakness strength somehow, even if he personally couldn't see how it could be done.

d) I finished by talking once again about the danger of taking individual verses and passages out of context and quoting them in isolation. I talked briefly about repentance in many cases being nothing more than believing in a hope enough to make the necessary changes do what it takes to make the unseen visible and how the people didn't see what Ether saw because they didn't believe it was possible and, therefore, didn't try to make it happen. I showed them how Chapter 12 teaches an integrated lesson about faith, repentance and atonement, with an actual case study imbedded in it, but that we can miss that full lesson if we isolate verses 6 and 27 and treat those "scripture mastery scriptures" as the only important parts of the chapter.

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