Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Deliverance and Captivity

A few weeks after moving to Wisconsin long ago, Canadian geese flew over my home and woke me up in time to get our family up and off to Church on a Sunday morning when I had failed to set my alarm properly. It was our first Stake Conference in Wisconsin. We arrived about 10 minutes early. As I walked in the door, I was greeted and given a program for the meeting. I tossed out a little joke to a nearby Stake leader (I think it was the Stake President) as I took the program: "I always like to check these to see if I'm speaking." As I opened the program, I saw my name printed as one of the speakers. Surprised but not flustered, I checked on the recommended theme with the Stake President.

I was grateful for each of the extra 10 minutes I had to prepare. I was also grateful for the geese! Showing up 10 minutes late, as might have happened without their unusual assistance, could have been unpleasantly embarrassing and may have left me unnecessarily irritated at my some wonderful leaders who somehow forgot to call me about the talk. I felt like the talk turned out O.K. and was grateful for the experience.

I've learned to enjoy giving talks on the fly and don't mind filling in, though I'm usually happier with my talks when I've got a few days to think them over. But sometimes the on-the-fly talks come with some pleasant surprises of their own, as I experienced on a recent Sunday when I reflected upon that distant Wisconsin experience as I scrambled to prepare something.

I was sitting on the stand as a visitor from the District in a local branch's sacrament meeting, when the Branch President asked me to fill in for a speaker. The recommended theme was Easter. As I pondered the role of Christ and the meaning of Easter, I chose to focus on deliverance from captivity. For this theme, I love how the Book of Mormon emphasizes the deliverance that Christ brings, so I picked a couple of passages from that volume.

I also recalled a book I had read about an LDS man who became a prisoner of war in World War II, A Distant Prayer, but couldn't remember the name of the author. I wanted to say something more specific about it, so, recalling that I had mentioned it in a blog post on Mormanity, I had just enough time to access my ExpressVPN service on my cell phone to pull up Mormanity and find the post. Ah, it even had an excerpt. I read it quickly and had it ready to use in my talk, if time permitted.

After introducing the theme of captivity, I discussed the many forms of captivity people can face. Even in the midst of apparent freedom, as we enjoy to a surprisingly high degree in China, there are people in deep captivity. It may be the captivity that comes through an addiction or through the sense of being trapped in an unhealthy and harmful relationship. Financial burdens and debt can create captivity. Sometimes physical challenges and other barriers can make people feel trapped. There are many forces and pressures around us and within us which can threaten our liberty. For all of us, in various degrees of captivity, there is hope through the Atonement of Christ.

I mentioned how deliverance from captivity is a major Book of Mormon theme. I mentioned the Book of Mosiah, which is filled with stories of captivity and deliverance. I pointed out that even the name Mosiah is a perfect name to use for that book because it appears to be the Hebrew word mosiach which can mean deliverer (see John Welch, "What Was a 'Mosiah'?").

But for my favorite Book of Mormon passage on deliverance, I discussed Alma 36. I began with verses 1 and 2 which refer to "remembering the captivity of our fathers" who were in bondage, and none could deliver them except God. Then I jumped to end of the chapter, to verses 28-30, where we read of how God delivered their fathers out of Egypt and bondage, and had delivered them from bondage and captivity from time to time, where we again are told to retain in remembrance the captivity of our fathers, mirroring the admonishment at the beginning. In fact, I pointed out how the whole chapter is arranged in a mirror image, with concepts at the beginning reflected in reverse order at the end, with a complex and poetic structure known in ancient Hebraic poetry, which we call chiasmus, after the Greek letter chi, which is shaped like an X showing a top and bottom sections that are mirror images of each other, reflected about a central point that is often given special emphasis in a Hebraic chiasm. This chapter, this poem, in Alma 36 tells the story of Alma's captivity. Not captivity in prison, but captivity to sin and the pains of hell. As he faced his guilt and recognized the horror of his sin in having fought against God, he fell into three days of anguish where he experienced "the pains of a damned soul." But his description of his pain mirror the description of his joy once he finds deliverance and forgiveness, which occurs at the central pivot point of this chapter. In verses 17 and 18, as he suffers, he recalls having heard of "one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world," and he then turns to Christ, crying in his heart: "O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me…" and swiftly finds deliverance, remembering his sins no more and instead of pain, anguish, and terror at the thought of facing God, he finds joy and yearns for His presence. He found deliverance from sin and death through Christ, as can we, no matter how much despair our current captivity brings, no matter how challenging our current situation seems.

At this point, I felt like I needed to add the story of Joseph Banks and his deliverance detailed in A Distant Prayer. I mentioned that this gives his actual story of years of captivity, painful and difficult, but filled with blessings and even miracles to help him survive and cope, and ultimately find freedom. There is much we can learn from his lesson.

At the beginning of his story, he miraculously survives being shot down over Germany. Actually, he wasn't shot down--his plane was accidentally blown up by a fellow B-17 that dropped its bombs on his plane after that other plane took a hit on an engine that slowed it down as it started to release its bombs. Brother Banks was knocked unconscious for a while after the first bomb struck his plane. He describes what happens as he regained consciousness:

[I]t took me a few moments to figure out what was going on. . . . I found myself in a tubular section of the fuselage that was open on both ends, spinning in the air as we fell towards the ground four miles below. . . . I was relieved to feel that my parachute was in place, but I couldn't use it because I was stuck against the wall of the fuselage, held there by the centrifugal force. . . . I couldn't get out. I'd try to get up only to be forced back against the wall. In desperation I looked down and saw one of my crewmates lying next to me. I reached out and touched him, but he didn't move. Apparently the explosion had killed him. I knew that I had to muster every ounce of energy I had or I would go down to my death in that section of the aircraft. I tried several times, but to no avail. I was just too weak to pull free, and so the only thing I could do was pray. I asked the Lord to please help me get out somehow. I said it out loud, the words choking in my throat, but He heard me anyway.
At this point I realized his story was more appropriate for my talk than I had realized. Suddenly I was deeply touched by the image of an airman being pinned by powerful forces in a wrecked plane as it was spinning wildly out of control, plummeting toward the earth. He wanted to move, to escape, to get out and jump for freedom and use his parachute, but he was pinned, unable to move. I realized at that moment that the same can happen in our lives in situations where we feel we are spinning out of control and unable to escape. Sometimes the forces pinning us down are simply too great for us to overcome--one our own. For Joseph Banks and for us, there is still one source of deliverance. He turned to God, as we must. And God heard his prayer for help. He explains what happened next:
Suddenly, as clear and as clam as if she was standing right next to me in the living room of our home, I heard the voice of my wife Afton say, "Joe, look down at your legs and you'll see that there's cable holding them. Pull the cable!" That's all she said. I looked around, but couldn't see anyone. Even though I was stunned, I looked down and sure enough there was a cable lying across my legs. I reached down and pulled it with all my might. At first nothing happened, but then I was suddenly sucked out of the fuselage and started freefalling. I later learned that the cable was attached to two pins that held an escape hatch door. When I pulled them loose, the door separated from the fuselage. Talk about incredible. It probably took a second or two for me to get over the shock of being hit by the wind, but then I realized that I was falling backwards through space.
Yes, his parachute worked, allowing him to land in enemy territory. where angry villagers surrounded him and probably would have killed him if a couple of German guards - also not especially nice - had not taken him away for interrogation. This was just the beginning of his troubles and the beginning of the miracles he would experience before finding deliverance from captivity in Germany.

I love that story, and felt like it added an important dimension to my talk. It was a pleasant surprise for me as I read it and applied it.

Our deliverance from the challenges we face may also take a great deal of patience, but we can find deliverance from sin quickly as we turn fully to Christ.

I closed by sharing my personal conviction and witness that Jesus is the Christ, our Savior, Redeemer. He is the Messiah and the Mosiach, source of deliverance. May we have faith in Him and trust in the power of His Redemption and deliverance.

10 comments:

Orbiting Kolob said...

Interesting post, Jeff, and one that touches on one of my favorite subjects. (Also, I sympathize with the situation of the "last minute talk.")

The "captivity" theme has deep roots in our culture, partly because of our Puritan heritage -- the Separatists identified strongly with the ancient Jews and, long before Joseph Smith and the Mormons, saw themselves as founders of a new Zion -- and partly because of the actual historical experience of New World slaves.

IMHO, some of our greatest art springs from the Jewish historical experiences of captivity in Egypt (the Exodus story) and Babylon (Psalm 137) and their echoes in New World historical experience.

Thus we have such brilliant works as the Negro Spiritual "Go Down Moses," the reggae adaptation of Psalm 137, "By The Rivers of Babylon," and Mary Rowlandson's Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.

The latter appeared in 1682 and became the first colonial American best-seller. The "captivity narrative" went on to become a very popular genre that often featured a virtuous white woman imperiled by dark-skinned savages, and thus is at least partly responsible for introducing our culture to the titillating combination of sex and violence. (Thank you, Puritans!)

FWIW, the Mormon historical experience, at least so far, is not one of captivity and return, but one of exile. I'm not sure what to make of how Mormonism has handled this experience. For the Jews, the Promised Land was, of course, Israel/Zion. From captivity in Egypt, God led the Jews back to Zion. From their second captivity in Babylon, God (or if you prefer, Cyrus) once again returned them to Zion. Later it's the Romans and the Jewish Diaspora; the Jews are in exile until the reconstitution of Israel in 1948. The pattern is captivity/exile and return, again and again.

Compare the Mormon historical experience. Soon after deciding that the New Zion was in Missouri, the Mormons were exiled -- first to Nauvoo, then to Utah. In one sense, the Mormons are even today in exile, yet that's not how Mormonism seems to treat the situation. It's hard to think of Utah as Babylon; the Mormons have basically transformed it into Zion and more or less deleted Missouri from their cultural imagination.

It's rather as if the Jews had decided to forget Israel and build up a new Jewish homeland in Babylon. Pragmatically speaking, that might have been a good decision (but would have denied us Psalm 137).

I understand that Mormonism still retains the idea of an eventual return to Missouri, but not with anything approaching the persistent and intense yearning of the Jews. There is no Mormon equivalent to the Jewish mantra, "Next year in Jerusalem."

Orbiting Kolob said...

P.S. I'm something of an evangelist for Mary Rowlandson, and thought you wouldn't mind my taking this opportunity to whet everyone's appetite for her 1682 Narrative of the Captivity. It's still an exciting read today -- heartfelt, fast-paced, and vivid in detail (when not downright graphic). Here's the opening:

On the tenth of February 1675, came the Indians with great numbers upon Lancaster: their first coming was about sunrising; hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out; several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven. There were five persons taken in one house; the father, and the mother and a sucking child, they knocked on the head; the other two they took and carried away alive. There were two others, who being out of their garrison upon some occasion were set upon; one was knocked on the head, the other escaped; another there was who running along was shot and wounded, and fell down; he begged of them his life, promising them money (as they told me) but they would not hearken to him but knocked him in head, and stripped him naked, and split open his bowels....

Jules said...

Nice blog post, Jeff, and nice comments, O.K.

The Book of Mormon has several recurring themes, which is one of the reasons I see it as ahistorical.It's a story woven around familiar Christian themes. Real history defies neat thematic presentation.

Anonymous said...

Nice commentaries, OK.

Jules, as a believer, I prefer (of course) to view the Book of Mormon as historical with its chief editor, Mormon, plucking the Christian themes out of the thousand year history.

Steve

Jules said...

Of course you do. Believers think that not only is history correlated, it is correlatable.

James Anglin said...

That sounds like a pretty good talk, especially for short notice. Some kinds of talks just need a fair bit of preparation, but some kinds are maybe even better without much preparation, I think.

Anonymous said...

The Narrative of the Captivity is relative to the article because........? Has nothing to do with anything.

Orbiting Kolob said...

The Narrative of the Captivity is relative to the article because........?

Good grief -- how is an American classic on the theme of captivity not related to a post about "the theme of captivity"?

bearyb said...

Jeff,

I liked this post. But something you said triggered a memory.

Years ago I read an article in the Ensign that related a story about a woman's continuing grief and sorrow about something she had done in the past. She was familiar with Alma's conversion story and had gone through the steps of repentance, but continued to be bothered by the fact that she could still recall what she had done. She thought that if she had been truly forgiven she shouldn't be able to remember it.

She met with her bishop (as I recall), who pointed out that she had likely misread verse 19 of Alma 36, where it does NOT say he didn't remember his sins, but that he no longer remembered his pains - that he was no longer "harrowed up" by the memory of what he had done.

You had mentioned that Alma no longer remembered his sins. I think the actual language used in the verse makes an important distinction and can be a great comfort for those who have repented but continue to be bothered by the simple fact that they remember their past mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jeff. Br. Banks experiences struck me particularly since my dad was also a B-17 pilot. I treasure the connections you made in your talk.

Mark Steele