Understanding Questions, the United Firm, and Service (Doctrine & Covenants 77-80)

Monday, July 12, 2021


Channing: [00:00:00] This is The Faithful Feminists podcast 

Elise: [00:00:14] But this is not just any come follow me podcast. We do things a little differently here. We offer approachable feminist interpretations of the come follow me manual for those who want to study and understand the scriptures in a framework of equality, social justice, and sisterhood. We are here to show you all the really good ways faith and feminism work together to illuminate and deepen the gospel experience. 

Channing: [00:00:38] We saved you a seat on the soft chairs. So join us today for a conversation about doctrine and covenants, section 77 through 80 for the dates, July 12th through the 18th.
We're so glad you're here.

Elise: [00:01:02] Welcome back everyone! In these sections, we get kind of like a sneak peek into some of the talk about official church business. That includes things like publishing and printing revelations, also purchasing land and building up the storehouse. And in today's episode, we'll spend time talking about asking good questions, service, and spending some cold, hard cash.

I think if we go ahead and start in section 77, this was the section that feels really distinct and different from the rest of the sections. Mostly because it seems to be a Q and A, between Joseph and God, and Joseph goes back and forth and says, what are we to understand about this particular thing in this verse, as they're working on the translation of the Bible.

Channing: [00:01:52] Yeah. And it's not just like random sections of the Bible it's Revelations. And for anyone who has read the book of revelations, things can get kind of wild in there. So Joseph Smith had lots of questions about like three headed beasts and people eating books and a little, all kinds of stuff that we don't normally encounter in the script.

Elise: [00:02:17] And I think for that exact reason, I was hesitant to actually like the section, but it seems to be a section that stood out to both you and I maybe, not necessarily because we want to know about the three-headed beasts or people eating books, that the specific content isn't what stood out to us. But I think the process of asking questions is what stood out to us.

I hope that one of the things that you've picked up on from the podcast, if you've listened to us for a while, is that we're not afraid of questions. Sometimes we even have whole episodes without a lot of answers and just a lot of questions. And I think that as humans who find themselves and make sense of the world and understand themselves in language, we're always asking questions and seeking for understanding.

We ask questions to find out, to figure out, to make sense and make meaning out of all of this, I'm waving my hands in the air. Like all of this world, we ask questions because we can't help but not ask, asking questions, allows us to deepen our understanding and figure out our place in the world. And sometimes what comes from each question is not always hard and fast answers, but instead open-ended responses that invite new interpretations, which then lead to new questions.

Can you see this like circle starting to form here? There's a question and a response and an interpretation that leads to a new question and new and a new response and a new interpretation. And yeah, of course the circle isn't always that clean and that straightforward. And oftentimes these things happen all at once, but either way, we're always already caught up in the act of questioning and in the art of interpretation along the same line of thinking philosopher and author, John D Caputo writes, “Jesus is not the answer, but the place of the question.” And from there, my follow-up question would be what would this mean and look like for us?

What happens when we look to Jesus for the end-all be-all capital T and always correct right answer and what we find instead are more questions? What happens if I go looking for Jesus and ask, who are you? And instead of a definitive answer, I get even more questions about what is love, what does it mean to be radical?

And even Jesus asks his own question from Matthew chapter 16, verse 15. “Who do men say that I am,” which is to say, who do you think that I am? 

Channing: [00:04:53] Those questions are really telling Elise. And I love that you've included a quote from Caputo here. I think that he illustrates this concept really well. He writes quote, “Contrary to the condensed wisdom of the bumper stickers, Jesus is not the answer, but the place of the question of an abyss that is opened up by the life and death of a man. By putting forgiveness before retribution threw all human accounting into confusion, utterly confounding the stockbrokers of the finite who always seek a balance of payments, which means who always want to settle a score.

Who is this man who counsels us to forgive, to give up what is ours? Who asks, who did the impossible. What does his life and death tell us about ourselves, including those among us, who, because of an accident of birth, have never heard his name? What is happening in and what is opened up by our memory of Jesus by the mystery of his unaccountable teaching of forgiveness, and who told us to be anew.

What is contained in our memory of Jesus that cannot be contained by all the accumulated prestige and power of the institutions and structures, the credo formula, and the theologies that dare to speak his name, what mysteries unfold there?”

Elise: [00:06:23] So gorgeous. And it just keeps unfolding and keeps expanding and keeps pushing us to ask new, better, and even more fitting questions.

I also think that the same thing could be said for the church, right? When we go looking to the church for the capital correct answer, I'm sure that we'll find a whole lot of people giving answers that are quite sure of themselves, but do these answers lead us on that circular path of questioning, deepening our understanding and a more radical openness toward others, or do these answers simply solidify what we thought to be correct and therefore shut down any other paths or avenues for new interpretations or questions? And at that point, if that's what happens, I think that we may need to find different responses and double check ourselves and say, are we asking not the right question, but instead, am I asking the most fitting question for the situation?

I think this is why I'm really excited by this section, because I think we can read it as a circular effort in interpretation. I think in a really generous reading, these questions and responses are more focused on understanding than about gaining the correct answer. In many of the verses, the each question will start “what are we to understand…?”

What are we to understand? What are we to understand? From there we can see these questions unfold and unfold and unfold endlessly. I'm sure our listeners can hear how excited I'm getting about this, but I also know that for many of us asking questions, especially when we've been raised or are a part of a church that encourages us that instead of asking questions of our own self for discovery and exploration, we might instead being encouraged to look towards leaders or members that are outside of ourself for correct answers so that we can kind of quiet the question.

So we don't always have to be in a state of questioning. So, what do you think Channing, in your own experience or just some ideas that you have, why do you think that we might be afraid of asking questions? Or seeking for more understanding?

Channing: [00:08:35] Yeah, I think I have two answers. There's one is like superficial, like closer to the surface and then one is deep.

So I'll give the easy one first. I think one reason is that we're kind of embarrassed, like to ask questions and not know, like, uh, I remember when I was a kid and my family had like a family home evening meeting and we talked about how to bear our testimonies. And in some way, I think my parents, like they gave us a hierarchy that said like, well, you might have faith, so you might hope something is true or you might feel something is true, or you might think something is true.

And like, at the very top, like the most beneficial tier, like the highest tier that you could possibly ever reach was knowing, like, I know…whatever follows the church of Jesus Christ is true. I know, you know, whatever. And so, and I, and I don't think that that's unique to just me, because I think that knowing in the church structure is really important to people, because I think it is kind of that hierarchy of like, okay, once you know, like, you're good, you don't have to worry about it or wonder about it or question about it anymore. Like you just know, and it's the easy answer to everything.

And I think, um, uh, on a deeper level, I think one of the reasons that we might be afraid to ask questions is because we're afraid of the responsibility of what we have to do when we get an answer. We're so used to following what someone else asks us or tells us as the right thing to do that. If we sit in and listen deep and question that, that we might actually find that the answer's different than what we expected, and it asks us to do different things and it can be really tough then to take responsibility for our own spirituality when it looks different or well, yeah, especially when it looks different from what we were told it was supposed to be. So those are my two answers, one easy one hard.

Elise: [00:10:46] But those are both perfect answers though. And I think mine kind of echo some of what you said, my thoughts, at least as it relates to the church is that I think we are really discouraged from asking too many questions because we're cautious that it might lead us astray.

Right? Like, so then we kind of stopped short of the questions that we should be asking the ones that are buried deep inside of us. The questions that keep us up at night. And instead we settle for questions with sure and certain answers so that we can feel safe and secure. Another reason I think that we might be fearful of asking questions is because what if there isn't an answer? What if we don't have an answer? And I’d just like to remind us all that while there may never be a 100% correct certain answer, there are responses that lead us to act and do something in the world.

And I think this is where our answers Channing connect really well, right. Having to take responsibility and accountability for what our questions call us to do or, and what the response is call us to do. So I think that this week we want to encourage you to embody the spirit and practice of this section by asking “what am I to understand” and see what comes up.

Let the questions unfold, let them unravel and lead you through the long winding path that always brings you back to yourself. 

Channing: [00:12:13] Hm that's so beautiful. And you know what? This whole conversation, it reminds me of a couple of weeks ago. Um, I was asked randomly to teach a relief society lesson and as I was preparing for the lesson, I kind of just felt prompted to do something totally new and totally different.
Because I am a yoga teacher, I enjoy providing space for people to explore their own bodies and explore their own experience. So we kind of did a small meditative slash contemplative practice for our relief society lesson, where I had everyone sit in a circle, I had them tune into their selves, listened to their breath, feel their feet on the floor, feel the way that their clothes touch their body and just watch how the breath moved inside of them.

And then I asked a series of questions, um, to kind of just encourage them to notice how their body reacted to each question or to each statement. And so kind of in that same spirit is how I'm feeling about this particular section. It's, it's an experience like asking questions.

It isn’t just, you know, sitting in a Sunday school class where somebody is like, Alrighty, like what is the first article of faith and you get just like the same questions over and over and over again with primary answers. And instead it's a practice of sitting with, um, sitting with ourselves and sitting with a deep question and allowing it to work within us and noticing what that process is in our body questions open up a connection with the divine that provide a clear receptive channel for communication. So as I go through and ask a couple of questions that were inspired by section 77, I'd love for you to listen in and look at the way the answers do or do not arrive to you. What images come to your mind? What smells or sounds arrived to you?

What do you see just outside your window? What do you remember? What, and how do you feel? Use all of your senses and be open to all the ways you might receive an answer. This is a time to listen in. It's not research time, not time to burn the midnight oil to hit the stacks of books. I'm totally guilty of this, but ultimately the goal here is a present, embodied, active listener.

And this can be really difficult at first, especially because women in the church have been taught to look just like you said, Elise, to outside authority before, or instead of trusting our own. But the more often you allow yourself to sink into your body and hear God speaking to you through you, the easier this process becomes.

So as I look at section 77 and see Joseph Smith ask a series of questions. I have my own questions and some of these I have asked for my own self and they all begin with, what am I to understand. Some questions we can ask with an intention to receive a specific answer or prompting or understand something about a certain topic questions.

Like what am I to understand about my role in white supremacy? What am I to understand about showing up authentically at church? What am I to understand about patriarchy in the church? What am I to understand about the law of consecration? What am I to understand about gender and sexuality fluidity?
What am I to understand about this or that conference talk? What am I to understand about my relationship with God? What am I to understand about the love of God? And sometimes we can also have questions that encourage, just to ask something a little bit more open-ended maybe without specific intention, that could be something like, what am I to understand about an experience that I've had in the past?

What am I to understand today? What am I to understand in this space? And these are all questions that you can ask that can lead you closer and deeper into a relationship with God. And I think ultimately we can trust in the example of asking questions and expect to receive an answer. It might not arrive to us in a way that we expect, it might not arrive to us with an answer that we expect.

But I do feel strongly that God is always speaking to us and all we need to do is learn the language. So as you go through this week, I encourage you to just momentarily every once in a while, just ask, what am I to understand and see what comes up for you. 

Elise: [00:17:39] From there if we move on to section 78, and this is where we learn about the United firm or this boys-only-club meant to help do some church business. The United firm was created to manage the storehouse and the publishing efforts of the church. And what we see in section 78 is that this primary language was, was updated just a little bit to talk more generally about caring for the people. The United firm was made up of nine men and I think it only lasted like two years before it went into severe debt and they had to disband.

And this is kind of a sad thread that runs through Joseph's life. Joseph is not very good with money and finances. And so a lot of these things go on. In this section, one of the verses that stuck out to me was verse four.

And according to verse four, the Lord wanted to advance the cause of salvation through the establishment of this firm. And as I was studying this section, I actually found a question that came from the seminary student manual. And the question asked, “what are some ways that money can be used to advance the cause of salvation?”

Because we see the United Firm that's really concerned with finances and the business part of the church, but also the Lord says that we can advance the cause of salvation through this firm. So before I even get to the question of like, “what are some ways that money can be used to advance the cause of salvation?” I think there is some background work that we have to do to clarify a few things. First, just a general note of caution that this question is not aligned to encourage a prosperity gospel. That is to say, equating faithful Christians with material and financial success as a faithfulness equals wealth and prosperity. That's not what this is.

A second note of caution is to, I think, watch the way that we think about those with and those without money and steer away from individual blame, which is to say. Which is to say, instead of viewing money and wealth potential as something that people have because they work hard for and something that others don't have because they did not, or do not work hard enough instead let's try and focus on some of the structural inequalities, such as the racial wealth gap that shows for example, The statistic that shows, for example, that the average white family's net worth is $171,000, which is almost 10 times as great as that, of the average black family, which is $17,150.

And I think that this statistic reminds us to move away from thinking that the wealth gap and poverty is simply an accumulation of poor decision-making, right? Like, well, you don't, you're not wealthy or you don't have money because you either haven't worked hard enough or you've just made bad decisions along the way.

And that statistic that I shared, and this next passage that Channing is going to read comes from an article by Charisse Conanan Johnson titled Intergenerational Wealth goes Beyond Money and Everyone Deserves to Pursue It. 

Channing: [00:20:58] Johnson writes “for many people in America, accumulating wealth is just not possible. Plenty of well-documented research forcefully concludes that America was set up to prevent certain communities from obtaining work. The out of balance discrepancies in opportunity and power stretched back to the very founding of this country where racial exploitation and profiteering were prioritized over equitable, prosperity, and growth. The ongoing wealth gap between Blacks and whites reveals a society that historically, and to this day, refuses to promote an inclusive and equitable economy for all.” 

Elise: [00:21:42] Thank you for reading that. And so with all of this background, I actually still think that the question, “what are some ways that money can be used to advance the cause of salvation” is a great question to ask, especially because it reminds us that earthly things like money and spiritual things like salvation are connected, dependent, and can be enacted in our present earthly life too.

I want to just share a few ideas that I pulled from doing some research from very various articles and also scanning Instagram through some posts that I found.

I think some of the ways that we can use money to advance the cause of salvation one, is to establish a universal, basic income that accounts for realistic, livable, thriveable wage. Another idea that comes from an article from Matt Brunig and they write, “we should redistribute wealth from the largely white 1% to the poor and working class of all races, tackling both racial and class inequality, simultaneous.”
Boom, fabulous idea. Maybe on a, even more personal individual or familial level, we might start changing the goals of our finances from, instead of thinking about amassing personal wealth and instead think about investing in community care like mutual aid groups, uh, and even particular groups with a focus on BIPOC individuals and community.

Channing: [00:23:14] I love those ideas. We can also take a look at our money and ask, where is it going? What companies do I support and what are their values and ethics, not just in writing, but also in practice. How can I make the switch to supporting and buying from Black or Indigenous owned businesses? Other ideas include setting up an automated monthly payment to an organization or donate to individuals to help with rent or groceries, et cetera.

And finally, we can move from a charity mindset to a solidarity mindset, right? Which is to say that we move from a worldview of have and have nots where we sprinkle a little bit of extra cash every now and then out of pity or guilt, and instead move to a practice of resisting domination and decentralizing power and resources by caring for one another in long-term, meaningful ways out of genuine love.

Elise: [00:24:14] Yes! I love all of that. A lot of these ideas were inspired from an Instagram post I saw that was called decolonizing your finances or something like that from Instagram handle, beboopimmadeofmetal. Oh my gosh. That's fantastic. We really liked that handle. So these are just a few ways that we can spend our money and spend our privilege to help bring about salvation, a.k.a. redistributing our wealth so that all can flourish.

Remember salvation is about justice and that also includes economic justice. And this is one way that we can enact it. Some of the verses I'm reminded of in this spirit is section 78, verse six: “If you're not equal in earthly things, you cannot be equal in heavenly things.” And also from earlier episodes, doctrine and covenants, section 51, verse three, “appoint unto this people their portions, everyone equal according to their family, according to their circumstances, wants, and needs.”

And a few other thoughts before we move onto a different section, remember that the United Firm actually didn't do great business. And so they had to go out of business. So how can we even learn from the mistakes of the United Firm and try and incorporate it into long-term longstanding solidarity? And finally remember that working toward economic justice will require us to give something up, but between all of us there's enough to share and there's enough for all to thrive. 

Channing: [00:25:44] Elise. I love this conversation too. I especially love the question that you asked, what can we do to learn from the mistakes of the United Firm and hearing you say that actually reminds me of an article that I read a couple of years ago, and this article is fascinating.

I highly recommend it to all of our listeners. It's called When Women Don’t Speak and it is written by someone at BYU thank the Lord, because I can quote this one with confidence.

This article largely focuses on the value and the opportunity for women to speak when they're in a group. And one of the most important findings from this article is that it showed that when women are a minority in a group, they actually get less speaking time and less opportunity to share. And then when they do get those opportunities their advice or their ideas are rarely acted on. And so when I understand that the United Firm was made out of nine men and no women and potentially no queer people, as far as we know it, obviously that group is getting a limited perspective on how to do business. Right. And so there's a really interesting excerpt from this article that I would love to share.

The author writes, “women's involvement changes group behavior and outcomes.” This article focuses on, um, study groups that were given a certain amount of money. And everyone in the group was to decide how this money was to be used. The author says “in the study, the groups chose how to divvy up money. Women could not influence a group's outcome unless there were a lot of them. And those groups reached very different conclusions. Groups with more women gave more generously to the people with the least, and the people in these groups reported feeling happier with their decisions,” and I feel like this is really like, this is research. Like this is really important to understand it's so necessary to have different perspectives when we're talking about a United Firm or a business or a church, because it shows that different perspectives will affect the outcome of decisions. And so when we're thinking in a broader sense, or if we're asking a question, what can we learn from the mistakes of the United Firm? Um, I think one answer would be include a diverse panel of people in charge. 

Elise: [00:28:23] Absolutely something to think about. Yeah. I love that. I'm so glad that you brought that up. We had to talk about that. 

Channing: [00:28:31] So with a nod and a love to the United Firm, we move on to section 80 and this section section 79 and section 80, actually both focus on missionary calls or people who are called to go out to serve.

And this is a very common theme in the doctrine and covenants we've come across it multiple times already. And I'm sure that this won't be the last, um, but the come follow me manual actually asks us to focus on verse three in section 80. This verse says, “wherefore, go ye and preach my gospel. Whether to the north or to the south, to the east or to the west. It mattereth not for you cannot go amiss.” So the come follow me manuals interpretation of this first is that the call to serve matters more than where we serve. And I really enjoyed and appreciated this concept actually, because it reminded me of a talk that I heard when I first moved into the ward that I'm in right now.

And it was given by a woman who in her talk, she was talking about how she had seen people on Facebook posting pictures from a mission trip that they went on. Um, I'm not sure where they went. Like it was probably to Africa or somewhere in South America. And she talked about feeling like, oh, well they got to do this big service activity and I got to do nothing.

Um, and as my own personal side note, like the mission trips to African or South American countries are definitely 100% like racist and problematic in their own way. I appreciated the way that she framed this experience because she talked to how she actually had a moment where she realized that maybe those trips to foreign countries to serve people were not actually the service that she was being called to do. Around the same time as she was preparing for this talk, she came to the realization that children in her community, children that attended the local elementary school, and those within her school district were suffering at disproportionate rates for food insecurity and in her talk, she shared her realizations that her efforts to serve were very needed locally right here.

Right where she lived right down there. And I really appreciated what she said, because I think that it points to the fact that the real work of service is rarely ever Instagram worthy. In fact, if it is Instagram worthy, we should probably be kind of suspicious of it. The call to serve matters more than where it happens.

And so, as I think about this and I think about like, okay, of course, like there's those big service opportunities that we think are going to make the biggest impact. But as I zoom in a little bit closer and I look at my own life, one of the questions that I wanted to ask our listeners and also ask you, Elise, is what are ways that you have seen real actionable service in your community?

Elise: [00:31:47] I like that question. And this is a small example, but for me it was such great service. One of the things that you've actually done for me is after our most beloved angel, best dog in the whole world passed away, you were kind of like, how can I, how can I like show up for you? I want to serve you. I want to love you. I want to care for you. And I think I just said, honestly, what I'd like for you to do is just give me space and not ask me about it and not talk to me about it and just let me be alone for a little while. And you did that for me. You literally did that for me. And that was one of the greatest, and that was one of the greatest moments of service and love that that I can think of right now.

Like, it was just exactly what I needed because I felt listened to, and I felt understood. And I think that's a big piece of it. Long lasting memorable service is not just jumping in and saying, oh, I think I know what you need so I'll just go ahead and do it. But instead, asking and waiting for me to respond so that you can serve or so that one can serve in the exact way that is needed in that moment. And you did that for me. 
Channing: [00:32:58] Oh I love you too. I'm like getting a little teary remembering that. Yeah, because I, I remember that being really hard for me, um, because you know me, I'm the kind of person who I'm like, I will show up to your house in 20 seconds with like freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

And you'll ask where the hell did you yeah, I would say, oh, I just made them right now and came over. And like, I would want to be there and like make you a cup of tea and like wrap you up in a blanket. And I remember when you said I just need some alone time. I was like, oh my gosh. Okay. Like, I, I trust you.
And I, I, I want to give that to you. And I remember there were times, um, where I felt like, oh, I hope that she's doing okay. I hope she knows I love her. I hope she knows that I care about her so much. Um, and I remember that being a really important lesson for me to learn in how to love someone in a way that they want to be loved rather than the way that I think that they need it.

And, um, I'm really grateful to have been able to like, have that experience with you. I learned something about myself and learned something about our relationship and ultimately learned something about service. Because I, I love that example. It's not always what we think is going to be the best. It's what they know is going to be the best.

So glad you brought that up, but yes, my examples are way less emotional. When I think about actionable service in my community I think of two things. I first I think about picking up litter, like garbage off the street, and this is something that I learned from Pattie Gonia on Instagram, and you can find them over at pattiegonia and they are a queer environmentalist, a professional homosexual, and a fetus drag queen.
And it is literally my favorite account on Instagram to follow. But Pattie frequently hosts litter pickup, and like gives away prizes for people who pick up litter and something that they pointed out is that most people don't pick up litter because they think that somebody else is going to do it.

They think that it's somebody else's job, that it's too gross or too below them to pick up litter. It is everybody's job to help keep the earth clean and picking up litter is a valuable service to the animals and the soil in our communities. And the second actionable service that I see in my community, it's my kid's elementary school often runs food drives for the children at that school and in the district.

And I have the privilege of working at their school last year. And during one of these food drives, I was so happy to see an entire quarter of a classroom was full of packets of oatmeal, microwaveable meals, fruit snacks, and granola bars, stacked from the floor all the way up to the ceiling by the end of the food drive.
And that was really powerful to, for me to see, especially knowing that my school is located in what is considered a lower income neighborhood. Like all these people showing up for the kids in their community. It's just fantastic. And I'm sure that these are just a few ideas that are hopefully spurring your own.

And I also hope that it's an encouragement instead of looking for glamorous ways to serve, look for quiet ways. You may find that you actually already do a lot of service. Childcare is a huge act of service, and it's rarely photogenic. Church callings is service. Some of our paid jobs may actually be considered a service.
So my question for section 80 and to end this episode is how can a call to service help you move your experience of the text out into the world? How will you serve someone?

Elise: [00:37:01] Friends, thank you so much for joining us on this episode. I didn't know that this was the direction it was going to take in its entirety, but it really seems like we are focusing on action in our present, earthly world here and now. And I'm really appreciative of that. It's nice to have these episodes to break up some of the episodes that are, that are a little bit heavier and maybe a little bit more in the mind zone and not necessarily in the like, lived experienced embodying.

Channing: [00:37:28] We love you so much, and we're incredibly grateful to have been able to spend this time with you this week. We look forward to hearing from you and until then, bye.

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