Brace yourselves, because I'm going to tell a J. Golden Kimball story. Like all folklore, this has several versions. Here's one.
One day Elder Kimball was waiting for a chance to cross the street near Temple Square. When he thought the coast was clear he stepped into the street, but at that moment a car whooshed by him, narrowly missing his leg. Shaking his fist at the retreating car he shouted “Damn you! Have you no respect for the priesthood?”
I'm going to approach the topic of priesthood by talking about respect, and about authority. Now there was a time when an idea of “respect for authority” was very important to me, but those days are gone. My growing respect for children of God has broken down my misplaced reverence for the authority they have a bad habit of presuming. At the same time though, my respect for the priesthood has strengthened, and in the next few minutes I'll try to explain this.
There is cause for confusion in the word “respect,” the first of several that I will dissect. The original Latin meaning – to look back – has grown several branches after being grafted into our mongrel tongue. In one sense it can mean treating someone partially – with exclusive favor, as a result of their wealth, class, ethnicity, credentials, whatever. The apostle James warned against this in his letter to the primitive Church. When Cornelius was converted, Peter had a vision that showed him that “God is no respecter of persons,” in other words, not one to show partiality. “All are alike unto God,” we read from Nephi. In Luke we read from Mary, mother of Jesus: “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.”
God is not impressed by whatever priesthood titles we claim either, as is clear in the final segment of Section 121, that essential text for proper priesthood conduct amplifying the words of Peter and James: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.”
It seems that for every abstract concept expressed by our language, there are pure and corrupt meanings. Someone recently wrote a definition of respect that covers a wide span, and rings true for me:
“To respect is to understand that the other person is not you, not an extension of you, not a reflection of you, not your toy, not your pet, not your product. In a relationship of respect, your task is to understand the other person as a unique individual and learn how to mesh your needs with his or hers . . . Your task is not to control the other person . . .”
In this sense I am satisfied that our Heavenly Father respects all of us quite deeply, particularly children. Let us never forget the special attention Jesus showed to them.
Modern revelations are quite clear about the Lord's respect for our agency. Alma the younger caught himself in a sinful wish to make everyone repent, which came from his commendable missionary zeal. I would never accuse him of unrighteous dominion, but he reminds us how easily even our love for others can erase our respect for them. He looked back and remembered that the choices other people made were not really his business: his business, and ours, is to perhaps bring a soul to repentance. Not to force a man to heaven, nor to demand that others recognize my right to their favor. You look again and see children of God for what they are: spirits which, in kinship with God, naturally wish to follow God's will. A true dominion is born from such respect, flowing “without compulsory means” from spirits who know that your love for them is stronger than death. For some, that takes a long time.
But this is available to all who will take the time to watch themselves as King Benjamin urged. You really can respect people even without feeling the slightest admiration toward them. In fact, does not admiration also lure us toward a corruption of true respect? Because to regard someone as an ideal figure denies their full dimensions as a fellow human being.
And of course, when we watch ourselves, we see also the sin in trying to control or impede another's life as revenge for hurting our feelings or not giving us what we want.
“Without compulsory means.” That phrase is one of my strongest anchors. William Blake wrote: “prisons are built with stones of law,” which you could parse as a powerful paraphrase of Paul: “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor 3:6). Compulsion spawns defiance as your hand casts a shadow in the light: much of what we call “discipline” is a fundamental insult to a spirit that comes, as another William, Wordsworth, wrote:
“from God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy” . . .
May God have mercy on us all.
If you grow up being “compelled in all things” (Section 58:26), with scant chance to develop beyond the role of slothful servant, it becomes very difficult to find out who you really are. The concept that command and comply is the bedrock of human society sets a course which, depending on your temperament, leads to a role of oppressor or oppressed – or both. You may come to believe that all your feelings are dependent on external approval, and then you will be ripe for the picking by con artists. I speak from experience, and that might help you understand the source of my own authority problem.
There is no shortage of people willing to tell you what they think you should do. But telling you “all things what ye should do” belongs to the words of Christ, given by the Holy Ghost, which, as Nephi reminds us, is a gift we all receive after baptism.
Questioning authority in fact has good scriptural precedent: “trust no one to be your teacher nor your minister,” says Alma, “except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments” (Mosiah 23:14). He said this to a group of people who had just fled from their kingdom after breaking the law of their sovereign. What's more, this sovereign operated under what, by all indicators, was a theocratic order. When he went against the principles of righteousness he didn't do away with priests, he “consecrated new ones . . . such as were lifted up in the pride of their hearts” (Mosiah 11:5). And most of the people, used to following a king as a religious authority, were “caught in a snare” (Mosiah 23:9). No wonder Alma did his best to deprogram the 450 who broke away: “stand fast in this liberty wherewith ye have been made free,” he said, “trust no man to be a king over you” (verse 13). Years later, king Mosiah the second dismantled the monarchy that had been in place for half a millennium, “that the burden should come upon all the people, that every man might bear his part. . . . Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins. ”
Joseph Smith had his own authority problems, so I count myself in good company. “It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul” he said, “civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race. Love of liberty was diffused into my soul by my grandfathers while they dandled me on their knees.” (Teachings: Joseph Smith, Chapter 29) And of course we have Captain Moroni's memorable letter to Pahoran: “we know not but what ye yourselves are seeking for authority . . . behold, I do not fear your power nor your authority, but it is my God whom I fear” (Alma 60:18, 28).
Authority, dominion, lordship, power, and related words: they all have histories, and they bear the scars of history. Throughout this web of interconnected meanings you'll find the same divergence between pure and corrupt. On the one hand, trust in the wisdom and goodwill of a respectful, exemplary elder; and on the other, the meddlesome impulse to despise or violate the agency of others.
You can follow a trail from the word “authority” through “author” and back to the Latin auctor, which, being interpreted, is "enlarger, founder, master, leader," literally "one who causes to grow,” cognate, in fact, with “augment.” While our “authority” has strayed from that meaning, you can discern traces of the concept in, for example, the way an author brings forth a book.
Hold that thought while I bring up a use of “authority” in library science – because if I wasted a ruinous sum of money on an advanced degree in that field, I might as well use it here. Actually I'm rather grateful to have learned the concept called authority control in library school. It's basically this: in order to help people find the book they're looking for, you have to come up with a standardized way of describing them. This means not only fixing the spellings, but all sorts of really picky specifications on how you phrase names and subjects. It's kind of like making sure that all the keys and locks are shaped just so, in order to open the right doors at the right time.
I think of such catalog control as a very crude mimic of something like DNA, which causes things to grow into the dazzling array of living things that we're so blessed to share the earth with. An analogy is irresistible here to the personal tree of life that Alma the younger called on the Zoramites to grow in their souls: Christ as the author of our faith causes this to grow within us as we “nurture it with great care” (Alma 32:37). But even with all of our nurturing we recognize that we are not the force behind the growth. We have authority to nurture and welcome the growth that proceeds from an eternal auctor, which is beyond mortal reach. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth” (John 3:8).
All this is to try to invite our immersion in the lesson that Section 121 laments men's slowness to learn. We know it intellectually of course, but that is no guarantee at all that we will internalize it. It takes time and courage to quiet the mind enough to sift through all the inherited ideologies, bad habits, our comfortable illusions about ourselves, even the well-meaning praise of others, and get to touch on those “principles of righteousness” that hold the key to controlling and handling the powers of heaven, which show humanity's proudest achievements as mere child's play.
I mean no disrespect to the holy act of child's play!
The priesthood on the earth is a sort of apprenticeship, and as part of that, our master calls us, at a young age, to assume roles that seem beyond our years. Considering etymology again, we may recall that “deacon” comes from a Greek word meaning “servant;” and our modern English “priest” may be traced back to the word the Greek-speaking saints of Jesus' dispensation used for “elder.” We still call young men to be “elders” when our society has just legally recognized their adulthood: the Lord calls up a maturity which earthly powers too often fail to recognize or allow.
I remember my dear old mission president – whom we all loved so much that none of us wanted to disappoint him – asking us not to use the word “greenie” anymore and reminding us that we all have eternal spirits. “Let no man despise thy youth” - we remember the young age at which Joseph Smith had his first vision. We see examples of temporally young people rising to greatness throughout history. If we all can take upon us the name of Christ, then surely a boy of 12 can take on a role of greater age and wisdom than the state imagines.
How to take it on, how to shape our locks to fit these keys of age, assume the ageless splendor of our eternal spirits?
The maturity of the world, which discouraged children from bothering an important man like Jesus, is of limited use in this question. The principles of righteousness that Joseph Smith named are worthy of quiet and careful consideration by everyone, alone, from time to time. This list bears comparison with Paul's list of fruits of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians: look it up, there's homework for you. I feel a resonance between all of these and Alma's teachings. How can you trust anyone to be your teacher or minister, unless that person shows persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, and pure knowledge? How can you trust someone unless you see them as lacking hypocrisy and guile?
The priesthood is administered on earth through a kind of authority control that we call keys. Keys are essential for opening locks, and often we lock doors or chests because there is treasure inside. The key is a device, a tool that allows you to get at what you're after. To quote an ancient Chinese archivist, in one of several translations:
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Priesthood keys may be conferred on a man quite easily at the right time, just as learning to read in an alphabetic script is simple when undertaken at the right time. To what end do we learn to read, or add and subtract, or build elaborate catalog schemes? Because they are keys that unlock treasures of knowledge. Without a clear framework to encode that knowledge, the lack of order would obstruct learning. Still, the treasures of knowledge are what give life to the letters; without those what good would it do to manipulate abstract marks, or worse, to subordinate our souls to strict structures?
I hope that the application of this metaphor is readily apparent, because it's time to close, and I wanted to close with one more thing about keys. I call to mind again the passage in 2 Nephi 32 that I mentioned earlier: “Do ye not remember that I said unto you that after ye had received the Holy Ghost ye could speak with the tongue of angels?”
John the Baptist told Joseph and Oliver that the Aaronic Priesthood holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and I am convinced that a significant part of this comes in the form of the acts of service we do for others. Certainly my family has been blessed abundantly by mortal angels who sit in this room and others. Their love has gained our gratitude, and I thank them for magnifying the priesthood.
So let us all, in this apprenticeship of the priesthood, aspire to the errand of angels.