Sunday, December 29, 2013

Promised Lands, and Cultural Expectation

Today, I was sitting in my congregation's worship service trying to figure out how to get the hymnbook app working on my phone  paying very close attention to the sermon, when a phrase jumped out of the background noise and struck my eardrums in a way slightly different than ever before. The speaker was talking about Nephi and his family being led away from Jerusalem. I think his message was intended to be about enthusiasm or murmuring or something, but I got a very different lesson today. 

Background: During the familiar story of Lehi's family being led out of Jerusalem (600 BC), there comes a point when the youngest of Lehi's sons, Nephi, wants to know that the instructions God gave to his father are real, and come from God (up to this point, Nephi had already believed his father--he is asking to have his own testimony). God grants him this knowledge, and Nephi acts on it, explaining to his three older brothers that he, too, knows that the instructions given to his father came from God. One of his brothers believes him; two of them don't. As Nephi grieves for the stubbornness of his brothers, he prays, and the Lord speaks to Nephi.

Nephi prays

Enter, the scripture that I heard, 1 Nephi 2:19:
And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy afaith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart.
 20 And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shallaprosper, and shall be led to a bland of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands." (emphases added)
The phrase "shall be led to a land of promise" turned over in my head a couple times, then it occurred to me: at the time of the story, Nephi, a young man of Jerusalem, *already lived in the Promised Land*.  He lived at JERUSALEM, the Holy City!! Everybody travels there, everybody parties there at Passover, the site of the ancient First Temple of Solomon (and subsequent temples at the same site, though at 600 BC the temple hadn't been totally demolished yet...that happened in 586 BC during the sacking of Jerusalem [that thing that Lehi had been warned about/reason they were told to leave/started this whole story in the first place]), etc. Anyway, Jeru was THE PLACE to be. Nephi was of the house of Israel, and at that point, Old Jerusalem was "The Promised Land" of his people. 
....And God just told him to leave, and go to the Promised Land. 
That must have been thought provoking for young Nephi. 
At this point, the Lord clarifies: "even a land which I have prepared for you."  
And that's where Sabina learned a valuable lesson. 
As I sat thinking about it, I realized what this moment would have meant to Nephi. Nephi was already at the place that his social and religious culture deemed "the promised land." His family was doing pretty well for themselves, there, too--we know Lehi was a wealthy man; their family was known in Jerusalem.  Nephi had been taught his whole life that Jerusalem was the Promised Land--that he was to learn and work and grow there, and was lucky to do so--and he probably had big plans for his own life. Find an honorable role in society, work hard, attend the temple, get married to a pretty (and funny, and practical, and smart) Jerusalem girl, raise a family, etc. He kept his heart close to the Lord and was able to follow the instructions the Lord gave, though he had no inkling of where that would eventually lead him. As he followed the step-by-step instructions, God was able to explain to Nephi that He had a different plan. Nephi's honorable efforts had laid the foundation for him to later accomplish some pretty unexpected things ("Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy afaith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart.") but in order for him to eventually fill his world-changing mission, he had to leave the social and cultural expectations behind, and trust the Lord. Those expectations were not inherently bad--there were other righteous people in Jerusalem at the time, and many good-hearted folk who were doing exactly what Nephi had planned on  for his own life. But the Lord had a different plan for Nephi.
This was a major moment of truth. Was Nephi going to take the leaps of faith the Lord would require of him, in order to obtain this unexpected promise of a mysterious promised land? A land even better than any the world knew? It must have been difficult to imagine.
 Had Nephi confused cultural expectations and teachings, no matter how good they were, with doctrine--or in other words, if Nephi had chosen to trust his personal/societal expectations rather than the Lord's timeline and instruction...Nephi and his family would have been sacked along with the rest of Jerusalem. 
But he didn't!  Yay, Nephi! You rock, man. Way to follow what the Lord told you and your priesthood leaders (Lehi).
So.....who cares? Nephi obeyed, catastrophe avoided, travel in the wilderness, oh hey better go back and get scriptures--oh, yeah, and a wife, that'd be good-- build a boat, cross the ocean, blah, blah, blah. A story is a story. 

But if we pull the lessons to the present time, for our personal lives, they become pretty powerful.  

Sabina's Personal Application 
(AKA feel free to stop reading, the important stuff is over)
As a mid-20-something Latter-day Saint living in Utah Valley, I feel like I'm in a similar position as Nephi. He's hanging out, working hard, studying Modern Egyptology with a minor in Shipping Sciences: Boat Construction at ancient Jeru U or whatever. I'm chilling in Utah Valley, going to school at one of the best universities in the country, Brigham Young University (arguably and stereotypically my religious culture's "Promised Land").  I had culturally acceptable plans of standard graduation time with a decent degree, serving a mission, marriage to a handsome (and funny, and practical, and smart) BYU guy, raising a family, etc. 
But, the Lord had a different timeline, and a different plan. 
Today, as I made the choice to leave the University, I knew I was making the right choice. I had previously pulled way back in classes, only taking the bare minimum to remain a student. I figured I would work on my culinary career, and as life circumstances cleared a little I could go back and finish my last semester. I felt like I was supposed to move forward, and that was how I chose to do it.  It made sense, financially and socially and academically. Today, however, I knew it was time to take the next step and actually follow what the Lord has been telling me to do--move forward, down a personally and culturally unexpected path.

The Lord asked Nephi to take steps in an unexpected direction, leaving behind good and righteous goals in favor of the things the Lord had in store. If Nephi could do it, so could I. Finally understanding this piece today at church felt like a major step in my life. I un-registered for the classes I was going to take this Winter, and withdrew from the University entirely. 
Maybe I'll go back someday to finish what I started, and maybe my life will move in a totally different direction. But, I can trust that the Lord's plans are significantly cooler than mine were. 
Hasta luego, Cougars! I have a kitchen to run and culinary school to finish.  And a bunch of other fantastic stuff to accomplish. 
PS--For the record, Nephi wasn't married yet, either. ;-)