"And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God? And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things" (1 Nephi 11:16-17).
My youngest child began his mission last week in the home MTC, while all his siblings and one spouse gather home for Christmas. Tonight is Yule, a festival to celebrate unanswered questions on the longest night of the year, designed by my eldest, formerly LDS, child as part of her spiritual practice. All electronics and electric lights (excluding the Christmas lights) will go off at sunset and we will take turns holding vigil by candle light through the night. Our missionary will watch from 6:30 am to 8:00 am, while he does his personal scripture study.
I've been drawn to one of my favourite Book of Mormon stories — Ammon’s transformative service in the household of King Lamoni. I’m learning some key principles about how I need to be approaching my ministry, both within and without my home.
The first thing that struck me this reading was how fully Ammon perceived the rest of Lamoni’s servants as his equals. He called them his brethren and thought of them as his “fellow servants” (Alma 17:29-31). Although he was raised a prince, although he was offered a Lamanite princess to wife, Ammon did not see himself as above the other keepers of the king’s sheep. Nor did he see himself as above them because his mind was enlightened by the gospel while theirs were still darkened by fear; he saw them as his peers.
It seems significant that before Ammon ever tried to teach anyone in King Lamoni’s household, he first learned from the least of them. Who but other servants would have trained him in his duties? And clearly, he valued the skills that his fellow servants taught him -- valued them so much that, after only three days, he self-identified as a servant (Alma 18:17). This was not a role that he wore like a costume, it became so much a part of his nature that while the others reported to the king about his miraculous defence of the flocks, far from discarding a role that was no longer needed, he got right to work on preparing the king’s horses and chariots.
Why does this matter? Because I think we tend to have inner defences against advice or counsel or transformative teaching from any source that doesn’t understand us and that we do not know to be our friend. Lamoni's servants probably were not initially willing to learn anything from a privileged Nephite. But when Ammon became a servant in fact, not as an act, he would have felt the injustice of a social system where one man could order the deaths of several men for failing in their best efforts to serve him. The terror of His brethren when their flocks were scattered couldn’t help but touch Ammon, even though his confidence in God prevented him from feeling threatened. At that juncture, he wasn't just an ally to his fellow servants; he was one of them. And the faith in his heart kindled hope in theirs, until they were not only ready but eager to learn from him.
I’ve always thought of King Lamoni as Ammon's first convert, but that honour actually belonged to the servants. They were the first to recognize that he was filled with extraordinary light. It was their witness that brought the king to a place of deep humility and a longing to learn from him. Then, Ammon taught the servants alongside the king (Alma 18:37). And it was they who testified to the queen, while Lamoni was in a coma, that Ammon was “a prophet of a holy God“ (Alma 19:4) and could help her.
It strikes me that Ammon was a type of Jesus. Born in a stable, raised in a hometown that was looked down on by the rest of Judea, Jesus came to the common people as an equal, a lowly carpenter who didn't even have a home. The first witnesses of His divine birth (excluding Mary and Joseph) were shepherds. He chose His apostles from among the fishermen, zealots, and even publicans. He kept company with the despised. He was the very creator of the Earth, but He didn't talk down to anyone. He met them where they were, even taking upon Himself the temptations and afflictions of all humanity.
All of this runs counter culture. It seems like there is a cultural assumption of teachers being above learners. I think I do pretty well at receiving counsel from the people who are above me in the applicable hierarchy (work, Church, etc), but I struggle with feeling demeaned when I get unsolicited advice from those I see as beneath me in the hierarchy. And I tend to lean into my authority when I’m seeking to give counsel to my children.
There’s an old adage, “you can only lift another from higher ground.” And there is a grain of truth in that. According to that model, Ammon’s knowledge of the gospel, his deep faith in God and his living according to his covenants and the guidance of the Holy Spirit were his “higher ground.” But I think there’s a better model of influence. Ammon and even Jesus didn’t approach from above. Both approached from beside. They didn’t focus on lifting but on loving and sharing, so that those whose lives they touched wanted to learn what they knew and to embrace the goodness they shared.
I need to minister from beside, not from above. I need to listen more and share my own journey rather than try to direct another’s. I need to be willing to learn from those with whom I long to share my faith. I need to seek to deeply understand my eldest daughter’s experience and her insight without allowing myself to feel defensive because she rejects hierarchy in all its forms and sees the Church I love and trust as abusive.
The truth is that, until we become sanctified and establish Zion, we are bound to unwittingly engage in abusive behaviours (like Abraham’s toward Hagar). So it is a Zion-building exercise to seek to understand how my misunderstandings and my flawed efforts to bless others have ended up also creating stumbling blocks for them. I can endure such searching as I anchor in Jesus Christ and my covenants.
It is nearly sunset, so I need to post this and turn off my electronics. I will have some good unanswered questions to ponder during my turn to keep vigil tonight.