Not Mary's Joseph, although I'll get to Christmas stuff shortly, because I LOVE CHRISTMAS STUFF.
We need to talk about Joseph Smith first, though. I think most Mormons have conflicting feelings at some point about our founding prophet. You can't seriously research the man and his life without encountering one or two things that give you pause. So I want to talk about it.
My whole life, I've loved the Book of Mormon and recognized it as powerful scripture. I didn't even have to formally ask for a confirmation of its divine origins, because they were manifested very clearly to me every time I read. Because it followed logically that if the Book of Mormon was in truth a book of scripture that came from God, then Joseph Smith was clearly a prophet, I never bothered to dig too deeply into that question, either. The reason was simple: I didn't like him and didn't want to think about it.
The reasons for my dislike and unease changed over the years. At first, I didn't like him because he sounded like such a goody-goody self-congratulator, which was the same reason Nephi gave me a bitter taste in my mouth, too. As I learned more about his history, things like the actual translation processes, his dallyings in politics and treasure-hunting, and accusations from disaffected members, I started to wonder if he was actually just crazy. Then when I found out about polygamy, dislike became a mild description for my feelings toward this man who was supposed to be one of the most righteous people ever to live on this earth.
I received my patriarchal blessing when I was 15. It is the shortest one I've ever seen, which was obviously a huge disappointment to me, because I'm the type of person who wants a 500-page manual detailing every choice I'll ever have to make and what all the right answers are. By this time, I was pretty deeply set in my distaste for Joseph. Imagine my surprise and the height of my eye-roll when my uber-short blessing included the advice that I should bear testimony of Joseph Smith. Riiiiiiight, I thought, cuz that's going to happen...
Because I had faith in the divine origin of my blessing, however, I started trying to figure out how to replace my disgust with reverence after a couple years, which seemed impossible. The only thing I know how to do is research stuff, so that's what I started doing. I started digging deeper and learning as much as I could about this Joseph Smith of whom I was supposed to bear testimony. Something miraculous happened: the more I studied, the more I started to appreciate this character. The more I learned, the more I began to love him. A few months of study would put me in a place where I felt comfortable declaring that I believed him to be a true prophet of God, so then I'd move on to other things.
Very quickly, my testimony would evaporate. I'd go right back to doubting and feeling uneasy and questioning his most basic claims. About once a year, I'd start studying again and regaining my testimony, only to lose it over the course of the rest of the year. It was an exhausting cycle, but it was also a huge blessing to have such a doubting heart and mind, because it forced me to be very active in the pursuit of knowledge and testimony. I could not be lazy in this. I had to answer all my most painful questions and turn over all the scary-looking rocks.
Gradually, I came to a peaceful place with my Joseph conundrum, realizing that my testimony of his prophetic mission would simply require constant vigilance as well as compassion on my part for his human frailties. I was okay with that.
Something weird happened this year, though. Without studying him at all, my testimony of the Prophet Joseph became more solid than it's ever been before. The only thing I believe without even a trace of doubt is that there is a God, but as of this year, my belief in Joseph as a mouthpiece for that God has become one of my pillars of testimony. Maybe it's because I've experienced a lot more outside the realm of normal this year, so the things Joseph described sound more probable than not to me now. Maybe I'm just going crazy, too!
What I suspect is that this year has been a time of learning not to rely so much on intellect and the knowledge of the world, which up until now has been one of the only things I've ever cared about. I'm learning that the knowledge of God greatly surpasses the knowledge of the world, and sometimes my dependence on the one clouds or blocks the other. Joseph understood this, and while he was obsessed with gaining knowledge from all sources, nothing trumped the authority of God's voice. As I noticed my trust in Joseph increasing this year, I decided to try a new approach that I'm kind of shocked I hadn't tried before, and that was reading things he himself said, rather than what other people said about him. There are lots of really smart historians, both believing and non, who've written huge awesome books about Joseph Smith, and these were so helpful to me in the past decade. But all the historians in the world don't and can't know what really happened. Joseph said what happened, and God can confirm or deny it.
After conducting this little experiment of using Joseph as my source and God as my interpreter, I can say with a whole lotta love and repentance and gratitude and joy that Joseph Smith was and is a man of God who saw what he said he saw and did what he said he did. There are people who will deride that testimony, and I will understand that more than I can say, but I have reached a point where others' lack of experience cannot convince me that my experiences are false. Joseph Smith was a prophet, seer, and revelator, and he tried so hard to teach us how we could see God, too. History is littered with those admittedly rare individuals who broke through the illusions of this world to enter God's presence and to see with spiritual eyes the things of eternity. They were all changed by these experiences and became forces for good in the world, even though they were rarely recognized as such at the time. There seems to be a pattern the God-contacted person follows, and Joseph fits the mold. He was and is a prophet, a seer, and a revelator. He sacrificed his life in his attempts to bring others up to where he stood.
There are a lot of accusations hurled around at his name. I used to think they had to be lies, and then I thought they were just misunderstandings, then I thought they were probably true and that we all have weaknesses, so I couldn't judge Joseph for his, and then I thought I just had no idea what was real. I made peace with that, too, but now as I've been studying his actual words, I've realized that he gave us a very clear narrative of what happened and what didn't, and I've concluded that I choose to believe this man who was a prophet. I will be careful about what I claim he did and didn't do based on other people's assertions.
"And I will now covenant with you before God, that I will not listen to or credit any derogatory report against any of you, nor condemn you upon any testimony beneath the heavens, short of that testimony which is infallible, until I can see you face to face, and know of a surety; and I do place unremitted confidence in your word, for I believe you to be men of truth. And I ask the same of you, when I tell you anything, that you place equal confidence in my word, for I will not tell you I know anything that I do not know" (TPJS, p. 394-395).
If you're struggling with your testimony of Joseph Smith, you are so not alone. I believe, however, that what we think and say about him matters, and I think that as we study him and pray about what we find, God can show us the truth. And the truth is usually way cooler than what we've imagined.
"I advise all to go on to perfection, and search deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Godliness. A man can do nothing for himself unless God direct him in the right way" (TPJS, p. 109).
"The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity--thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart!" (TPJS, p. 267)
Learn who Joseph was. Do the things he said to do, because he was giving a guidebook for receiving heaven in this life. Then go and meditate ; )
If you can't tell, I now love Joseph Smith. I am grateful to him for the sacrifices he made on our behalf. He gave us so much more than I think we have begun to understand. Following his advice will allow us to receive God, which will change us now and forever. It's worth exploring.
Exploring the spiritual side of things. Brevity is not my forte.