Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Authority (Conclusion: The Efficacy of Priesthood)
As I approached the end of this very long series on authority, I realized that 16 parts wouldn’t quite suffice. Because of some unfortunate circumstances involving friends of mine, I’ve been forced to look at priesthood in a different light. I want to share some of my thoughts, but I promise this is the last post in this long series.
What I have concluded is that when all is said and done, all the analysis in the world will matter very little unless priesthood is efficacious, unless it does what we (and God) want it to do. And for me this has become a somewhat perplexing matter. How do we gauge the efficacy of priesthood? Certainly priesthood has provided a stable hierarchical leadership structure based on the concepts of quorums and keys. But is that all priesthood is—a form of governing authority? As discussed in earlier posts, the institutional Church could probably have survived and thrived just fine under some other organizing principle. Priesthood is just one of several possibilities for institutional authority.
Perhaps a key to this question is in D&C 84:20–21: “Therefore, in the ordinances [of the priesthood], the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh.” It is apparently in the ordinances of the priesthood that its efficacy is established. But the effectiveness of ordinances is often such a private, personal matter. For instance, does baptism work? Work at what? Well, one purpose of baptism is to provide a way for us to make a covenant with God. It certainly does this, but that is more a legalistic function. It also signifies our entry into the Church, but that is an institutional, record-keeping sort of matter. Beyond these functions, baptism is supposed to produce some kind of spiritual effect. How do we know if it does this? That is something that can only be answered by each person, looking deep inside for evidence of a spiritual rebirth. In my own case, I don’t even remember my own baptism. My only memory of that distant day is that a fellow baptismal candidate was so scared of the water that she clung to the railing and cried and refused to enter the font. She was baptized the next month, I believe, but her trauma completely distracted me from the significance of my own baptism. Consequently, I have no memory of entering the water myself. And being baptized at age eight, I really have a hard time saying that my baptism made any sort of noticeable spiritual difference in my life.
What about the sacrament? How do we know if it is efficacious? Again, this is a question we can only answer individually, as we search our own hearts. My own experience is that I’ve never had any sort of spiritual experience related to the sacrament. I’m sure that’s more a reflection on my state of spiritual insensitivity than on the ordinance itself, and I have heard others express their feelings about how much the sacrament means to them. Still, there is no way to accurately assess the effectiveness of the sacrament.
But there is one particular ordinance that I believe we can use—perhaps because it is supposed to produce a more visible physical effect—to gauge the efficacy of Mormon priesthood. It is the giving of health blessings. Because these blessings result in either the healing of the recipient or the failure to heal, I believe we have to consider these blessings as evidence as we look at the inherent efficacy of the priesthood we claim. And here I must admit that I am of two minds.
Elder Miller and the Snake
I would be the first to admit that there are indeed miracles associated with priesthood blessings. I have never been deathly ill myself, but I have received a couple of blessings in my life for minor health inconveniences that I believe were effective. And on my office wall I have a small photo of a missionary holding a very dead six-foot-long snake by the tail. I scanned it so you can see it. Whenever I look at this picture, it reminds me that priesthood blessings can sometimes have very dramatic results. I received this snapshot from a mission president in the Philippines when I was there on assignment for the Liahona interviewing members for a story that appeared in the Church’s international magazine and in the Ensign. Along with the photograph, I received a handwritten account from Elder Brandon Miller about the snake. This is how the Liahona version of his story goes:
It was the rainy season in the Philippines and had been raining all day. Rain often brought unwanted creatures into our house—usually spiders, rats, and such.
As my companion and I arrived home after a day of proselyting, we noticed a light on at our neighbors’ house and we thought we would visit them. We decided to stop at our house and pick up some photographs of our families to show them.
We kept the pictures on the bottom shelf between our beds. As I reached for mine, I suddenly felt a pain in my right hand. Looking down, I saw that a snake had just bitten me.
I called to my companion, Elder Regis, and he ran to see what the problem was. I showed him the blood on my hand and said I’d been bitten by a snake. A neighbor ran in because of the commotion and helped us look for the snake. We found it when it struck from under the bed at a board Elder Regis was holding. The neighbor cried out, “That’s a Philippine cobra!”
Elder Regis killed the snake. I realized I was getting dizzy, so we rushed to Bishop Rotor’s house because he had some experience treating snakebites. He hurriedly began to do what he could to help me.
My chest was becoming heavy, and it was hard to breathe. A darkness seemed to cloud my thoughts, and I began to lose consciousness. Then I heard a voice say, “If you want to finish your mission on earth, you need a blessing.”
I stayed conscious long enough to say, “Will you give me a blessing?”
The bishop answered, “Yes, just let me finish this first.” It was hard for me to stay alert, but I heard the voice persist, “You need a blessing now. You cannot wait.” This time I said in a commanding voice, “Give me a blessing!”
I don’t remember the words of the blessing my companion and Bishop Rotor gave me. But I put all my trust in the Lord and His priesthood. During the prayer I began to come to my senses, and I vomited repeatedly. As I heard the final words of the blessing, the vomiting stopped. I was aware of my surroundings and felt a warm feeling of comfort and love fill my body. I knew that my Father in Heaven loved me and I would be OK.
My zone leader, Elder Howarth, brought to the bishop’s home a doctor who was investigating the Church. By this time about two hours had passed. We left for a hospital located about an hour away from where I was serving.
On the way the doctor asked me to tell him what had happened. Elder Howarth said, “Doctor, shouldn’t we speed up?” The doctor’s answer was, “Why? He should already be dead. He is a lucky man.” The Philippine cobra is the deadliest snake in the Philippines.1
That’s quite a story. As I think about it from this distance, I have two thoughts. First, I find it interesting that the voice told him he needed a blessing. Oddly, the voice, as Elder Miller remembered it, didn’t say “priesthood blessing,” but just “blessing.” I don’t know if that is significant, especially since a Mormon today would understand “blessing” to mean “priesthood blessing,” but that omission did catch my attention. Of course, God could just as easily have healed him without any sort of priesthood ritual. But for some reason he was instructed to get a blessing. I’ve thought about that often, and I don’t really have a good explanation for it. It is simply what the voice told him.
Second, the cynic in me says, “Well, there must be another explanation.” As it turns out, depending on the list you use and the criteria those lists are based on, the Philippine cobra ranks anywhere from the second to the ninth most venomous snake on earth. But its bite doesn’t always cause death. In fact, in one study of 39 victims of Philippine cobra bites, only two died. Other studies suggest the mortality rate for cobra bites is less than 10 percent. The symptoms Elder Miller described, however, are exactly right for a cobra bite. The relevant point here is that, regardless of statistical probabilities or any other factors, the rapidity with which Elder Miller recovered is astonishing. So I would have to say that the blessing he received was indeed efficacious. Maybe he would have survived anyway, but the message he received from the voice seemed to indicate otherwise.
This is a miraculous story, but unfortunately life is never so simple. For every Brandon Miller story, there are several stories that don’t turn out so well. In recent weeks, I have had a fellow ward member and a long-time friend die of cancer after both received priesthood blessings and both families felt strongly that their loved one was supposed to live. My long-time friend succumbed to cancer after a brutal four-year battle. He was a counselor in a stake presidency. He received priesthood blessings promising him he would be healed. He and his family exercised great faith and did everything they could to beat the disease, including surgeries, chemo, radiation, and, eventually, experimental treatments. They felt they were receiving spiritual assurances all along the way that he was supposed to be healed. They viewed certain fortuitous developments as tiny miracles that inspired confidence in the desired outcome. But in the end, their faith and prayers and optimism and the promises given through priesthood blessings were less potent than the cancer.
This story is a virtual repeat of the ordeal a different neighbor of ours went through a couple of years ago. Different form of cancer, same priesthood promises, same level of righteous living, same faith, same prayers, same result. We try to explain these failures away. Maybe their faith was insufficient. Maybe the person giving the blessing misunderstood the promptings of the Spirit. Maybe the Lord just did not want the cancer victim to live. But I have a hard time buying these explanations. I have another friend whose sister-in-law was diagnosed with cancer while her husband was serving as a mission president. She received a priesthood blessing from an Apostle, who blessed her that she would be healed. But she died within months. What are we to think? If an Apostle can’t get the correct inspiration, then what hope do the rest of us mere mortals have? How do we explain the seeming inconsistency of results from priesthood blessings? I don’t have an answer for this.
I have an account, written in first person, supposedly, by my great-great-grandfather, Thomas Sirls Terry, who was a captain in a pioneer company. Let me quote him:
In crossing the plains coming to the Valley, I was put in charge of a company of Saints as Captain. We left Florence the last of June, 1857. For the five hundred mile trip, I had hard work to get the company along as they were not used to traveling with oxen. In crossing Loop Fork, one branch of the Platt River we could not go straight across. It was very high. We had to start in and then go up stream half a mile then cross to the other side.
We were all day in getting over. In getting the teams across I crossed the river eleven times. The last time was after dark. I could only see my way by camp fires on the other side of the river.
When going to bed I heard a rap at my wagon. “Oh Captain, my daughter is dead.” It was Brother James Stevenson; I dressed myself and went to his wagon. His daughter, Lucy, had passed to the other side. She was dead. I sent for Captain John Dustin who was Captain of the second ten. Brother Dustin was a man of great faith. We administered to her. But she did not revive. She did not come back to life. After some time we administered again, but of no use. She still layed in death’s arms.
I spoke to Brother Dustin and asked him to stay with the family, that I would go out, but would come back soon. I went to my wagon and got my Temple clothes. I went off in the darkness a quarter of a mile. I dressed myself in my Temple clothes. I knelt down and asked my Heavenly Father in the name of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, that if it was His will that the spirit of the young sister return to its body.
After I had returned I found Sister Lucy still dead, the family were all crying. I said to Brother Dustin, we will administer to her again. We placed our hands upon her head and I asked my Heavenly Father that her spirit might return to its body. Before we took our hands off her head her Spirit returned and she came to life. The time altogether was one hour. She came to the Valley and was married.
The last sentence of this story is pretty funny if you know what really happened. Yes, she “was married.” She became Thomas Sirls Terry’s third wife. But it didn’t last. She liked to dance, and Thomas didn’t, so she left him. Some thanks for raising you from the dead, huh? But how reliable is this story? I’ve been trying to figure that out for years. This account comes from a book compiled about the Thomas Sirls Terry family by Nora Lund, who is now dead, so I can’t ask here where she found it. It isn’t part of Thomas Sirls Terry’s official personal history. Lund attached it to the end of the personal history with only this note of explanation: “Due to the length of Grandfather’s diary it will not be possible to record it all in this book. From here on, excerpts will be included quoted in his own words.” The only problem is that this story of raising Lucy Stevenson from the dead is, oddly, not mentioned in his pioneer diary from 1857, which is housed in the Church History Library. So I have no clue where Nora Lund found this story. Maybe in some other diary? If so, it’s probably gathering dust in the attic of one of my distant cousins. The problem is that I can’t verify that the story was actually recorded by Thomas Sirls in his own handwriting. So what am I supposed to make of it? It’s quite a story if it’s true. It sounds true, but I can’t be sure.
I have another story, this one very close to home, that doesn’t have any historical ambiguity, but I still have questions about it. In January of 1989, my wife began experiencing problems with her third pregnancy. She asked me to give her a blessing. I prayed for guidance and felt impressed that the baby was supposed to live, so I blessed her accordingly. The problems persisted, and at five months she lost the amniotic fluid, which put her in the hospital for the duration, whatever that might be. It turned out to be about a month, at which point she went into labor, and the baby was delivered by emergency C-section. My wife had been transferred to University Hospital in Salt Lake City because it was one of the few hospitals that had an experimental lubricant (surfactant) for preemies’ lungs that might give our baby more of a chance.
The baby was born at 10:58 p.m., and they took him immediately to the newborn intensive care unit (NICU), while I stayed with my wife because of some complications during the C-section. At some point during the night, a nurse came to get me. Things weren’t looking good, and they thought I should be there. They put me in a rocking chair, and I watched while they tried everything they could to save this little blue-gray, two-pound-ten-ounce preemie. But nothing was working. I remember sitting there in that chair, having a quiet conversation with God. I told him what I had felt when I gave my wife the requested blessing. I still felt that the baby was supposed to live. So I watched patiently. They were down to their last resort, a medication that was supposed to expand the blood vessels to hopefully allow more oxygen to get from the severely underdeveloped lungs to the rest of the little body. Well, it worked.
Troy went through a very difficult ordeal, and I can’t count the number of times the doctors and nurses gave us either bad news or hopeless prognoses, but after three months we were able to bring him home. Troy is now 26 and is dealing with his own set of challenges, but lung health is not one of them. Here again, though, I am not sure exactly what role the priesthood blessing I gave played in his survival. Who am I to gauge just what impact that blessing had in the outcome of that precarious situation? All I know is that the feeling I had was accurate. Troy was supposed to live. But would he have lived without the priesthood blessing? Without our faith in that blessing? That’s a tough question.
A Few Final Words
So what can we conclude about priesthood health blessings? Only that sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they produce miraculous results. Sometimes the results are positive, but we don’t know exactly what role the blessing played. Sometimes they don’t work at all, in spite of great faith and even apostolic assurances. And we don’t really know why they do or don’t work. There seems to be no pattern, only random effectiveness. Which, for me, simply adds one more question to the long list of questions I’ve brought up in this series of posts on authority. As far as I’m concerned, we are not even close to figuring out authority in the Church. It is, like so many other aspects of our religion, not as cut and dried as we would like to believe.
And that is where I will leave it. Thanks for enduring seventeen weeks of posts on this perplexing topic. Next week, with the new year, on to a new topic too.
1. Brandon J. Miller, “I Needed a Blessing,” Liahona 25, no. 9 (September 2001): 42, 44. There is an interesting side story here. When I submitted this account to be published, my good colleagues at the Ensign told me there was no way they could publish a story about a voice from an unseen source speaking to someone. I thought that odd, but they were adamant. So the Ensign version reads, “Then I had a distinct impression that if I wanted to finish my mission on earth, I needed a blessing.” No voice, just a “distinct impression.” And when the bishop delayed, “the impression came again, extremely strong, that I needed a blessing now. I could not wait.” Brandon J. Miller, “I Needed a Blessing,” Ensign 31, no. 9 (September 2001): 64–65. Since I worked at the Liahona at the time, I insisted that we print the story as Elder Miller told it, so we have the odd circumstance here of one Church magazine publishing the true version of a story and another Church magazine publishing a version that isn’t quite true. So it goes.